I thought about writing a post about the passing of John Wooden last night, but decided that there's really nothing that I can add to what is said. Instead I'll recommend just a couple of links: I enjoyed this study of the beginnings of the UCLA dynasty from Sports Illustrated in 2007, as well as a bunch of pictures of Wooden here, and a collection of Wooden-isms. I also enjoyed this video of a 17-18 minute speech he gave a short while ago about teaching.
One of the things I often talk about on this blog is perspective, and that not only do we always lack perspective, but we also overly-glamorous and lionize the past. We also don't realize that what we think now was most important about a past era wasn't the most important then. One great example is the Texas Western team, the first to win the national championship with a lineup with five black starters, the story which has been made into a feature film and numerous documentaries. What most people nowadays would be shocked to find out is that the race of that team was actually irrelevant at the time. Black players had played for major programs for decades before Texas Western won. San Francisco had won the national title 11 years earlier with blacks as their three best players, and three years before Texas Western won with five black starters the title was won by a team with four black starters (Loyola-Chicago). The racial aspect of that game was so irrelevant that in the front page Sports Illustrated article on the championship game published in the March 28th, 1966 issue (read the full issue in the SI archives here) there was not a single mention of race. The idea that it was a big deal that Texas Western won with five black starters is completely a creation of the modern political obsession with race, and nothing to do with what the world was like in 1966. Race was very important in the country then, of course, but nobody cared that the record for most black starters to win a college basketball title had risen from four to five.
And so I've actually pointed out in the past that in some ways Wooden's coaching success has been overrated in the media. His record of 10 championships in 12 years isn't quite as impressive as you'd think. It's probably the greatest streak of any team in college basketball history, because keeping a team among the best in the nation for 12 straight years is tremendously impressive, with the only comparison being the Duke run from 1985 through 2006 when they went to Sweet Sixteens in 17 of 21 years, including 3 championships, 7 title game appearances and 9 Final Four appearances. But what makes it deceptive is just how much easier it was to win a National Championship in the 1960s than today, particularly in the West. There were fewer games and fewer elite teams - it wasn't like today where the 100th best team can give the best team a run on a good day. But even more important was the region concept. Younger fans today often don't realize that back in the day the NCAA Tournament regions actually meant something, and so UCLA benefited from the fact that that almost all of the other good teams were in the East. I talked about this recently in the comments to this post. For example, UCLA made the 1967 Final Four by beating Wyoming and Pacific, and nobody else. It was still very impressive that they beat Houston and Dayton in the Final Four to win the Championship, but can you imagine how many Final Fours Coach K could have reached in a row if he only had to play Wyoming and Pacific to make the Final Four?
But what made John Wooden great wasn't his winning, but the effect he had on his kids. Recalling my last post on this blog, about John Calipari (see here and here for more of my writing about John Calipari), I talked about how college basketball coaches need to care about more than just winning. They have a responsibility to develop young men, they need to mentor them, and they need to help them with the rest of their life. John Calipari couldn't care less about what happens to his kids after they're done winning games for him. And that's the precise opposite of John Wooden, who often seemed to care less about winning the game than he did about winning life. The way his former players and assistants and friends idolize him is a testament to who Wooden was. And to go back to the Texas Western example, Wooden was in fact not a creation of the modern world. Going back through the Sports Illustrated archives I found this fascinating article about UCLA basketball from March, 1962, a full two seasons before his first trip to the NCAA Championship game. Yet even then, a full 48 seasons ago, his brilliance as a teacher and his excellence as a human being is on full display in the article. Even his famous "Pyramid of Success" makes a cameo appearance. For those of us who weren't around to watch Wooden at his coaching peak, this is evidence to us that as large as the legend of John Wooden is, he really lived up to that legend in every possible way.