Menu

College Sports

John Wooden and the death of success

"I'm in no hurry to leave, but I have no fear of leaving. When the time comes, it will be a very good day..."

June 4, 2010 may have been a very good day for John Wooden, but it felt like a bad dream for the rest of us.

It's always sad when someone dies, especially if that someone seemed to be a good guy. But something felt different when Coach Wooden died.

By any account, John Wooden was a very successful man. He won ten national championships, authored many books and is considered by most to be the greatest college basketball coach of all time... incredibly successful.

ESPN's Rick Reilly wrote about the topic of success in a recent column. In an effort to explain how Dez Bryant could be successful despite his less than perfect upbringing, he used Richard Pryor, John Lennon and James Brown as examples of men who were successful even though they lacked direction.

"Arguably the best comedian, songwriter and soul singer of the 20th century, respectively," says Reilly.

That may be true, Mr. Reilly. But what does that mean?

Inarguably, Richard Pryor set himself on fire after freebasing cocaine, was married seven times and was often accused of domestic violence. Lennon was an admitted drug addict, abuser and philanderer. James Brown was married three times, arrested for theft, a high speed car chase, drugs, domestic violence and was charged with rape (though the charges were dropped due to the statute of limitations).

Talented? Yes. Successful? No. At least not according to Coach Wooden.

In an era of the one-and-done college basketball player, Coach Wooden may have had trouble recruiting to UCLA. After all, he said he "praised nonstarters more than starters" and "rarely praised scorers in front of others". Imagine if Shannon Brown received more praise than Kobe Bryant.

Coach was so concerned with character and ego that he didn't want any one player to stand out unnecessarily. He didn't allow Bill Walton to have long hair or anyone to have long sideburns. He didn't want players shooting alone, because it gave the impression that it wasn't a team game.

He even went so far as to say, "I believe in passing the ball whenever appropriate and possible." Shocking.

The Los Angeles Kobes do not approve.

Coach Wooden didn't even allow student managers to pick up after his players, "I did not want a player to think student managers were there to pick up after them... I felt there was a connection between picking up after yourself and a healthy ego."

How many times have we seen Lebron James and Kobe Bryant throw their warm ups at the feet of a towel boy?

He didn't claim to be a great game coach, but was proud of his coaching efforts in practice. He cared about the little things. "Socks, put on correctly, may prevent a turnover, which in turn may win a game."

Fortunately for him, Coach Wooden had time to care about the little things. He coached basketball at UCLA for fifteen years before he ever won a national championship. Last fall at the University of Colorado, I witnessed fans dressed in baby blue at a mid-season football game to show their desire for head coach Dan Hawkins to be fired. It was Coach Hawkins' fourth season.

Of the last ten NBA Coaches of the Year, six have been fired and only one remains coach of the same team (Greg Popovich).

Expectations of coaches haven't been raised because we are more passionate about the game. Expectations have been raised because salaries have been raised.

Dan Hawkins makes 1.5 million dollars a year. Coach Wooden peaked at 38,000.

Coach told the Denver Post's John Henderson, "I don't think any college coach should make more than the chancellor or president of a university. I think it's ridiculous. I'm not sure they should make more than a head of a department."

I know, it was a different time back then. During his first four years coaching at UCLA, Coach Wooden spent his summers working as a dispatcher for Edgemar Dairy Farms Processing. These days, many of the players don't have summer jobs.

Imagine John Calipari working at Starbucks over the summer to make ends meet.

Am I suggesting we all sit on the porch drinking lemonade, mourning the demise of Mayberry? Not necessarily. But we shouldn't charge forward in the name of progression either. Just where is this progress leading us... to success?

It seems that Coach Wooden caught on to something that really worked. Something true. I don't think it worked just because of all the championships. Actually, I believe he would have considered himself a success without them. Even after all of the wins, all of the book tours, all of the attention, Coach stayed in his small Encino condo he'd been living in since 1972.

I heard a story once about a group of corporate executives who took a lavish vacation in the Mexican Riviera. While they were there, they met a young boy who had a small fishing boat to take vacationers out onto the water. As the executives got to know the young boy, they began to give him ideas to help grow his business and encouraged him to be more ambitious. The boy, somewhat confused, asked the men why he should do that. They explained that he could franchise his fishing boats in other cities and have his own offices. He could make so much money and be so successful that he'd be able to take lavish vacations like them. More confused than ever, the boy turned to the men and said, "You mean I should do all that so I can come back here and do what I'm already doing?"

John Wooden was unique because he didn't buy into society's definition of success.

Miriam-Webster says success is a "favorable or desired outcome; also, the attainment of wealth, favor or eminence."

Success is an "11" on Phil Jackson's hat, a Heisman trophy with your name on it, a Grammy, an Emmy... you know, something we get together for, dress up and celebrate.

Coach Wooden's definition of success is as counter-culture as his lifelong devotion to one woman and his refusal to drink alcohol or swear.

"Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming."

I recently asked friends and family to name really accomplished people who didn't struggle with adultery, drug and alcohol addiction or run-ins with the law. Few had any response at all.

John Wooden wasn't a success because of his accomplishments; he was a success in spite of them.

Other Articles from Samantha Steele: The Domino Effect First Round Pick Success is a Choice Dancing without the Stars