Review of Seth Davis's "John Wooden: A Coach's Life"


Luther Spoehr, an HNN reviewer and Senior Lecturer at Brown University, co-teaches a course on the history of intercollegiate athletics.

John Wooden:  A Coach’s Life

by Seth Davis

Times Books, 2014

 In the past four decades or so, sports biography has come of age.  Starting perhaps with Robert Creamer’s Babe: The Legend Comes to Life (1974), there has been a string of studies that avoid both myth-making and muckraking and place their subjects firmly in their historical contexts.  Some coaches have even been made into more than their won-loss records and clichés about “making boys into men.”  The gold standard for this subgenre is probably David Maraniss’ When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi (2000).   Seth Davis’s biography of UCLA basketball coach John Wooden belongs on the same shelf with that one.  Thoroughly researched (Davis seems to have interviewed everybody who had even a cup of coffee with the UCLA basketball coach, as well as Wooden himself), smoothly and engagingly written, Davis’s book takes over 500 pages to show the man in full.  He doesn’t waste a page.

Davis is the author of When March Went Mad (2010), about the 1979 NCAA championship game between Larry Bird’s Indiana State and Magic Johnson’s Michigan State.  He knows the Midwest and superbly recreates the small-town Indiana milieu where Johnny Wooden grew up. 

Born in 1910, Wooden came of age just as that state’s basketball craze was blossoming.  He led his Martinsville high school team to the state finals three times (winning in 1927), then went on to Purdue University, where he was coached by the inimitable Ward “Piggy” Lambert (where have all the nicknames gone?).  Wooden was an all-out, hell-bent-for-leather competitor, and Lambert’s aggressive approach, featuring fast-break offense and pressing defense, suited him perfectly.  Elsewhere, most teams played deliberately (it wasn’t particularly unusual for the winning team to score fewer than 20 points), so they had trouble coping with Lambert’s “fire-engine” style.  A panel voted Purdue the nation’s best team.  (They couldn’t win the NCAA tournament, which didn’t begin until 1939.  Most rule changes that favored “racehorse” basketball came too late to benefit Wooden as a player:  in 1932, the NCAA installed the half-court line and gave the team with the ball 10 seconds to cross it.  By the late 1930s, they had entirely eliminated the center jump after each made basket, “arguably,” says Davis, “the most significant rule change the sport ever adopted.”)

Fans may recall that Wooden was an All-American at Purdue, but even that doesn’t quite define his talent:  in 1943, celebrating fifty years of American basketball, the Helms Foundation called him “probably the greatest all-around guard of them all.”  In 1960 he was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player.  But in the pre-NBA days of the 1930s, professional basketball was hardly the way to wealth and security, and the sensible Wooden embarked on a career teaching high school English and coaching basketball.  After serving in the Navy during World War II, he turned to coaching full-time, taking his 3x5 notecards and focus on fundamentals to Indiana State.

Wooden had two successful years with the Hurryin’ Sycamores (really, where HAVE all the nicknames gone?), then in 1948 UCLA came calling.  (They weren’t the only ones:  Wooden was ready to say “yes” to the University of Minnesota, but when they failed to get back to him promptly, he took the UCLA job.  Turned out that a snowstorm had downed the phone lines in Minnesota.  “For want of a nail…”) 

The glories that followed may look inevitable in hindsight, but, as Davis observes, Wooden was actually taking quite a chance, and for years he periodically pondered returning to the Midwest.  College basketball on the West Coast was not as big a deal as high school basketball in Indiana.  (Even in Indiana, it was the high schools that persuaded Butler University to build Hinkle Fieldhouse with an especially large seating capacity, so it would be big enough for the crowds attending the state high school tournament.)  And even by West Coast standards, UCLA basketball was a very small deal, with just two winning seasons in the previous 17, a span that also included 39 consecutive losses to Southern Cal.  Unlike twenty-first-century basketball coaches, he didn’t earn more than the university’s chief executive: in his first year, his salary was $6,000.  For four years he worked in the morning as dispatcher for a dairy company to supplement his income.  In the mid-1970s, his salary peaked at $35,000.  His former assistant, Denny Crum, declined an offer to become Wooden’s successor because he would have been taking an enormous pay cut to leave Louisville.)

Then there was the gymnasium.  As Wooden himself said, “There were a hundred high school gyms in Indiana that were far, far better than what we were playing in.”  It was up three flights of stairs and had only two baskets.  The gymnastics team, which practiced just before the basketball team, “would regularly leave the playing surface covered with chalk.  Wooden asked the buildings and grounds workers to build him two six-foot-wide brooms and mops, and each day before practice his assistants would have to clean the floor.  ‘I took the easy job, I must say,’ Wooden said.  ‘I’d take a bucket and go along in front of them, just like I was feeding the chickens, to get the floor a little damp.’”  Its capacity was only 2,500; poorly ventilated, on hot nights it readily earned its nickname, “the B.O. Barn.”    After a few years, Wooden’s teams got to play in a larger arena.  But despite promises made to Wooden when he arrived, glamorous Pauley Pavilion didn’t appear until 1965.

Finally, there was the adjustment to the Southern California way of life.  Wooden and his wife, Nell (“the only girl I ever went with”), were unimpressed by California’s glamour and mystique.  And he avoided the beery, back-slapping world of coaches and sportswriters.   As Davis says, “Wooden operated in a jock culture that was addled by cigarettes and liquor, yet he was the straightest of straight arrows.” (Sneered one writer, “You think you’re too good to drink with us?”)  But they had their children and a circle of friends and, most of all, each other.  Davis says, “he drew strength from her presence and depended on her in every way.  She poured his cereal, picked out his clothes, did all his laundry.  She even washed his hair.  When the team had a road game, Nell packed suitcases for both of them and came along.”  Before each game, he’d search the stands and give her the high sign, one of many shared rituals and routines.

