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Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, winner of 10 national titles, dies at 99

By Matt Schudel
Friday, June 4, 2010; 11:49 PM

John Wooden, who led his UCLA basketball team to an unsurpassed record of 10 national championships in the 1960s and 1970s, and who is often regarded as the greatest coach in American sports history, died Friday. He was 99.

No cause of death was given for Mr. Wooden, who had been hospitalized for dehydration at UCLA Medical Center since May 26. The university, which announced his death, said only that he died of natural causes.

Mr. Wooden was a mild-mannered leader who molded an athletic dynasty at the University of California at Los Angeles by instilling a quiet discipline in his players, emphasizing group effort over individual heroics. His favorite part of coaching was leading the practice sessions in which he taught the fundamentals that were the foundation of his success.

He was called the "Wizard of Westwood," after UCLA's Los Angeles neighborhood, but never particularly liked his nickname. Year after year, with short teams or tall, with star players and scrappy unknowns, Mr. Wooden compiled a record of excellence that has never been equaled in a major college sport.

From 1964 to 1975, his teams won 10 national championships, including seven in a row. No other men's basketball coach has won more than four. He led UCLA to four perfect seasons, each time with a record of 30-0. No other coach has had more than one undefeated season. From 1971 to 1974, his teams won 88 consecutive games, a record no one else has come close to breaking.

"He is the greatest coach in the history of sports, not just basketball but in any sport," UCLA basketball Coach Ben Howland said in 2008, echoing the sentiments of dozens of other coaches and writers.

"Neither Knute Rockne, not John McGraw, not Connie Mack, nor Casey Stengel, nor Vince Lombardi, nor any other coach or manager has complied anything close to the record of Wooden's teams," sports journalist Arnold Hano wrote in the New York Times in 1973. "He is sport's most enduring, most successful winner."

Although remembered primarily as a coach, Mr. Wooden was an outstanding 5-foot-10 guard at Purdue University in his home state of Indiana and was named the national collegiate player of the year in 1932. He was the first person elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. The annual award given to the nation's top college men's and women's players is named in his honor.

He coached many all-American players during his 27 years at UCLA, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (known in college by his original name of Lew Alcindor), Bill Walton, Sidney Wicks and Keith Wilkes. But in keeping with his belief in team play over individual glory, Mr. Wooden refused to allow his star players' uniform numbers to be retired.

"What about the fellows who wore that number before?" he asked. "Didn't they contribute to the team?"

Mr. Wooden was soft-spoken but firm about his rules of behavior, which included no profanity and maintaining a neat appearance. In the early 1970s, Walton challenged Mr. Wooden's authority by coming to practice with a beard and shaggy hair.

"That's good, Bill," Mr. Wooden responded. "I admire people who have strong beliefs and stick by them. I really do. We're going to miss you."

Walton went to the locker room and shaved.

"When I left UCLA in 1974 and became the highest-paid player in the history of team sports at that time," Walton later wrote in the UCLA alumni magazine, "the quality of my life went down. That's how special it was to have played for John Wooden and UCLA."

Mr. Wooden said he was more pleased by his players' success later in life than on the basketball court. Almost all of his players graduated, and he pointed out that more than 30 became lawyers, and many others were teachers, doctors or ministers.

"That was his mission -- to help young men do good things with their lives," Abdul-Jabbar told the Sporting News in 2009.

'I am a practice coach'

Mr. Wooden, who taught high school English for more than 10 years, often referred to his coaching as "teaching" and relied on homespun precepts learned during his hardscrabble youth in Indiana. His slogans often carried a deeper message: "Be quick, but don't hurry"; "Failing to prepare is preparing to fail"; "Never mistake activity for achievement."

One thing he didn't ask his players to do was win a game.

"The word 'win' never escaped his lips. Literally," Doug McIntosh, a member of his first national championship team in 1964, told Sports Illustrated. "He just asked us to play to our potential."

Practice sessions were the laboratory in which he refined his coaching science. He designed his practices around drills that would develop quickness, alertness and team spirit.

"I am not a strategy coach," he said. "I am a practice coach."

Each year, Mr. Wooden began his practices at UCLA by teaching his players the proper way to put on their socks and lace their shoes.

"It's the little things that make the big things happen," he said in 1996. "It's putting your shoes on properly. It's getting the wrinkles out of your socks so you won't get blisters. Those are important things."

He made psychology an element of his coaching, including his preference for a fast-break offense and a relentless zone press on defense. His goal was not just to force his opponents to make mistakes but, in Mr. Wooden's words, to sow "disharmony and disunion": "We want to keep constant pressure until we get to the emotions of the other team."

Mr. Wooden formulated a "pyramid of success," in which 15 qualities such as enthusiasm, loyalty, skill, confidence and poise form the foundation of excellence. In later years, he wrote books outlining his model for success and gave speeches to business leaders.

Over time, an aura of wisdom and Zenlike mastery developed around Mr. Wooden. Because he never drank or cursed, other coaches sometimes derisively called him "St. John," while noting that he often hectored referees by shouting through a rolled-up program.

The only hint of scandal during Mr. Wooden's tenure at UCLA revolved around an athletic booster named Sam Gilbert, who befriended players and reportedly paid some of them under the table. Mr. Wooden was cleared of any wrongdoing after an NCAA investigation.

