The way Morgan Wootten tells it, someone called him last week and said he could make over $100,000 a year if he came to a certain major university in the southwest. Not only that, the university would pay the college educations for Wootten's five children, the oldest now 14.
"I haven't said anything about this to anybody until now," Wootten said two days ago to a columnist curious about the coach's spreading national fame. "I told them I'd have to listen. I've turned down jobs before. Three in the Atlantic Coast Conference.But nobody's ever talked six figures to me, either. So I'm wating for another call."
When any coach at any level talks of fancy deals being offered by people with connections he will not reveal, newspapermen usually consider the talk meaningless. They figure the coach could name names and we could make some calls to check it out. No teases, please.
But, like E. F. Hutton, Morgan Wootten causes respectful silence when he talks. You believe him. Somewhere out there -- "It would entail moving over 1,000 miles south and west," Wootten said teasing -- a university has a salary-TV-radio-camp deal that would pay Wootten five times his De Matha High School salary of $22,000 for coaching, teaching history and being athletic director.
And off the record of his 22 seasons at De Matha, the man would be a bargain at six figures.
Wootten's record, like Auerbach's and Wooden's and Rupp's, transcends statistical analysis. The numbers are unreal and we don't have to deal with them. Anyone who loves basketball knows the Celtics and UCLA, Kentucky and De Matha are names synonymous with excellence and class.
The word is spreading. People magazine, Basketball Weekly and Sports Illustrated have done full-length articles on Wootten and De Matha this season. At half time of a nationally tilevised college game, Al McGuire sought out Wootten in his Hyattsville gymnasium office for an interview. Such national recognition is unheard of at the high school level.
"A neighbor asked my wife Kathy, 'What's going on with all this publicity? Where's Morgan going? What's the story?'" Wootten said.
"Nothing is going on," the coach tells the curious. "I'm not sure why it's all happening."
The only college coaching job Wootten ever wanted was at his alma mater, Maryland. Whenever the present occupant (Lefty Driesell) hangs up his whistle to go sell insurance, as he always is mock-threatening to do, Wootten's name will be heard in speculation about Lefty's successor.
Owners of good ears hear Wootten's name even when Lefty loses three or four games in a month. That talk makes Wootten uncomfortable.
"Obviously, I'm not after anybody's job," he said two days ago. "Make that very clear, please. But if I were to leave De Matha, I couldn't see myself going very far away. This is my home. I was raised here. I have my friends and my roots here (a pause). Then I got that phone call last week."
A time magazine article last season is framed on Wootten's office wall, and maybe that is the one that started the national fuss and led both the coach's neighbor and your curious columnist to ask what is going on with this mild-mannered gentleman who is getting more ink than Dr. J.
Leaving aside the copycat tendencies of the press, the best guess is that Morgan Wootten gets the attention because he has created something rare: a basketball powerhouse that doesn't believe basketball is the most important thing on earth.
Oh, De Matha will beat the bejabbers out of you on the court. To the curious columnist seeing it for the first time, this season's team seems a collection of bright, eager and talented youngsters coached so well there is no wasted motion. They led Gonzaga High only 40-30 early in the third quarter, having lost a much larger lead, when Wootten called time out. Six minutes later, De Matha led, 66-39.
"Isn't it amazing," Wootten said to his players later, "how much better you played after that timeout? You played with emotion and intensity. You got the adrenalin to flowing, and that's what a good team does. You were making things happen instead of waiting for things to happen. Nice job today, fellas."
An 88-57 winner over Gonzaga, De Matha's players filed off the court and into a classroom, where they took sets and waited quietly for Wootten to speak to them. It was a teaching atmosphere.
"The most important thing," Wootten said, looking at a sheet of statistics, "is that we have a new school record, Sidney Lowe. 20 assists."
Sidney Lowe is a De Matha guard who, on hearing the glad news, leaped out of his classroom chair. He never made a sound, but his sudden smile threatened to break his face. And he hopped for joy, finally putting his head against a blackboard and tapping a fist against it in celebration.
"The record of 19," Wootten said into the dazzling glare of Lowe's continuing smile, "was set by a fellow you never heard of. In 1959. By Mike Reidy (a teacher's pause). And today he is a Ph.D."
Any list of players who sought to enroll at De-Matha and were rejected "would read like a Who's Who of area basketball," Wootten said. Though envy or jealousy moves opponents to say De Matha recruits the best players, Wootten denies it, saying De Matha need do nothing illegal because players, principals, parents and junior high coaches flood the school with inquiries. Wootten only has to wait for the approximately 160 basketball candidates (in a school of 800 boys) to become his 14 varsity players.
He tells a story about Adrian Dantley, who went from De Matha to Notre Dame to the Lakers. "Paul Furlong, who was coaching at Mackin then, told me one day, 'You got a kid in school who's going to be one of the greatest players ever in this city.'
"I said, 'You're kidding.' And Paul said, 'His name is Adrian Dantley.'
"I never saw Dantley until he played for me as a freshman."
Yes, De Matha will whip you on the court, but the game is not the universe. Wootten says he discourages certain players from enrolling at De Matha.
"If a boy's No. 1 reason for coming is to play basketball, he'll never make it here," the coach said. "His priorities are out of whack."
From his shelf near his office desk, Wootten produced a paper with the heading "The De Matha Basketball Player." It is a message of pride for Wootten's players, winding up with this: "A De Matha player always has his priorities in the proper order: God first, family second, school and studies third."
Did you read basketball in there?
"Certainly, we think basketball is important, but it ranks below those three. I tell my teams to not let basketball use you, you use basketball. No matter how long you play, they're going to take the basketball out of your hands some day. They took it away from Dave Bing. They took it away cfrom Elgin Baylor. And John Havlicek, no matter how great he was, they took it away from him, too.
"And when they take the basketball away from you, you've still got a lifetime to live. You better be ready as a man."