But the quarter-century after World War II was a 24-carat era for the Golden State, and Wooden benefited.  UCLA grew from 6,200 students in 1947, the year before he arrived, to over 17,000 in 1960, and it went on from there.  The prosperity, the climate, and growing media coverage of all that made the state boom.  

There is still a widespread impression that Wooden’s first years at UCLA were unsuccessful, that in a more impatient age he would probably have been fired.  That kind of impatience is characteristic of our own era, but it’s also worth noting that in the 15 years between Wooden’s 1948 arrival and the 1964 NCAA Championship, his teams won 18 or more games 11 times. They sometimes failed to get into the NCAA tournament (far fewer teams were invited in those days), and, of course, they didn’t go all the way.  But compared to its dismal record before Wooden’s arrival, UCLA was more than competitive. 

With its first championship in hand, in 1964, UCLA went on a run that will never be equaled, winning ten titles in 12 years.  The 1964 squad, which had no players over 6’ 5”, was undefeated, but Wooden hadn’t really changed his methods at all.  His belief in preparation (“explanation, demonstration, imitation, correction, repetition”) was vindicated, as was his belief that his well-conditioned players would wear down the opposition.  A relentless full court press usually did the job.

Practices, written up on his 3x5 notecards, were the same year after year.  The first session, for instance, included precise attention on how to put on athletic socks properly (because if you’re going to run that much, you are prone to blisters).  Naturally, it helps if rare talents like Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton are the guys pulling on those socks. 

Thanks to Davis’s narrative skills, the run of championships doesn’t get monotonous.  Things were not always serene behind the scenes—all that winning, which spoiled the fans and alumni, was far more stressful than it appeared.  Davis highlights a number of issues, such as how Wooden handled racial issues and political dissent, more coherently and thoroughly than I’ve seen them addressed elsewhere.  Perhaps most significantly, he goes into great detail about the involvement of Sam Gilbert, an out-of-control booster with more than a few shady business dealings, who has long been rumored to have corrupted the program.  In just one (dramatic) incident, Gilbert seems to have dissuaded Alcindor and star guard Lucius Allen from transferring by sending some walking-around money their way.  His involvement wasn’t hard to detect: Gilbert “felt no shame about what he was doing, [so] he didn’t see any reason to hide it.”

It’s not clear just how much Wooden knew about all this—with his Midwestern reserve, he was not interested in his players’ personal lives.  But he knew Gilbert was bad news and warned them to stay away, even if he did little to make sure they obeyed. 

In 1975, with a tenth championship banner on the wall, Wooden announced his retirement.  Although he claimed to have made his decision while walking off the court for the last time, in fact he had made it almost a year before.  It was just one of the little untruths, like the notion that he never had a team with a losing record (he did—back home in Indiana), that Wooden himself propagated.  Mainly, however, his sins seem to have been ones of omission:  failure to credit his assistants for their contributions as both recruiters and strategists (Wooden had to be talked into going with the full court press in 1964 by Jerry Norman, but he always acted as if it had been his idea).  And he was rarely as “emotionally available,” as Davis puts it, for his players, at least while they were playing for him.  “In his own mind, his own heart, Wooden loved his ‘boys,’ but he had grown up in an environment where love was to be demonstrated, not spoken; felt, not expressed.  Now, he was dealing with young men who had grown up in a much different time and place.  They had emotional needs he did not, or would not, understand.”

And yet there was this: Wooden lived for 35 years after retiring, and, especially after Nell’s death in 1985, much of that time was spent reconnecting with his players.   Not just the stars and the starters, but the bench players, many of whom had resented how little playing time they got even in blowouts--even Bill Seibert, whose speech at the senior banquet criticizing Wooden and the program had been widely reported.  When he died in 2010, age 99, he was ready to go.

Wooden lived long enough to see college basketball transformed into a big-time, big money operation.  During nearly the entire time he was at UCLA, freshmen weren’t eligible to play; by 2010, teams were trying to win championships with players who were “one and done.”  The 1968 game between Houston and UCLA was a rarity, a nationally televised college game (and it had a rare outcome: Houston and Elvin Hayes won, not least because Alcindor had double vision from an eye injury; when they met in the NCAA’s, UCLA buried them); this season, my cable TV schedule regularly listed over 30 games available for viewing each weekend.  Wooden’s teams were famous for their teamwork (when a player complained that the coach saw the team as a “machine,” he took it as a compliment); today’s players, prepped for college by AAU coaches who know they’re running a meat market for the colleges, are all about playing one-on-one.  Wooden (and UCLA’s entrepreneurial Athletic Director, J.D. Morgan) struggled to make basketball visible; today’s 24/7 sports coverage, featuring ESPN’s endless yakking and tweets from players, coaches, professional and amateur commentators, is endlessly, noisily visible.

John Wooden fit perfectly into his historical niche.  He brought championship basketball and a championship formula for sustained success to a state and national culture that was primed to receive it.  He seemed to combine an old-fashioned work ethic with an almost courtly reserve   (people often heard about his “Pyramid of Success,” but rarely about the nasty words he shouted at the officials through that rolled-up program) and became an icon in the 1960s and ‘70s to a society that increasingly felt itself in need of stability and consistency.

If there is one thing certain in this world, it is that nobody will ever coach 10 championship teams in 12 seasons again.  Seth Davis’s great accomplishment is to show how a flawed but supremely organized, shrewd, fundamentally decent man, in the right place at the right time, made it happen. 

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