Duke Legend Vic Bubas Reflects on Life of John Wooden: Hall of Fame Chat

Christopher C. WuenschCorrespondent IJune 5, 2010

ANAHEIM, CA - DECEMBER 13:  Former UCLA college basketball coach John Wooden looks on during the John R. Wooden Classic match between the UCLA Bruins and the De Paul Blue Demons at Honda Center on December 13, 2008 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images


There are very few college basketball coaches who can boast that they’ve beaten John Wooden more than once at his own game.


You need a Hall of Fame pedigree and the same Hoosier-state blood coursing through your veins to topple the almighty.  


You need to be former Duke University head coach Vic Bubas, who, to put Wooden’s career in perspective, carved out a prestigious hall-of-fame career of his own, despite winning 451 less games than the legendary UCLA coach.


You won’t, however, hear Bubas brag. In fact, one of the fondest memories the former Blue Devil holds dear of Wooden is the time the Bruins beat Duke in the 1964 NCAA Championship game and the lifetime of friendship the game set in motion.


The title was the first of many for Wooden—10 in 12 years to be exact. Bubas playfully hounded Wooden for a "thank you" every time the two got together.


On June 4, Bubas and the world lost the basketball legend and inspired-humanitarian, who passed away at the age of 99.


Bubas reflects on his friend, colleague and teacher:



Christopher C. Wuensch: Sad news to hear about the passing of Coach Wooden. How close were you to him? You certainly crossed paths back in the day.



Vic Bubas: We played each other five times. The first time we met in the Final Four and in the championship game; that was in ’64. They beat us by like 12 or so, maybe 15, I’ve forgotten the score (UCLA 98, Duke 83,) but that was their first championship. That’s when they started their run.


The following year we entered into a two-year agreement where he agreed to come to Duke for a game. Then we played another game the following night in Charlotte and we were able to win both of those games handily.


The year after that was Kareem’s (Abdul Jabbar)—he was still known as Lew Alcindor back then—first year on the varsity at UCLA. They beat us rather handily both times on their home court.


Off the court, we had a good relationship. I was in several clinics with him, went to banquets and so on. We were pretty good friends. Both of us were from the state of Indiana.


CCW: That was my next question. You’re both Indiana boys, correct?


VB: Yeah. He was legendary way back then. His team (Martinsville High School) won the high school championship. He then goes to Purdue and was an All-American. His whole basketball coaching and playing career was nothing but a success. I enjoyed my relationship with him, enjoyed competing against him.


Of course, when he went on his run (10 titles in 12 years,) he made it tough on everybody else. I don’t know if that will ever be accomplished again. That’s kind of unbelievable.


I think the thing that I admired most about John Wooden is the fact that in addition to being a great coach, he was a great person.


He was good for the game. He was a terrific example for the young men that he coached and a good influence on them. I think the coaching profession was very lucky to have somebody who, other than just winning, was as good as John was in everything in his relationship with people, with his players, the whole thing.


We lost a dear friend, but he lived a long and fruitful life. He had a wonderful wife and he always talked about her. There was hardly a time where he wouldn’t refer to her as one of his big inspirations to do well and do the right thing.


CCW: What was he like in person?


VB: The reputation he had was that he was a great teacher. Everybody understood that he was a great coach. He spoke of himself as more of a teacher than as a coach .


CCW: Did he have a different persona on the court than he did away from it?


VB: No, I think he was pretty even. But at the same time, even though he was professorial, if you want to call it that, and they referred to him as the professor at times, he did it the right way. He could get after officials and get after his players, but it was never in a crude way. It was just a way of making sure that everybody stayed motivated without using words that would be embarrassing. He stayed away from all that stuff. He was really a clean example for all of us to follow.


CCW: He was a contemporary of yours, but did you find yourself learning from him?



VB: Oh sure. But by the same token, coaches are always learning from each other. When John would be talking, either at a clinic or a banquet or coaching or whatever, everybody paid close attention because his record was so good and he was so humble. He always gave credit to the players and the people that surrounded him to try to take the emphasis off of himself. He left quite a pattern for the rest of us to try to follow and, of course, for the coaches today.



CCW: Did it seem like back in the ‘60s, his teams were always standing in the way of you winning more titles?



VB: They stood in a lot of people’s way (laughs) when you win as many championships as he did. What was it 10 out of 12 or something like that? Along the way he beat a lot of people. But the game was better as a result of it.


Here’s another thing that people don’t realize. When he was on top for so long, that meant that his preparation had to be exceptionally good. People would really try to beat him.


When you run around with a target on your back and everybody in the world can’t wait to play you because that would be a feather in their hat if they beat him…why that’s quite a burden to carry. He didn’t let his team be overwhelmed by that.


He said he was satisfied with them if they gave him their very best effort. If you give it your best effort, that’s good enough for him.



CCW: He prided himself as being a teacher, but what made him so successful? Was it the preparation?



VB: First of all, you have to be honest about it. I don’t care which coach you’re talking about. When you’re winning big and, particularly if you’re winning championships, the one thing that you must have is good players—somewhere between good and great.


John had great talent, but, when you have that, then you have to figure ways to work together and reach their potential. He did that marvelously. He emphasized team play versus individual, although he had a lot of individual stars, also. He knew how to blend the talent and he knew how to recruit the good players and I think players enjoyed playing for him and stayed in school.


I think one of the things he didn’t have to face that modern coaches face today is what to do with these players that have the talent to sign professionally after one year of college. If that were the case back then, I think it would have been much more difficult for John to put that kind of run together.


But he was a great coach and he might even do it under present conditions. With everybody trying to catch him, plus the new pro rules, it would be very difficult. But that is to take nothing away from what he did. There is nobody that’s going to approach that kind of thing. There’ll be coaches that win a few championships, but not with the magnitude like he did.


CCW: Do you have a favorite John Wooden story?


VB: I used to always tease him when we’d get together for a banquet or something out in public, where I knew he was in the audience.


The first time I did this he was taken aback a little bit, I said “John you never did thank me.”


He says “for what?”


I said “for launching you on your career. The championship you won against us was your first one. So I really launched you and I’ve never heard you say thank you, yet.”


So we used to laugh about that.



CCW: Did he have a good sense of humor?



VB: Oh yeah. John was a pleasant guy. He was.



CCW: He sounds like an amazing man.



VB: We were lucky to have him in the profession. That’s what you hope for. That’s what you work for and it’s very hard to come by because of the pressures and the temptations that go with the job today.


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