And then Smith said: “The best coach I’ve ever seen, though, is Morgan Wootten. He’s always a step ahead of the rest of us.”
A high school coach? A great one, no doubt, but a high school coach?
“Absolutely,” Smith said. “He’d be great at any level. I mean, any level.”
Wootten was never one to go out of his way in search of publicity, but he gave me total access for a week. I watched him interact with players and assistants, students and teachers, seemingly knowing everyone’s name in the hallways at DeMatha.
I went to practice and games and went with him to Ledo’s in College Park, where he would go after every game to eat pizza and drink a Miller Lite or two before pulling out one of his ever-present flair pens and begin drawing plays and making notes on the paper place mats.
“We’d come into work the next day and there’d be greasy place-settings filled with notes all over the office,” said Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey, who played and coached under Wootten. “He was never more comfortable than in the little back room at Ledo’s, eating that pizza and doing postgame X’s and O’s.”
But I learned Wootten’s secret by spending two days in the history class he taught. I was a history major in college. I had some very good professors. None could touch Wootten as a teacher. His style was unique. He didn’t lecture; he told stories. He kept the students engaged with humor and questions, not so much asking them for facts as for their opinions. Why did they think Alexander the Great sat down and cried after conquering the world?
Or this, during a discussion of Napoleon: “How many of you think that there’s such a thing as a good dictator?” Twenty-five of twenty-nine hands went up. Wootten nodded and then said, “Okay then, how many of you would want to live under a good dictator?” Zero hands went up.
I was ready to go back to high school, if only to sit in on Wootten’s history classes. When I watched him work with his basketball team, I realized he was doing the exact same thing: keeping his players engaged with storytelling, with humor and by asking for their input, although there was no doubt who had the last word.
“He always said that to be a great coach, you had to be a great teacher,” said Joe Wootten, the fifth and youngest of his children, on Tuesday. “I think he personified that notion.”
Wootten died Tuesday night at age 88 after living an extraordinary life. His reach was immeasurable. He coached basketball at DeMatha for 46 years and taught history almost the entire time. In 1962, he and his partner, friend and rival Joe Gallagher began what would become one of the country’s premier summer basketball camps. There were 20 campers that first summer. Last year, Joe Wootten, who now runs the camp, calculated more than 200,000 kids had attended through the years.
“Talk about touching lives,” Joe said. “Not only did he mentor so many kids and coaches, but now many of them are mentors and coaches. What a legacy.”
Wootten was a mentor to coaches at every level, including the great Red Auerbach, his close friend, who frequently consulted with him on subjects that had little to do with basketball.
“He’s the best judge of people I ever met,” Auerbach told me once. “Even better than me.”
In all the years that I knew Wootten, I saw him truly upset only once. That was when DeMatha informed him that it didn’t plan to hire Joe to succeed him when he retired. Joe had played for his father — was a member of an undefeated team in 1991 — and had become his top assistant. The father believed the son was the best candidate to succeed him, not because he loved him the most but because he saw a lot of himself in his son.
Joe left DeMatha to become the coach at Bishop O’Connell 20 years ago and has been hugely successful by any measure — except comparison to his father’s record.
Even then, Morgan never would criticize DeMatha publicly. Mike Jones, who had been a teammate of Joe’s while playing for Morgan, succeeded him in 2002 and has had great success ever since, although he did have a nine-game losing streak early on.
I asked Morgan at one point that season what his longest losing streak had been. Given that his worst record had been 17-13 in his second season (1958) and his overall record had been 1,274-192, I figured it couldn’t have been long.
“What was your longest losing streak,” I asked. “Three, four?”
Morgan looked at me as if I had grown a second head. “Three in a row?” he said. “I never lost three in a row.”
Wootten never failed to win at least 20 games in a season after 1958. In his final 42 seasons, he lost more than five games in just four of them, and his worst record was 20-10. DeMatha won 22 city titles and was unofficially the high school national champion five times. But one game changed his profile from successful coach to national celebrity.
It was played in a sold-out Cole Field House on Jan. 30, 1965. Power Memorial, led by 7-foot-2 Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) had won 71 straight games, including a 65-62 victory a year earlier over DeMatha.
“We’d won 29 in a row since that game,” Wootten remembered years later. “So we both had pretty good streaks going.”
To prepare for Alcindor, who Wootten insisted was, “at least 7-3,” Wootten had his players use tennis rackets in practice to simulate what it was like to shoot over Alcindor’s reach. The Stags played all five starters the entire 32 minutes and won, 46-43. All five went on to play Division I basketball, as did myriad Wootten-coached players.
