John Wooden: the Greatest College Hoops Coach of All Time

Richard JTContributor IIIMarch 4, 2010

I already posted this one on the UNC page, and none of those guys can provide any reason why John Wooden isn't the greatest college hoops coach of all time. (My response to some UNC fans who claim Dean Smith is the greatest college coach of all time, hah what a joke! )

And now I want to share this with my fellow Bruins' fans.

Anyway this is what I wrote, hope ya'll enjoy this:


John Wooden was absolutely the greatest college coach of all time. The level of preparation he put into each season is unlike anything that's come along since.

Both Dean Smith and Roy Williams inherited programs that had previously won National Titles.

John Wooden built the UCLA dynasty himself.
There's no way any coach now could win seven straight NCAA titles and 10 titles in 12 seasons.

Even when a team wins a title and returns to the top rank the following season, they get too full of watching themselves on ESPN—and they're OBSESSED with polls. And if they're not ranked where they think they should be ranked, they whine about being disrespected.

Wooden's UCLA teams had only one goal: destroy.

It also helps to have players who play through their senior years. No one does that anymore. Wooden's players didn't really have a choice. The Florida Gators might very well have won three straight if a bunch of guys didn't bolt for the NBA early.

In some ways, it's more difficult to repeat—in others, it's easier. You no longer HAVE to win your conference title in order to get into the NCAA tournament (during part of the Wooden era, you had to win your conference to make the tournament).

Wooden was the most meticulous coach who ever lived. He had every detail of every practice timed to the second. This is something that people don't realize about him—there's a reason his teams executed the game so perfectly.

There will never be another dynasty like the Bruins. Coaches are always looking for the next job, and decent players play one year and go to the NBA. 

So you'd have to recruit like Wooden did, except you'd have to do that every year, because you couldn't rely on a Lew Alcindor to play for three years.

During Wooden's time, freshmen were ineligible to play NCAA varsity, which is why guys like Bill Walton and Alcindor played only three years—they played on the freshman team, but that doesn't count.

Alcindor's UCLA teams were 88-2 during his three varsity seasons, and won not one, not two, but three national titles in a row.

As a freshman, Alcindor led the UCLA freshman team to a victory over the varsity in their annual preseason game. The varsity had just won back to back NCAA titles the two previous years (freshmen were ineligible for varsity play at that time).

Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) was the greatest player in the history of college basketball, as well as being the NBA's all time leading scorer.

Absolutely no contest. 

Alcindor won three National Titles, while Jordan won one (thanks to James Worthy). Wooden won 10 national titles, Dean Smith won two. 

Smith was in the Final Four 11 times—Wooden WON it all 10 times. 

Not even close.

Wooden has always had ways to twist words and make it seem like it was from God. As one of the greatest coaches in history, one thing to keep in mind about Wooden is this: He considered every player to be equally "valuable" as long as that player did what was expected of him by the coaching staff. 

Obviously, he knew that some players were better and more skilled than others, but basketball really is a team game to him, and every player on the team has value. 

One of Wooden's definitions of greatness is that a player does what is required and expected of him. For example, Swen Nater was Walton's backup at UCLA.

He didn't have huge impacts in college precisely because he was Walton's backup, but Wooden considered Nater to be one of his "greatest" players, because Nater did what they asked him to do and provided a tough opponent for Walton to practice against.

Nater went on to a decent pro career and led the NBA in rebounding in 1980 (he also led the ABA in rebounding one year).

Because of what Nater was able to provide in practices, Wooden considered him to be as "great" as anyone. In this way, he was much like Red Auerbach. 

Auerbach always told his Celtic players that he would never pin the player's salary on statistics. His philosophy was "your salary depends on what I see with my own two eyes," meaning that if that player set every pick he was supposed to set, then he was just as valuable to the team as the guy he freed up to hit the open shot.

I also kind of think that Wooden's answer to the question (that he always gets asked) "Who was better, Alcindor or Walton?" was a diplomatic way of saying, "Listen, we're talking two of the all time greats of college basketball, and I'm not going to say who was 'better' because there might not be an answer to that question.

They provided different things for us."

Wooden probably believes that Walton was a slightly better all-around player (and that was kind of the consensus opinion during his early healthy years in the NBA among sportswriters of the day). Alcindor was a better shooter and scorer, while Walton may have been a slightly better passer, rebounder, and defender. 

When they were both in their prime (and Walton was healthy) it was close.

It's kind of like asking, "Who's a better songwriter, John Lennon or Paul McCartney?" It's not that one was "better" than the other, they were just different.

These questions about who was better than who get ridiculous anyway. There's just no way to know—it depends on what any particular person means by "better."

If you ask, "Who's better, Michael Jordan or Byron Scott?" the answer is obvious. But when you get up to the level of an Alcindor and Walton in their college careers, there are just too many little things about the game to take into account.

Did John Wooden of UCLA and Dean Smith of UNC ever face each other as coaches in the NCAA tournament?

Yes and John Wooden beat Dean Smith in the 1968 NCAA Championship Game, with the Bruins beating the Tar Heels, 78-55. That was the only time the two coaches met in the NCAA Tournament.

To Smith's credit though, he ALWAYS stressed a total team attack, so guys that could have averaged well over 20 PPG (like Jordan) were held back (at least stat-wise) by the style of play employed by Dean Smith.

I've said this before, but it was a standing joke at the time that Dean Smith was the only guy in the country capable of holding Jordan under 20 PPG, and it was true! Had Jordan gone anywhere else but UNC, he could have been a 20-25 PPG scorer easily, especially after his freshman year. 

However, by going to UNC, I believe Jordan came out of college as a better player than he would have been playing almost anywhere else. So playing for Smith hurt Jordan, stat-wise, but I believe it ultimately made him a better player.


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