MUSIC as a coach and the NCAA and ESPN both named him the greatest coach of the 20th century. The story we are about to hear from Greg Hengler is told by John Wooden himself, his family, his friends, and his players.
Here's John Wooden. I grew up, it's suddenly about eight miles north of Martinsville and we lived on a farm there and what I think the person probably had most influence on me throughout were my mother and father, in particular my father. He said there's always time for play, that's after the chores and the studies are done of course. He read to us every night, we didn't have electricity or running water or anything on the farm and he would read poetry and scriptures to us every night.
Just being born in Indiana in those years and any young fellow is going to be interested in basketball and it's just the natural thing. Dad tacked up an old tomato basket and mother took an old cotton sock and filled it with rags to make it as round as possibly could and that's where I first started and went to grade school there at Sanderton. My father I think is a man for whom the word gentle man was coined because he truly was a gentle man. Something that he gave me when I graduated from a small country grade school at Sanderton was a little card that had a creed of seven points.
The first one was be true to yourself, the next point was make each day your masterpiece, the third one was help others, the fourth one was make friendship of fine art, another one was build a shelter against a rainy day, another one was drink deeply from good books, most important the good book, and then the last point in this creed was every day at every evening pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings. My first year in high school I commuted on the interurban that ran from Indianapolis to Martinsville and then we lost the farm after my freshman year and we moved into Martinsville. I met the young lady, the only girl with whom I ever went with.
Here's John's daughter Nancy. My dad was very very shy, worked on the farm. My mother was a city girl from Martinsville. She came out with some friends that had a car and he was working in the field and he wouldn't come over to the car. They kept motioning over and he was plowing and he said he was dirty and sweaty and it was overall and then when school started again my mother made a beeline for him and said, you know, why didn't you come over? He said I wasn't cleaned up and I was ashamed and she said, you know, John Bob is what she called him until they were in their 30s. I would never be ashamed of you and he knew right then that that was for him. In 1924 Martinsville built Indiana's largest high school gymnasium.
It sat 5,228, 428 more than the population of the town. During basketball season coach Glenn Curtis established a policy of no dating and home by 8 pm for his players. Nellie countered by joining the pep band. Before every game John winked at Nellie seated with her bandmates.
She gave him an okay sign and he waved back at her. It was the beginning of a pre-game ritual that would last for half a century. While playing for legendary coach Ward Piggy Lambert at Purdue, John was a three-time All-American and won a national championship. After his senior season John played a few professional basketball games for the Chicago Bruins. This was 25 years before the NBA but was hesitant about their lucrative offers to play full-time. He sought advice from his coach at Purdue. When I graduated from Purdue I was offered a lot of money in those days a lot of money to play semi-pro basketball with a traveling team and just be traveling around all over playing games and it was a lot of money and I talked to Mr. Lambert my coach. Piggy Lambert was a man of his high principles as anyone I've ever known.
Very, very high principles. Told him about this, oh he says that's a lot of money and I said yes. He said are you gonna take it? Oh I said what do you mean? He said what'd you come to Purdue for? I said to get an education I think. Did you get it? And I said well I hope so.
Well he said I wouldn't throw it away if I were you but you something you have to do yourself but remember this you can't play in dirt and not get dirty. Two days before John and Nellie's wedding a bank failure claimed John's life savings of $909.25. Here's John and daughter Nancy. Nellie and I were married in Indianapolis on August the 8th 1932 and my brother and his girlfriend who had a car drove us up and then they left. My mother was very outgoing. My dad was very, very shy and she encouraged him in high school to take a public speaking course because he just kind of always had his head down and I think she was very instrumental in getting him to become less shy with people. They were totally opposite so I think that's always a big attraction.
Sometimes it works sometimes it doesn't but in this case it worked beautifully. A few weeks after their wedding Nellie and John moved to Dayton, Kentucky where he had taken a job as a high school English teacher, athletic director and head coach of three sports including football which he had never played. When one surly player challenged Coach Wooden's authority a brief physical altercation followed. John was immediately ashamed.
