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The tributes to John Wooden have poured in since the legendary college basketball coach's death on Friday. They've come from writers, broadcasters, coaches, universities and former players. They have lauded the UCLA coach for his 10 championships, his "Pyramid of Success," his treatment of players and peers alike, and his creation of the greatest dynasty in college sports history.
But Wooden's death at the age of 99 is more than the passing of college sports' greatest coach. It's the passing of the embodiment of what it means to be a coach.
At first glance, Wooden's career seems defined by numbers. Ten national titles, including seven in a row from 1966-73, when no other Division I coach in history has more than four. Eighty-eight straight victories spread over three untouchable UCLA seasons—the longest winning streak in college basketball history. Four perfect seasons, a feat that seems more remarkable each year every team loses at least one game (we're at 34 years and counting since perfection last happened). And my personal favorite: During the Bruins' streak of seven straight titles, they went 205-5.
Wooden's litany of jaw-dropping stats is staggering. But when former players are asked to describe him, the numbers almost never come up. In its place are words almost extinct in the coaching world today: teacher, mentor, guide.
The man they called "The Wizard of Westwood" taught his players more than basketball. He imparted to each young man (in case we've forgotten, that's what college athletes are when you strip away the nationally televised games and the booster money and the arrogance that comes with being larger than life before you've accomplished anything) life lessons far more enduring than any inbounds play or hook shot. Wooden's precepts were uncomplicated but profound, worlds of wisdom wrapped up in six words or less. "Be quick, but don't hurry," reads one maxim. "Make each day your masterpiece," goes another. Wooden led by example, following his "Pyramid of Success" as faithfully as he preached it.
Wooden offered more than X's, O's and opponent scouting. He taught his players a way of life—his way of life. While elite coaches took pride in fielding all-white squads in the early 1960s, Wooden kept prejudice off his court and his team, recruiting black players and judging players on talent alone. He treated his players with respect, praising without fawning and criticizing without belittling. For that, he earned the admiration and respect of his team, and when he offered advice on how to live the right way, people listened.
Other coaches inspired their charges to be great basketball players. Wooden inspired them to be great men.
What Wooden did—what he gave to the men who called him coach—is almost completely absent from today's college coaches, who see their players as cogs in an assembly line, as center and two-guards rather than people in a critical stage of their development. Wielding an enormous amount of influence over the lives of their athletes, coaches make life a subset of basketball even though nine out of every 10 players will, as the NCAA's earnest ads put it, go pro in something other than sports.
In this current nadir of coaching, there are far more Mark Manginos than Mike Krzyzewskis. And the real losers are the players, the 18-22 year-old kids who, consciously or not, look to their coach for guidance and too often encounter and emulate the most negative human traits. College coaches have an opportunity to live up to the ideal of in loco parentis and instill confidence and maturity in their players that will remain long after they've forgotten how to defend the screen-and-roll. Most of the time, they fail to do so. And that failure is for more unconscionable than any losing record or first-round playoff exit.
So we salute John Wooden, the greatest coach and the greatest kind of coach. And we hope the culture of college coaching one day reflects his attitude towards young men, life, and the game of basketball.
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