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John Wooden, R.I.P.

Gary North
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June 5, 2010

John Wooden, voted "Greatest Coach of the 20th Century" by ESPN in 1999, died on June 4. He was 99. The story was #3 on Google News, 35 years after he retired. This was unique.

Coach Wooden once said hello to me. I still remember it.

I attended UCLA for one semester as an undergrad in the spring of 1962. I was sitting in the UCLA athletic office. I had to have some paperwork filled in.

Coach Wooden walked by. He said hello. I said, "Hello, coach." There was no stumping me for an answer! I was quick on the uptake.

My cousin's boyfriend --- later, husband -- was his star player that year. The team went to the final four of the NCAA, the first time UCLA had reached that lofty position. The team lost to Cincinnati by two points in the last 25 seconds. Cincy won the NCAA that year, defeating Ohio State -- Havlicek and Lucas -- for the second year in a row.

College Basketball was not a big deal im 1962. The final four was covered by a local TV station in Los Angeles. No network broadcast the NCAA finals back then. There was no March madness. I have written about this before.

I have also written about Wooden before.

More than anyone else, he made March Madness. His teams built the audience.

In this obituary, I want to focus on something that the other obituaries missed.


I define calling as follows: "The most important thing you can do in which you would be most difficult to replace."

I define occupation conventionally: the work you perform that supports you financially.

Your calling should be your legacy. Your job probably won't be.

A few occupations lend themselves toward callings. Teaching is one. Preaching is another. Writing, too. Being a star anything is a calling. But stars are mostly shooting stars. Fame fades.

It didn't for Coach Wooden. This was because of his calling.

He was very good at his job because he was very good at his calling. He taught young men the fundamentals of basketball, as no man ever has. He taught them by way of three principles: fundamentals, conditioning, and teamwork.

The incarnation of this teamwork was Swen Nater [Sven NAYter]. He was the back-up center for Bill Walton. He never started in a UCLA game. He remains the only first-round collegian draft pick in NBA history who never started a game in a 4-year college. He sat on the bench for two years at UCLA. A reporter once asked Walton who was the best college center he ever played against. Answer: "Swen Nater." He was not exaggerating.

To these three principles Wooden added his famous pyramid of success. It was a hierarchical stack of 15 principles. This was in the tradition of Benjamin Franklin's program of self-improvement. They were all good, but people can't remember that many principles.

The seven he kept in his wallet, which his father taught him, are more memorable.

Be true to yourself.
Make each day your masterpiece.
Help others.
Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible.
Make friendship a fine art.
Build a shelter against a rainy day.
Pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day.

Nevertheless, search Google for "Wooden" and "pyramid of success," and you find 29,000 links. This is 35 years after he retired.

He was not a promoter. He was a coach. Then he was a retired coach. Yet his legend lives on.

He coached 172 young men at UCLA. His success through them made him a legend. But the public's memories of success fade. Yet, a quarter century after he retired, as an old man, he could still draw a crowd to hear him lecture on his pyramid of success. In 2000, PBS did a special on this: Values, Victory and Peace of Mind. He stood in front of mostly young people and lectured about his pyramid. Some of them had not been alive when he was a coach. I saw it, re-broadcast during fundraising week. PBS runs its most popular shows during fundraising week.

His career testifies to this. He retired in 1975. He never needed money. But he lived simply.

When he retired, he cleaned out his office. He had built up a lot of memorabilia. He called his players, one by one, and offered them the trinkets associated with them. The press never heard about this. I heard it from my cousin. Wooden had his priorities straight.

We want to to believe that a lifelong adherence to moral principles plus hard work really will produce success. That belief -- or desire to believe -- is integral to his legacy.

His players have repeatedly testified publicly to the consistency of his principles and his actions. He really did try to teach these principles of success to young men whose success came from their innate physical gifts. Some of them caught on only years later. In his Wooden's obituary in the New York Times, All-American Marques Johnson is quoted.

"At the time it was like, 'Pyramid, shmyramid,' " Marques Johnson said. " 'Where's the party at? Where are the girls at?' I didn't want to hear anything about principles and living a life of integrity at that time. But as you get older, and you have kids, and you try to pass on life lessons, now it becomes a great learning tool."

Wooden's calling was his adherence to moral principle. His success on the court as a coach was a manifestation of the reliability of his principles. That was also his verbal testimony. This was verified in the record books. He helped reinforce the faith of literally millions of Americans who need representative cases of undisputed success that are based on moral principle.

May we do as well in our callings. If we can also do as well in our occupations, we are blessed indeed.

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