Summarizing his philosophy of coaching to the Sporting News in 2009, Mr. Wooden said: "You have to be patient. Good things take time. . . . Basketball is not a complicated game, it's a simple game. Get the players in good condition, and teach them how to keep balance -- floor balance, physical balance, mental balance, moral balance. Very simple things."

Mopping the gym floor

John Robert Wooden was born Oct. 14, 1910, in Hall, Ind., and settled with his family in the small town of Martinsville, Ind. His introduction to basketball came when his father, a farmer, nailed a bushel basket to the side of the barn.

He had an austere early life, with no electricity or indoor plumbing, but his father read the Bible and poetry to his four sons each night and instilled a deep sense of moral rectitude. All his life, Mr. Wooden carried in his wallet a set of principles drawn up by his father: "Be true to yourself, help others, make friendship a fine art, drink deeply from good books, make each day your masterpiece, build a shelter against a rainy day by the life you live, and give thanks for your blessings and pray for guidance very day."

In the 1920s, John Wooden led his high school basketball team to one state championship and two second-place finishes. He became known as the "Indiana Rubber Man" for his headlong style of play and was a three-time all-American at Purdue.

Mr. Wooden played professional basketball in the Midwest for several years while working as a high school English teacher and coach in Kentucky and Indiana. During World War II, he was a physical education instructor with the Navy and once underwent an emergency appendectomy, which kept him from reporting for duty on an aircraft carrier. The officer who took his place was killed in a Japanese kamikaze attack.

After the war, Mr. Wooden became the basketball coach at Indiana State University, where he acquired a master's degree in education. He refused to go to a tournament in Kansas City, Mo., when he learned that a black player on his squad would not be allowed to take part.

Mr. Wooden went to UCLA in 1948, inheriting the worst team in the Pacific Coast Conference. In his inaugural season, he led the Bruins to the first of his 19 conference championships. Until a new arena was built in 1965, his teams practiced for 17 years at the "B.O. Barn," an antiquated gymnasium shared with the wrestling and gymnastics teams. Mr. Wooden mopped the floor before practice every day.

At the beginning of the 1963-64 season, little was expected of his undersized team, which had finished 20-9 the previous year. But with Gail Goodrich, Walt Hazzard and Keith Erickson leading a lightning-strike attack, Mr. Wooden's Bruins wore down one opponent after another, despite having no starter taller than 6-feet-5. In the national championship game, UCLA ran away from the Duke Blue Devils, easily winning its first NCAA title, 98-83.

"Coach Wooden's words were always the same," Goodrich, a star player on UCLA's 1964 and 1965 championship teams, once said. " 'Don't panic, keep your poise, the other guy will break.' They did, too."

Never lost a title game

After a second national championship in 1965, Mr. Wooden recruited the top high school player in the country, the 7-foot-2 Alcindor, who led UCLA to three straight championships from 1967 through 1969. UCLA won four more titles in the early 1970s, including two with the 6-foot-11 Walton at center.

In 1975, immediately after UCLA recorded a one-point victory in the NCAA Final Four semifinals over Louisville, Mr. Wooden told his players that the next game -- the national championship-- would be his last as coach. UCLA defeated Kentucky, 92-85, to give Mr. Wooden his 10th NCAA title.

He was named national coach of the year six times, and his 12 appearances in the Final Four are an NCAA record. His teams reached the national championship game 10 times and never lost.

"I don't permit myself to be elated or depressed," he said of his remarkable record of success. "All I ask is that the players give their best effort, and win or lose, they hold their heads up after the game."

Besides winning 88 consecutive games from 1971 to 1974, Mr. Wooden's teams also reeled off streaks of 47 and 41 straight victories. His career record was 885-203, and in his final 12 seasons at UCLA his team was 335-22.

"John was a better coach at 55 than he was at 50," Hall of Fame basketball coach Pete Newell said in 1989. "He was a better coach at 60 than at 55. He's a true example of a man who learned from day one to day last."

Mr. Wooden once turned down a lucrative offer to coach the Los Angeles Lakers of the National Basketball Association and, according to Abdul-Jabbar, was offered the job of manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team in the 1960s.

He remained devoted to UCLA, where his highest salary was a modest $32,500. He wrote several books about basketball and often denounced the dunk shot, flashy play and overzealous coaching, which he believed were damaging his sport.

He read widely, sprinkling his conversation with quotations from Shakespeare, Martin Luther King Jr., Socrates and Gandhi, and was especially knowledgeable about the life and works of Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa.

Mr. Wooden lived in a condominium in Encino, Calif., with his wife, Nell Riley Wooden, who died of cancer in 1985 after 53 years of marriage. He kept her robe on her side of the bed, and each month on the anniversary of her death wrote her a love letter, which he placed on her pillow.

Survivors include two children; seven grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

He led a summer basketball camp for years after his retirement in 1975 and said there was only one thing he missed about coaching.

"I don't miss the tournament at all," he said in 1988. "And I don't miss the games. What I do miss is the daily practice, the preparation. Cervantes once said, 'The road is better than the end.' That's how I feel about basketball."

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