The list of college and NBA stars is long. Sid Catlett and Bob Whitmore, two of the starters against Power Memorial, played at Notre Dame, as did future Hall of Famer Adrian Dantley. Sidney Lowe and Dereck Whittenburg started on Jim Valvano’s “survive-and-advance” 1983 NCAA championship team at North Carolina State. Danny Ferry played on three Final Four teams at Duke and was the 1989 national player of the year.
And then there was Brey.
“Morgan had a long string when I was a senior  of every player getting a D-1 scholarship,” Brey remembered. “I was pretty convinced I was going to break the streak. But somehow I got an offer from Northwestern State [in Louisiana] because I played pretty well at Five-Star [camp] the summer before my senior year.
“I didn’t play much that season because I was behind Sidney Lowe and Dutch Morley. In the spring, I got offered the chance to play in a second-tier all-star game in Pennsylvania. Morgan wasn’t sure I should play. ‘If you don’t play well, they might withdraw the offer,’ he said. He was concerned. I guess I played okay, because they didn’t withdraw the offer.
“I first met him when I went to his camp at the age of 9 and fell under his spell. I think what all of us who played for him or coached for him share is never wanting to let him down — in any way. I’m 60 now, and I still feel that way. I know I’m not alone.”
Brey finished his playing career at George Washington and then started coaching under Wootten at DeMatha before spending eight years assisting Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.
Krzyzewski first got to know Wootten during his recruitment of Ferry. Early on, Krzyzewski was concerned that Wootten’s longtime friendship with Smith at North Carolina and/or loyalty to his alma mater, Maryland, might dim his chances to recruit Ferry.
“I found out early on that Morgan wasn’t like that,” Krzyzewski said. “He wanted his players to make their own decisions because they were the ones that were going to college, not him. If any college coach ever complained about Morgan not being fair, it had to be because of sour grapes.”
In fact, when Ferry and Wootten were walking across the court at DeMatha to the news conference at which Ferry would announce his college choice, Ferry said, “Coach, don’t you even want to know what I’ve decided?”
“I’ll find out soon enough, Danny,” Wootten answered.
Wootten liked to say, “I never tell my players where to go to college or who to marry. But I might tell them where not to go.”
Wootten had numerous chances to coach at the college level but never was offered the job he would have taken: Maryland. In 1980, North Carolina State offered him a staggering five-year, $800,000 contract. To put that in perspective, when Valvano was hired after Wootten said no, he was given a five-year deal for $210,000 — $10,000 more than the five-year contract Krzyzewski had signed at Duke three weeks earlier.
“My kids were still young, and I didn’t want to move my family,” Wootten said of the decision to turn down N.C. State. “I loved what I was doing. I wanted to keep teaching history. I didn’t need to test myself at the college level. I was happy, very happy. Why leave happy?”
Because of his gentle nature and because he only rarely raised his voice and never used profanity, people often missed how competitive Wootten was. When Joe took the job at O’Connell, he had to coach against his father. One night, Joe watched helplessly as his father calmly convinced the officials to reverse a call that had initially gone against DeMatha.
“One of my guys goaltended,” Joe said, laughing at the memory. “The refs missed it. We came down with the ball, late, up four. My dad is all over the lead ref as he goes by the bench. Finally, the guy says to him, ‘Coach, I blew my whistle, but nobody heard it. He stops the game and calls the goaltend — 15 seconds later! I looked at my dad and said, ‘Really, really? Is there nothing you won’t do to win? Even against your own son?’
“He just looked at me as if to say, ‘Did you really expect anything different?’ I may have said a few other words after that.”
In 2000, Wootten was the first high school coach inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Since then, two more high school coaches, Bob Hurley and Robert Hughes, have followed him. Hughes later passed Wootten in career victories, with 1,333 wins. In 2010, Hughes was given high school coaching’s most prestigious honor: the Morgan Wootten Award for Lifetime Achievement.
The story that may best sum up the way Wootten was regarded in basketball circles dates from 1977, when Wootten and his friend Bob Geoghan were trying to convince a group of skeptical McDonald’s corporate people that they should invest in taking national the D.C.-based all-star game started by Geoghan and Wootten.
“We need a really big name to get involved in order to take this thing national,” one of the McDonald’s people said during a conference call.
“That’s easy,” Wootten said. “Get John Wooden.”
“We tried,” came the answer. “He turned us down.”
“Give me five minutes,” Wootten said, putting the group on hold.
As promised, he was back five minutes later.
“He’s in,” Wootten said. He had called Wooden, who replied, “If you’re involved, Morgan, I’m involved.”
Wooden once said of Wootten: “I know of no finer coach at any level, high school, college or pro. I stand in awe of him.”
Coach. Teacher. Mentor. Father. Grandfather. Friend. Wootten’s legacy goes way beyond any numbers — and beyond most words.
“He always knew what to say, when to say it and how to say it,” Joe Wootten said. “He never said too much. He said just enough.”
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.