Many years ago I would tune into a college basketball game featuring UCLA at Pauley Pavilion and see former coach John Wooden sitting court-side. It was common knowledge that between 1964 and 1975 Wooden led the UCLA Bruins to 10 National Championships over that 12-season period and coached great players such as Bill Walton and Lew Alcindor (aka Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). What many people don’t know is that Wooden was a true innovator of the game. Wooden’s patented high-post offense and (late in his career) 2-2-1 full court zone press are still employed within the high school, college, and even NBA ranks. Equally well known are the life lessons Wooden taught; most famously described in his Pyramid of Success - a mantra utilized to this very day in both (college) athletics, academia, and industry. This article describes some of the less well-known aspects of arguably the greatest men’s basketball coach: and Purdue University alum.
Wooden was born in Hall, Indiana in 1910. After his family eventually moved to Martinsville, Indiana Wooden led his high school team to the 1927 Indiana State Championship. In 1929, Wooden enrolled at Purdue University where he was a guard for the Boilermakers. While at Purdue, Wooden led the Boilermakers to the 1932 Helms Foundation Championship (predecessor to both the NIT and NCAA Tournaments) and was the first-ever 3-time consensus All-American. Wooden graduated from Purdue in 1932.
Wooden’s coaching career began in 1932 in Dayton, Kentucky. His first season turned out to be his only losing season as a head coach on any level. After several years coaching at the high-school level and serving in the US Navy during World War II, Wooden coached 2 seasons at Indiana State. It was after the 1948 season that fate - and a Minnesota snowstorm - would embark him on one of the most successful runs of success in all of sports.
Following the 1947-48 season both the University of Minnesota and UCLA head coaching jobs opened. Wooden preferred taking the Minnesota job, as his wife preferred to stay in the midwest. However, a blizzard knocked out telephone lines in the Twin Cities, preventing Minnesota from extending an offer. Thinking that he wasn’t in consideration for the Minnesota job, Wooden accepted the UCLA head coach position. After the telephone lines had been reopened, Minnesota contacted Wooden offering him the head coaching position; however, Wooden declined as he had given his word to UCLA that he would accept their offer.
Wooden found initial success at UCLA, turning around a program which had limited success at best in the Pacific Coast Conference (PCC) prior to his arrival. 2 years into his tenure, Wooden had the opportunity to take the Purdue job and return to his alma mater; however, he decided to stay in Westwood. What caused Wooden to stay at UCLA was that he had requested a 3-year contract when taking the job; again another sign that he was a man of his word.
Wooden’s Bruins made their first Final 4 in 1962 and won their first National Championship in 1964. One year later, Wooden won a literal recruiting sweepstakes landing a lanky 7’1” center from New York City named Lou Alcindor. Alcindor, who would go on to NBA fame as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, became the linchpin of a team that was literally unbeatable; going 88-2 over his 3 seasons as a starter (freshmen were ineligible at that time) and winning 3 national championships.
Probably the best example of Wooden’s innovation came after the 1966-67 season when the NCAA made the slam dunk illegal; primarily due to Lew Alcindor’s dominance inside. Wooden recognized that Alcindor had an effective hook shot and drilled him in practice to shoot what became the patented ‘sky hook’ over and over again. All this did was make Alcindor virtually unstoppable on offense and make Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the NBA’s all-time leading scorer when he retired. But more importantly, Wooden was a mentor and father figure to Alcindor, who both literally moved across the country from New York City to Los Angeles, and was living through one of the most turbulant time periods in US history during the late 1960s.
After Alcindor was off to the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, Wooden landed another recruit who would go on to become arguably the greatest college basketball player in La Jolla, California’s Bill Walton. The lanky redheaded hippy, like Alcindor before him, immediately found a connection with Wooden. Wooden’s first lesson to his players at each season’s first practice: how to tie their shoes. The little details - tying ones shoes, tucking in one’s shirt, getting an appropriate haircut - were what mattered to Wooden and what he instilled on his players. The results in the case of Walton were similar to Alcindor: an 86-4 record and 2 National Championships.
Wooden retired after the 1974-75 season and his 10th National Championship in 12 seasons. His numbers speak for themselves: 664-162 overall record (620-147 at UCLA), 300-67 conference record, 10 National Championships. To this day his trademark high-post offense and 2-2-1 full-court zone defense are still employed with considerable success in basketball of at all levels: from YMCA to the NBA. Countless players went onto success in the NBA, and more importantly in their post-basketball lives. This was due to the lessons instilled in them by this Indiana man and Purdue alum.
As you have seen, throughout this article there are numerous quotes of John Woodens. These quotes were taken from here. They don’t just apply to men’s college basketball, but life in general. Even in this day in age, people would be wise to read through a few of these quotes from a hard-driven but respectful man; a man who parlayed his midwest upbringing and Purdue education into pure greatness.