John rehired the former football coach and turned all of his attention to basketball. And what a story we're hearing, John Wooden's story when we come back more of this remarkable life story. The story of John Wooden here on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the great American stories we tell and love America like we do, we're asking you to become a part of the Our American Stories family. If you agree that America is a good and great country, please make a donation. A monthly gift of $17.76 is fast becoming a favorite option for supporters. Go to OurAmericanStories.com now and go to the donate button and help us keep the great American Stories coming. That's OurAmericanStories.com. And we continue with Our American Stories and the life story of John Wooden.
Let's return to Greg Hengler with more. Nancy Ann Wooden arrived in March of 1934 but after two years in Dayton, John Nelly and Nancy moved to a new opportunity in South Bend, Indiana. I don't think South Bend knew whether I'd be a good English teacher or not. They hoped from my background I could maybe be a pretty good basketball baseball coach. I wanted to be the best English teacher. I ran across a couple things that made an impression on me. One of them is no written word, no oral plea can teach our youth what they should be, nor all the books on all the shelves. It's what the teachers are themselves. That made an impression on me. John's school year was filled with teaching, coaching, and playing professional games on the weekends. But when America entered World War II in 1941, everything changed.
Here's John and Nancy. I enlisted and probably the major disagreement that my dear wife and I had in all our years was that she didn't think I should have. She was upset because daddy enlisted without, and they always talked everything over, but in this particular thing, at this particular time, he just wanted to do that. He said so his son would never have to.
And I can remember being very frightened. In the aftermath of World War II, many young men went to college. John went back to his job in South Bend, but then his former high school coach Glenn Curtis recommended him for the head coaching position at Indiana State. After 11 years as a high school basketball coach, John and Nellie moved to Terre Haute in the summer of 1946.
When Wooden held tryouts in October, the gymnasium overflowed with candidates. The team's record during the first season earned them an invitation to the NAIB tournament in Kansas City. That is, as long as they didn't bring Clarence Walker, the only black man on the team, Coach Wooden said his team would not play.
Here's Kevin Walker and Indiana State players. My father's name was Clarence Jordan Walker, and his connection with John Wooden was he was a basketball player at Indiana State. Through the years growing up, my father really never talked much about his days in college.
However, it's this one day I was a senior in high school, and we lost our regional championship basketball game. I was a little distraught about it, of course, and my father came up to me and said, I got something I want you to see. And it was more of a diary that he kept on himself and the Indiana State basketball team and everything that they went through, everywhere that they had to go, where he could play, where he couldn't play, even to the point to places that he could not even go.
And I started asking him questions about it. He would just say, you know, this is how it was back then. Every day was a different day, and every day has its own trouble. Well, John Wooden, for me reading that portion of the diary, told me about his character and his Christian discipleship, actually, where he would, if we don't take the hole, we're not going at all. And what I mean by the hole, his team, that was like his family.
And not one was greater than the other. When you became associated with Coach Wooden, why, you were going to be one of his family. He's one of my boys. He would say, no, we're not coming. We didn't see color.
None of Wooden's teams ever saw color. We would stop at a restaurant along the way, and somebody would refuse to to allow him to eat with us. And the manager says, we don't feed people like this. So we all decided to leave. That's what we did. I think the only thing that really kept his mind straight was his family and his faith in God. He was a God-fearing man, taught us and still Christian discipleship and stewardship within us as a family. Probably the most significant was just his desire to show all men are created equal. The next year, the league changed the policy, and Clarence Walker traveled with the team to Kansas City.
There, he became the first black man to play in a postseason national collegiate basketball tournament. Wherever John went, his wife was always beside him. Here's a couple of Indiana State players and John's daughter Nancy. She was a pretty lady, feisty. I think she was a feisty little Irish girl.
Feisty is a good word for her. Coach Wooden said that Nellie was the most important thing in his life, and he feels that he would not have been anything without without Nellie. I'm asked many times about my family and growing up, and I continue to think and feel and say that I wish everyone would be as fortunate as I was to grow up in a family where my mother and dad loved each other and loved my brother, Jim and I. For many years, John Wooden had been contemplating the nature of success. I wanted to come up with a different way to I wanted to come up with a different definition of success than Mr. Webster.
