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Death of a Legend: Goodbye Coach Wooden

Posted on June 04, 2010 by Dean Hybl

John Wooden was a great player and coach, but he is best knwon for being a man of impeccable character.

The World is a little emptier tonight following the news that legendary basketball coach John Wooden has passed away at the age of 99.

There will be much discussion in coming days about his incredible coaching records and accomplishments. Without a doubt, winning 10 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball National titles in 12 years is an accomplishment that will never be duplicated.

However, while I never met Coach Wooden, what I have read and heard from many others about him is that he was a better man and teacher than he ever was a basketball coach.

When his former players talk about Coach Wooden they do not necessarily talk about the on-the-court accomplishments. Instead, they talk about he helped mold them into the people that they would become.

The fact that he coached his last game in 1975 yet still had significant influence over college basketball for the next 35 years as a teacher and speaker is a testament to his greatness.

What is to me most amazing about Coach Wooden is that he was truly one of the first great superstar players of college basketball. During his tenure at Purdue from 1930-32 he was the first player ever to be named a consensus All-American for three straight years. Though no NCAA Tournament was played at the time, Wooden and the Boilermakers were selected as the NCAA Champions in 1932.

I find it a great illustration of his great talent as a player that Wooden was selected to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 1960, well before he started winning championships as a coach.

His dignity and honor were evident when he made the move from coaching at Indiana State to become the head coach at UCLA in 1948.

Wooden coached many great players including future NBA great Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and future television star Michael Warren.

As the story goes, he was being considered for the head coaching position at both UCLA and Minnesota. It was his desire to stay in the mid-West and was prepared to take the position at Minnesota. However, when a snow storm made it impossible for Minnesota officials to reach Wooden, he thought they had lost interest and accepted the offer from UCLA. Even after Minnesota was able to contact him he declined their offer because he had given his word to UCLA.

And just two years later, Wooden nearly left for his alma mater to become the coach at Purdue, but ultimately stayed because he had insisted on a three-year contract at UCLA and decided it was not right to leave before completing his commitment.

As they say, the rest is history. Though he coached the Bruins for 15 years before he won his first national title, Wooden was always successful coaching the Bruins. They won 20 or more games six times in his first 15 years and made five NCAA Tournament appearances.

In his final 12 seasons, the Bruins lost a grand total of 22 games with eight of those losses coming during the 1965-66 season when his best player was sitting on the sidelines waiting to show his stuff during an era when freshmen were not eligible.

The next season Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) began his remarkable three-year run by leading the Bruins to a 30-0 record and the national title. They lost only three games during his career.

Bill Walton won two national titles playing for Wooden, but he was a free spirit that at times was quite a challenge for the veteran coach.

Wooden’s next superstar reached even greater heights as Bill Walton helped guide the Bruins to consecutive undefeated seasons and an 88-game winning streak.

Though their streak of seven straight NCAA titles was snapped by North Carolina State in 1974, Wooden claimed his tenth title in 1975 before retiring.

His legacy both as a coach and teacher is secure and there will certainly never be another figure in college athletics quite like the “Wizard of Westwood.” May he rest in peace.

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