John Wooden the Competitor
Who was John Wooden? Rather, what was he like? The popular opinion seems to be, he was a very kind man, a man of principles, and a Saint of sorts. In fact, John Wooden has been nicknamed, St. John.
Thousands will testify of his generosity and integrity. When calling for an appointment at his Encino condominium, few have failed to get one. When with Wooden, one was showered with wise sayings and poetry that illustrated such powerful truths, many say, “A visit with Coach Wooden was a life-changing experience.” Books have been written about his high moral standards and living a life above reproach. “Never lie. Never cheat. Never steal. Never whine. Never complain. Never make excuses.” He lived that.
Those who tossed him flattery have seen his chin quickly drop to his chest, as if to dodge the praise. When one gentleman told Coach how honored he was to be in his presence, Coach told him, “I am not what I used to be. I’m working on becoming better every day,” and then thanked the man for the reminder. Deeply and soberly committed to keeping his ego down where it should be, to Coach Wooden, a compliment was very much like Kryptonite.
But make no mistake; John Wooden didn’t win the Indiana State high school championship and the national collegiate championship as a player being a nice guy. And he certainly didn’t win ten NCAA championships as a coach by being everyone’s friend. The world may never have seen a more ruthless competitor. Within the rules of course, he did everything he could to gain an edge and that did not rule out “working the officials” and “working the opposing players.”
Following are excerpts from a 1969 article in The Vault entitled, “Two Faces of the Rubber Man,” John Wooden’s nickname as a player. He had won four championships at this point.
Working the Officials
His scathing comments can melt a referee’s whistle almost in mid-tweet. One official said, “I’ve seen him so mad that I’ve been afraid he’d pop that big blood vessel in his forehead. But I never heard him curse.”
“Dadburn it! You saw him double dribble down there! Goodness gracious sakes alive! Everybody in the place saw that!”
Eddie Powell, a player for Wooden at South Bend Central High School, said, "Usually sometime during the first half he would choose one incident, a close call, and jump all over the referee," said Powell. "Just chew him out in a gentlemanly manner, if there is such a thing, but let him know that there is that side of him. During the half he'd seek out the referee and apologize to him. He'd say, 'I know I should have known it was a close call. I was wrong. It's just a job and you're doing the best you can.'
"And then they'd part with Wooden walking away meek as you please. In the second half, if another close call arose, chances are the referee'd call the play in Wooden's favor."
To make his full-court press as effective as possible, Wooden wants referees to be acutely aware of the rule that gives a team only 10 seconds to get the ball across the mid-court line. Sometimes he carries a stopwatch to the bench. He will not say a word about it and probably will not check it, but he will make certain that the officials notice it.
"No official, no player has ever heard me use a word of profanity," he says. "I don't stand up and do anything to excite the crowd. That's one of the worst things coaches can do. You've never seen me throw a chair or a towel, or jump up and go down the floor yelling.
"I don't say, 'You're a homer!' I'll say, 'Don't be a homer! I'll say, 'See 'em the same at both ends!' I'll say, 'Watch the traveling,' or some such, but no profanity and nothing personal.
Working Opposing Players
"The thing I may be ashamed of more than anything else is having talked to opposing players, not calling them names but saying something like 'Keep your hands off of him' or 'Don't be a butcher' or something of that type."
Walt Hazzard, the high scorer and imaginative passer who sparked Wooden's first NCAA title team in 1963-64, is a great admirer of Wooden's needling. "He is one of the best bench jockeys in the world. He has an 'antiseptic needle'—clean but biting. I've seen opposing players left shaking their heads, but there was nothing they could say."
I think you get the idea. But just in case, let me finish with a story Coach told me. He and Denny Crum, his assistant who went on to coaching greatness himself, regularly played Saturday morning golf. Coach told me, “Denny was a much better golfer than I but he rarely beat me. I had to do whatever I could to make the playing field more even. So, for example, when Denny would line up a putt that would win him the hole, I might say, on his backstroke, “Are you sure you accounted for the break?” Most of the time, he missed the putt.
Does this information lower your opinion of John Wooden? Not me. I admire him even more. In fact, I’ve taken notes. Wanna play a round of golf?