I wanted to be more than just the material possessions or prestige. And my dad, I remembered, he tried to teach us that never cease trying to do the best you can do it, whatever it is. And I'd more or less forgotten that. Probably it went in one ear and out the other in that time. And then I read a short verse that said, At God's footstool to confess, a poor soul knelt and bowed his head. I failed, he cried. The master said, Now didst thy best. That is success. From those, I coined my own definition of success in 1934.
I choose to define it as peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction and knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you're capable. And you're the only one that knows that, you know. Nobody else knows. You can fool others, but you can't fool yourself. It's like character, a reputation. You're the only one who knows your character.
Your reputation is what you're perceived to be by others, but your character is what you really are. Coach Wooden developed a teaching tool called the Pyramid of Success. It was not just for his players, but a goal for him to pursue as well. Coach Wooden's record at Indiana State caught the attention of several large universities, including the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers and the UCLA Bruins. John Annelli's first choice was Minnesota, and he was ready to accept their promised offer. But their phone call was delayed by a snowstorm in Minneapolis.
Here's John's colleague and friend, Tom Osborne. Somehow because of a communication issue, their offer got to him late, and he'd already told the people at UCLA he would go, when he probably would have preferred to go to Minnesota because in the Midwest. And, but he said, well, once he had given his word, that was it. So he went to UCLA and, and you wonder in today's culture how many coaches would do that. At UCLA, football was king. The basketball team had a losing record. They shared the space with the gymnastics team and its seating was half the capacity of John Wooden's high school. But John Wooden focused on his opportunity.
He told the Los Angeles Daily News, no team is going to outrun or out hustle the Bruins this season. Slated to finish last, UCLA captured the division championship in 1949. Here's UCLA players Keith Erickson, Marcus Johnson, Doug McIntosh, and daughter Nancy.
Even though I grew up in a little city called El Segundo, not too far from here, my horizons weren't real broad. So I had never even seen UCLA play. I'd never heard about Coach Wooden. He was just another coach when I got here and nice, nice little guy and ran a pretty tight ship.
And I was happy to be here. He really taught he really taught us the basics in every facet of the game and started with putting on your socks. And it's funny because I have a 12 year old that I just had to, you know, reinstruct for the 20th time on how to tie his shoe. You know, his shoes always come loose during the game. Dude, tie your shoes up. So he started just tying them half hatches. I said, no, no, no, you got to start at the bottom, pull each shoe string up two at a time, tight, tight, tight all the way to the top.
And I thought about that. I didn't say it to him, but that's the way Coach Wooden taught us. What a coach, what a story. When we continue more of John Wooden's life story here on Our American Stories. And we return to Our American Stories and Coach Wooden's story.
Here is player Keith Erickson. And he won two national championships playing for Coach Wooden in 1964 and 1965. Coach Wooden did all of his work during the week. His canvas was teaching us during the week. And he loved that time of practice. He was a guy who always felt, I think, that we were inclined to coddle ourselves and make it easy on ourselves. And so he wanted to push us to excellence.
He prepared two hours every morning, or two and a half hours for our two and a half hour practice every afternoon. We did things like imaginary shooting drills, where you'd have an imaginary basketball and you'd shoot the ball, this imaginary ball, and work on your form, work on your follow through and your rotation. And you had to see the ball kind of going through the hoop. So whistle would blow, we'd shoot, whistle would blow, we'd shoot this imaginary ball. And Coach was, you know, he was into it like it was a real ball. You know, make sure you hold it here and make sure you get the rotation. You got to put your finger right on the hole here and go through the whole thing. But in my mind, I want to say, Coach, but there's no ball. I don't know what you, but there's no ball. His concern was always to get the maximum out of what we had to work with.
You can't put in what God left out, but you can, you can seek to at least maximize what God put in. And then when we got to the games, we would meet beforehand. He would tell us, you know, just to do our best, play together.
