COLLEGE BASKETBALL COACH
John Wooden is regarded as the quintessential basketball coach in the history of American college competition. Wooden's achievements at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) are the standard by which all college basketball coaches are likely to be judged for many decades to come. Wooden's success stands as an example that a challenging practice environment, rigorous attention to the execution of fundamentals, and cohesive team play will produce champions.
As a coach, John Wooden was the sainted Wizard of Westwood, a name bestowed in reference to the location of the home court of his dynastic UCLA Bruins. It is sometimes forgotten that Wooden was first an accomplished high school player in Indiana, leading his team to a coveted Indiana state championship in 1930. Wooden then proceeded to Purdue University in Indiana, where he led Purdue to a 1932 national championship, a season in which Wooden was named national player of the year.
After a brief stint in the poorly organized professional basketball leagues that endeavored to secure a foothold in the consciousness of the American sporting public in the 1930s, Wooden became a high school basketball coach. Wooden built a scholastic coaching record of 218-42 at Dayton, Kentucky, and South Bend, Indiana, before taking the head job at Indiana State University, a school later famous as the alma mater of Hall of Fame player Larry Bird. Wooden achieved a record of 47-14 over two seasons at Indiana State before moving to the head coaching position at UCLA in 1948.
One of the most remarkable features of the career of John Wooden at UCLA is that while Wooden won ten national championships, more than any other college basketball coach in history, he did not win any national championships during his first 15 seasons at UCLA. Wooden, in those first seasons at UCLA, was undeniably successful, winning the accepted benchmark success, 20 games, on six different occasions. Wooden achieved employment stability in a position that by modern standards would represent a remarkably lengthy tenure.
It was during this period that Wooden laid the groundwork for what would become the dynasty of all dynasties in American college basketball. Wooden was an advocate of lengthy practices for conditioning and endless drills to perfect fundamental skills. Wooden placed the athletic principles of conditioning, skill development, and teamwork at the core of any team's success. Wooden preached a mantra that basketball is a game of threes: forward, guard, center; shoot, drive, pass; and ball, you, man. Wooden was pleased to develop outstanding individual basketball talents, of whom Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton are two of the best known. However, Wooden never permitted individual player excellence to overshadow or to skew his team-centered approach to tactics and execution at both ends of the floor.
When Wooden and his UCLA teams captured their first national championship in 1964, the UCLA roster did not have a starting player taller than 6 ft 5 in (1.95 m). UCLA compensated for its lack of front-court size with a stifling zone press defense; Wooden's players had the physical conditioning to execute it effectively.
The 1964 national championship title gave the Bruins a national visibility in an era that preceded all-sports cable networks, 24-hour access to game stories and the innumerable sport recruiting resources of the Internet. In 1964, scores from the West Coast seldom made the following day's morning newspapers in the East. Two seasons after repeating as champions in 1965, the Bruins corralled the most prized recruit in the United States, Alcindor, out of Power Memorial High School in New York. With Alcindor in the middle, the Bruins sported an 88-2 record from 1968 through 1970 and won three consecutive national titles. One of the losses was arguably the most publicized college basketball game to that point in the game's history. UCLA fell in a memorable 71-69 defeat to the University of Houston Cougars and its standout player, Elvin Hayes, before a record crowd of 52,693 at Houston's Astrodome. Basketball games played in domed stadiums are commonplace today, but the UCLA/Houston clash was the first such contest. UCLA avenged this defeat later that season, routing the Cougars 101-69 in the NCAA semifinals.
In the nine championship seasons that followed, Wooden's coaching genius is best illustrated by the fact Wooden and UCLA were successful playing a variety of different styles, as dictated by their available manpower. When UCLA had Alcindor, they could utilize the most dominant player in the game, a lithe and athletic 7 ft 2 in (2.15 m) presence who was virtually impossible to defend with a single opponent. In the latter period of the Wooden dynasty, UCLA had the 6 ft 11 in (2.08 m) Bill Walton, who was less of a power player than Alcindor but a formidable defender and passer. Each of these players was ultimately named to the National Basketball Association Top 50 players of all time list.
With success came an almost inevitable desire on the part of UCLA's rivals to discredit the hyper successful program. In the early 1970s, the activities of UCLA supporter, or booster, Sam Gilbert were subjected to the most significant of these attacks. Gilbert, a Los Angeles area businessman, was regarded as a father figure by many UCLA players and sat at a prominent courtside seat during the Bruins' home games at Pauley Pavilion. Rival coaches such as Jerry Tarkanian and Dale Brown called UCLA's program corrupt, citing cash and gifts from Gilbert to UCLA players, though the NCAA investigated and cleared Wooden's program and Wooden personally of any wrongdoing or impropriety.
The stark statistical summery of Wooden's career at UCLA is remarkable. Between 1948 and his retirement in 1975, Wooden directed UCLA to an overall record of 620-147, with four undefeated seasons. In the midst of that success came an 88 game undefeated streak, a record never likely to be matched in modern Division 1 college basketball, as no other team has enjoyed even a single undefeated season since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, let alone the equivalent of almost three straight seasons.
The UCLA run of 10 national championships between 1964 and 1975 is also unlikely to be duplicated. In part, this accomplishment is a testament to Wooden and his UCLA teams. It is also a reflection of the greater number of Division 1 programs now competing at the NCAA level (there are now over 330 Division 1 basketball programs, an increase of over 70 schools since Wooden retired). The increase in the number of talented players leaving university before the expiration of their college eligibility to seek an NBA career has also dramatically limited the ability of any team to dominate in the fashion of Wooden and UCLA for even a two- or three-year period. There are few records in sport that may be said to be unassailable; the UCLA national championship record may be the exception.
Wooden's coaching genius has been recognized both by his peers in the basketball community and the American sports media. Wooden is one of only two players to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach (the other is Atlanta Hawks star and NBA coach Lenny Wilkins). Wooden was named NCAA coach of the year on six occasions. The sports television network ESPN named Wooden the Coach of the Century in 1999.