John Wooden’s handwritten letter to Gary Williams


(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Old story, but new to me.

Prompted by the release of Seth Davis’s new book on John Wooden, Andy Pollin talked with Gary Williams this week about the legendary UCLA coach. And Williams told this story.

“I got the head job at American U. [in 1978],” Williams began. ” I wrote [Wooden] a letter — and I wrote it, I didn’t type it. I sent it to him, just asking for some material that he had on full-court pressure. He sent me back a handwritten two-page letter concerning his 2-2-1 press, which I still have. I was flabbergasted. I’m sure he didn’t know who I was, and he took the time to draw some diagrams on it and things like that, which I’ll never forget.”

Williams has told this story several times, including in 1995 to the Chicago Tribune.

“I’ve still got it on my wall,” Williams said then. “He says, ‘Young man, you’ve picked a great profession. Respect the profession. Always do as good a job as you can. But never forget the players playing for you. John Wooden.’ How ’bout that?”

Of course, as things happen, by 2010 this had become an 18-page letter sent to Williams when he was coaching the Terps in the ’90s. Close enough.

And as long as I’m on the topic, Williams and Pollin also discussed how things changed as Wooden’s era gave way to Williams’s.

“I became a coach in ’78, and by then, it had really changed,” Williams said. “That time between say 1968 and ’72 is when it all changed. Whether it was Vietnam, the Beatles, the drug influence, all those things came into play, and all of a sudden coaches, when you basically told your players to run through a wall, the players started to ask why should we run through the wall?

“And before, when I played, you never questioned your coach. Your coach said we’re going to play this way, you’ve got to make 10 passes before you shoot, you’re going to make 10 passes or else you’re coming out of the game. But that was the other thing. Those coaches back then in the ‘60s came from a very disciplined environment, and so that’s what they were coaching from during their time.”

“I learned a lot from Coach [Bud] Millikan, because he was a strict fundamentalist,” Williams said later. “You couldn’t play for him if you dribbled behind your back or between your legs or something like that, not that I could anyway. But really, by the time I got to be a head coach in ’78, you had to be flexible, you had to appreciate individual skill. One of the things he did, it was all about team. There was no individual that was going to stand out above everybody else. He didn’t cater to anybody.”

Dan Steinberg writes about all things D.C. sports at the D.C. Sports Bog.

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Dan Steinberg · January 17, 2014