And then he would sit down on the bench and we would play. Usually he had his program, pulled it up in one hand, and I had his cross in his other hand. That, and I only found this out in later years, but our minister from the First Christian Church in South Bend gave it to daddy when he went into the service. And it was very unusual.
It had the alpha and the omega on it. And he had his little ritual before the games, of course, you know, kind of pull up his socks and pat his assistant and then turn around and look at mother and she gave him the high sign. And from then on, it was up to his team. In 1963, John Wooden made some changes that brought dramatic results.
Here again is Keith Erickson and Doug McIntosh. In 64, we were not considered to be a serious threat, even to win the conference. We were playing Duke, which was a considerably larger team physically than we were. And we were underdogs in the finals. After 29 straight wins, we were still underdogs. But we played a game, the same kind of game we played all year. We wore them out in the middle of the game. We had a run and that's what won our ball games for us.
Coach Wooden always told us never get too high and never get too low. And after the championship, he was right there. The fact that we won the whole thing was, you know, that was the goal of his. And he was very happy to have that goal.
But he was excited that we had done as well as we could. That's what he always preached and taught, you know, to be a team, to play together and to be the best that you could be. The next year, UCLA repeated as national champions, setting forth what would become the greatest dynasty in college sports. Wooden became known as the Wizard of Westwood, yet the only magic he ever relied on was his faith and common sense.
During the following decade, the Bruins dominated college basketball. Here's Coach Wooden and UCLA great Bill Walton telling the haircut story. Bill Walton was an unusual person in so many ways. He wasn't a rebel, as some people have called him, however. He was just one of those in the 60s of the anti-establishment.
As far as basketball, you couldn't have a finer person on your team than Bill Walton. But between practices, I had concerns. I thought I was free, free, free at last when I left home to go to UCLA.
Here we were in the age of Nixon and Vietnam and Watergate, rock and roll, exploding on the scene. And I thought I was just going to be up there totally on my own, having the time of my life. But then there was Coach Wooden standing right there on the steps saying, come right on in here, young man, you're mine for the next four years. He knew that I had certain rules and such as, and I didn't put me on extra long hair and beards. We had one period between games of about 10 days and he didn't shave.
And it didn't look very good. He said to me afterwards, Coach, can I talk to you? And I said, certainly, privately. And I said, you can talk before, Ducky, that was our trainer. And my assistant, and he said, well, I just wasn't going to shave. Oh, I said, yes, I'd heard that, Bill. It hadn't been, you'd banded that around and it got around that you weren't going to shave. And did you believe in this strongly? Oh, yes, yes, I believe in it very strongly. And I said, I have great respect and admiration for people who stand up for the things in which they believe I do, Bill, and we're going to miss you.
And he stood there for a minute and said, I'll shave. I fought with Coach Wooden over these incredibly meaningless things. At the time, I thought they were the most important things in the world. I've got a saying on my desk from Coach Wooden at home. It's the things we learn after we know it all that really count in our lives.
Those lessons in life are truly the greatest ones. I believe one of the greatest motivating things we have is the pat on the back. I think we all like that.
And I know that sometimes when we're in a situation where we're in a situation where we know that sometimes the pat has to be a little lower and a little harder. But I still believe that the pat on the back, everybody likes praise. If I ask you here, raise your hand if you like praise.
If every hand didn't go up, I think there's some liars in here because I think everyone likes praise. And I think most people like to live up to expectations. They like to live up to the expectations. And not all of them have the poise to do that, but I think everyone really likes it. You like to please people.
You don't like to displease people in anything. And I think most people are that way. And I think the greatest motivating factor to get him to do that is the pat on the back. Not necessarily physically, just a word, maybe a smile, maybe a nod.
And I think that's the greatest motivating factor we have. In December 1972, Coach Wooden suffered a mild heart attack. At the end of that season, UCLA won its seventh consecutive national title. No team had ever won more than four and was riding a 75-game winning streak. In January 1974, a one-point loss ended UCLA's 88-game winning streak.
