Remembering the Greatest Coach in the History of Sports

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Remembering the Greatest Coach in the History of Sports
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

I once heard an old African proverb that said whenever an elderly person dies, a library burns down because they, like libraries, have so much knowledge stored in them.

If such is the case, then at least five libraries have been torched, because we have lost a man who was not only the greatest sports coach in history, but one of the greatest all-around human beings ever, a person whose life and influence transcends athletics.

John Robert Wooden, first and foremost, was a teacher—I believe he preferred to describe himself that way.

I won't go on about his 620 wins and 10 national championships in 12 years, including seven titles in a row from 1967-1973 during a 27-year tenure as coach of the UCLA basketball team.

Nor will I go into detail about his iconic Pyramid of Success, a Ten Commandments for the 20th Century, or the various maxims he espoused such as:

"Be quick, but don't hurry."

"Failing to prepare is preparing to fail."

"It's what you know after you know everything that counts."

"Make each day your masterpiece."

I will leave those statistics, and other obvious things, for the sportswriters and pundits who will inevitably talk about that stuff for the newspapers, sports channels, and the Internet.

Coach Wooden's—actually, I prefer to call him Mr. Wooden because he was much more than a coach in my book—impact on UCLA was a very simple one he put it on the map.

Before he arrived from Indiana State in 1948 to coach the basketball version of the Bruins, the University of California at Los Angeles was a nice, sleepy little college in a nice, sleepy little community called Westwood, then considered on the outskirts of L.A.

Though they had a few successes in football, including a Rose Bowl appearance in 1943, people mostly thought of UCLA as a commuter school, a twiggy little brother off the U.C. Berkeley tree that was a perennial shadow dweller to the well-established crosstown rival, USC.

By the time Mr. Wooden retired as the Bruin head coach after winning his tenth NCAA title in 1975, UCLA was no longer anyone's twig or in anybody's shadow. 

That twiggy little brother in Westwood had become one of America's elite institutions of higher learning, a place that would eventually claim more national championships that anyplace else and become the nation's most popular university, with more students applying there every year than any other college.

On top of everything else, his successes led to the building of the legendary arena that saw so many great teams, not just in basketball, but in volleyball and gymnastics as well— Pauley Pavilion.

Just as Yankee Stadium is "The House That Ruth Built," that on-campus icon is "The House That Wooden Built."

I had the extreme personal privilege of meeting the man when I was a student at UCLA, playing the saxophone in the Bruin Varsity Band at the basketball games in the late 1980s. Mr. Wooden regularly attended those hoops contests he would always sit just across from me and the rest of the band.

Needless to say, it was a thrill just being 30 feet from him, but I felt that I just had to meet the coaching legend that chance came after a game just before Christmas of 1989.

Wearing my blue mock turtleneck band shirt with the game program in hand, I walked up to where he was sitting, my knees virtually shaking, and said, "Mr. Wooden, sir, may I have your autograph?"

The man had a reputation as being very gracious with fans, and he did not disappoint with me. Right there under the championship banners that his teams put up, not only did he sign my program "Merry Christmas, John Wooden," he also shook my hand and gave me a warm smile.

To say that it was quite the exciting thrill would be an understatement of the highest order.

I still have that game program to sell it on eBay or give it away will always be completely unthinkable.

How could I possibly dare to do that to the greatest coach that ever lived?

For practically all of my adult life, I have tried to follow the tenets of Mr. Wooden's Pyramid of Success. I've done okay in applying some of those tenets to my own life, but have failed miserably in others. This continues to disappoint me, as I feel that I've somehow let Mr. Wooden, as well as the rest of the UCLA community, down.

I still have copies of that pyramid posted on my bedroom walls, as a reminder to always strive to achieve the standards that he set when he first started the pyramid as a high school teacher and coach in his native Indiana in 1934.

It goes without saying that the whole world, in and out of sports, will miss this coaching and teaching legend.

Like Elton John when he sang about being in the 22nd row in his ode to Marilyn Monroe, "Candle In The Wind," I'm just a guy in 222nd row when it comes to John Wooden.

I will dearly miss that man just as much as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, and the countless others whose lives have been touched so greatly by him—not only at UCLA and the sports world, but the world in general— he had that much of an impact.

Mr. Wooden has often said that he did not fear death because he would be with his beloved wife Nell, who passed away in 1985. Wherever he is, I am sure he is happy, because he is with her now.

Since that is the case, I'm more than positive that Mr. Wooden will rest in peace.

"Success is a peace of mind which is a direct result of self satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming," —John Robert Wooden, 1910-2010.

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