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Slow Learners: Some of "Wooden's Boys" Reminisce About the Leadership Principles He Taught

Gary North
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May 9, 2011

Shortly after John Wooden's death in 2010, a several of his former players were interviewed at what appears to be Pauley Pavilion. This has been posted as a YouTube video. In the video, several of his former students gave a consistent message: he was a humble man, a good teacher, a man of principle, and someone who cared about his players.

Coach Wooden was an indirect influence in my life. One of his 172 "boys" married my cousin. Another one had enormous influence on my at the age of 18 in shaping my theology -- crucial, in fact. He later died in a most remarkable way. He was a preacher. In 2005, he told his congregation in a sermon that he was ready to die at any time. He took one step back and dropped dead. The event got national attention. I searched Google for "Jack Arnold," dies, and pulpit. My obituary of him is on page 1. Wooden later write a nice recollection of having coached him. He admired him for how hard he worked, despite not having great athletic ability.

These men appear in the video.

Wooden said that Keith Erickson was the best athlete he ever coached. He went to the 1964 Olympics as a volleyball player. He has had his share of grief, losing his daughter.

John Vallely also lost his daughter: cancer. Then he got cancer. Wooden's influence began very early in his career, as he reminisced in 2010.

Andy Hill did not get along with Wooden as a player. He became very successful in television production, such as Touched by an Angel. Yet he wound up co-authoring a book with Wooden's on the pyramid of success: Be Quick but Don't Hurry.

Marques Johnson had been coached by the man who was arguably the best high school coach in the country, and surely in California: Willie West. After Wooden died, Johnson shared this:

What you realize is that the impact that he's had on our lives doesn't really come into fruition until it's 15, 20, 25, 30 years down the road. When you're raising kids of your own and you're going through obstacles and hardships and the trauma that life deals out. And that's kind of when, for me, the things he would keep stressing and talking about come back. The mind-boggling thing for me is he never really talked about winning or losing. It was always about effort, giving the best effort you could give. Success was becoming the best you could become. It sounds trite today, but that's a blueprint for living life: Do what you can do and when you get done, you can hold your head up high and feel good about yourself.

Jamaal ("smooth as silk") Wilkes said the same. How good was Wilkes? Said Wooden of what a great player should be: "I would have the player be a good student, polite, courteous, a good team player, a good defensive player and rebounder, a good inside player and outside shooter. Why not just take Jamaal Wilkes and let it go at that?"

Gary Cunningham, whom I also knew in college, played for him before the glory years: 1960-62. He served as Wooden's assistant coach, and is seen again and again in videos of Wooden on the bench. He coached the greatest freshman team of all time -- so good, they beat the varsity, which was rated #1. After the loss, it was still rated #1. Every coach in the country could see what was coming the next year: Alcindor, Allen, Shakelford, and Heitz. He coached the UCLA varsity after Wooden retired. He later earned his Ed.D. and served as athletic director of two universities. Wooden taught him how to play and how to coach.

These interviews are worth reviewing, because they explain what success is about, why Wooden taught it so well, and to such great effect on the basketball court.

As they all said, they did not really understand what he was saying until years later.

Young men are slow learners.

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