If you asked any college basketball fan what their list of the top ten coaches of all-time looked like, you would get various answers. Mike Krzyzewski, Dean Smith, Bobby Knight, Jim Calhoun, and a slew of other names would be prevalent in each list. Consistent among each of them, however, would be the man who arguably defined success during his tenure at UCLA, guiding the Bruins to an unheard-of ten national championships in twelve seasons. A man whose players read like a Who's Who of basketball, some of whom are enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. A man who was not afraid to teach while simultaneously bringing out the best in his young students. Regardless of how many college hoops aficionados you asked for opinions on who the greatest coaches were, I'm sure each and every individual would reference the name of John Robert Wooden almost immediately. Last night, the "Wizard of Westwood," who gained notoriety for defining UCLA basketball and remaining a force within the game, passed away just four months shy of his hundredth birthday.
Wooden took UCLA to a 620-147 record in his 27 seasons there, and while building the Bruins into a powerhouse, recruited future Hall of Famers the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. Even though his ten titles are a record that will probably never be broken, Wooden the coach takes a backseat to Wooden the man, for it was what he did off the court and outside the arena that proved to be his epitaph.
Even after his retirement from UCLA in 1975, Wooden was always in touch with the game, and his presence touched people outside the basketball world, as even Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter has recalled being inspired by the hardwood icon. After learning of his passing last night, St. John's head coach Steve Lavin; one of Wooden's many successors at UCLA before moving on first to ESPN and then the Johnnies, offered this testimonial to one of the founding fathers of college basketball:
"Coach Wooden leaves all of us a lasting legacy from a lifetime devoted to goodness. Coach believed the court was his classroom and basketball was a metaphor for life. He was an eternal learner and teacher. He was the best friend and mentor one could hope for. It is difficult to imagine a college basketball season without John Wooden being with us."
All of us involved with the game can attest to Lavin's eulogy, especially the last part. Although he retired eleven years before I was born, I would not be able to picture life without Wooden, simply because he was even more of a ubiquitous presence outside the game as a former coach than he was on the sidelines at Pauley Pavilion.
Perhaps the best way to remember Wooden will come from one of the many motivational and inspirational quotations he made throughout his illustrious life:
"Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable."
One can no doubt believe that Wooden's success did not come naturally, and even after retirement, he strove to be the best he could be. Our only regret is that he will no longer be around to help us achieve the same for ourselves.
Rest in peace, Coach.