At the NCAA semifinals, North Carolina State defeated the Bruins 80-77 in double overtime. John Wooden struggled as never before with the pressure of success. If you're in this type of profession, when you're in the public eye, you're going to have ups and downs. You're going to have praise. You're going to have criticism.
Some of it's going to be deserved and some of it isn't. But your strength. I don't care whether you're a teacher, a surgeon, or whatever you are, your strength depends on how you react to both praise and criticism.
You can't let either one affect you. I first heard this at an FCA conference in Estes Park, Colorado, in the early years of the FCA. This crowd on earth, they soon forget. The heroes of the past, they cheer like mad until you fall, and that's how long you last. But God, He never does forget. And in His hall of fame, by just believing in His Son, inscribed, you'll find your name. I tell you, friends, I would not trade my name however small, inscribed up there beyond the bottom of my heart. And up there beyond the stars in that celestial hall for any famous name on earth or glory that they share. I'd rather be an unknown here and have my name up there. Wouldn't we all? And you've been listening to John Wooden hearing that story about Bill Walton and so much today you hear in current events and in the news about the kids being the leaders of the teams and the coaches doing whatever the kids say.
And we all know that doesn't make sense. When we come back, more of this remarkable life story, this remarkable man, John Wooden's story continues here on Our American Stories. And we continue with Our American Stories and John Wooden's story.
Let's return to Greg Hengler with more. After almost 40 years of coaching, retirement was on the horizon for John Wooden, but nobody knew for sure when, not even Coach Wooden, until one Saturday night in 1975 after defeating Louisville in overtime at the NCAA Semifinals in San Diego. When the game ended, instead of going to meet the press as he usually did, John Wooden made his way to the UCLA locker room.
Here's Marcus Johnson. Coach Wooden comes in and just kind of tells us to, you know, pipe down, you know, quiet, quiet, quiet. I got something to say to you guys. And so he came in and talked about how he was happy with the job that we had done and we had played a great game and that he had been thinking about this a long time and had come to the conclusion that the next game, that Monday night, the championship game would be his last game, and that he was going to retire and get out of coaching.
You know, everybody felt like they had been kind of punched in the chest. He told us that and walked out and Andre McCarter, who was the captain of that team, was kind of our spiritual compass in terms of how he looked at things. And he pulled us all together and it's like, guys, look, you know, there's no way that we're going to let Coach Wooden not go out a national champion. You know, there's just no way that's going to happen. And we all kind of looked at each other and said, yeah, you're right.
There's no way we're going to let that happen. UCLA beat Kentucky 92 to 85. In retirement, Coach Wooden's speaking engagements and basketball camps for young players kept him busy. And of course, his theme at these events was always the pyramid of success, his teaching tool of universal truths to help people reach their full potential. Here's Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the coach. He made basketball fun. I mean, he made basketball fun. He made life fun. It was never a drag.
Coach Wooden was cool because he got us up to a very sharp edge, but he never was like, I think, a guy running a dog sled team. You know, he never had to do that. You know, he's very calm. His leadership was very calm and we were very focused.
And we'd go out there and tear people apart. But it wasn't a whole lot of wild passion to it. Passion. Passion is temporary. It doesn't last long. Love is enduring.
And that's the important thing. If we all had love in our lives, the degree that we should have, oh, it would be much happier. I like a little poem that says, a bell isn't a bell until you ring it. A song isn't a song until you sing it. And the love that is in us wasn't put there to stay. Love isn't love till you give it away.
That's the most important word in our dictionary. Things went in the order of Nell, his kids, and then basketball. And he was maybe fifth. We're talking about a very selfless man. We always knew how important his family was to him. His son and daughter and their kids. A lot of love and support. And it was obvious to us that family unit really supported him.
And that was all the approval he really needed. Nellie passed at age 73 on March 21st, 1985. I was very fortunate, very, very fortunate. Nellie was my high school sweetheart. She was the only girl I ever dated. And we had 53 wonderful years together before I lost her. But she was so cooperative in every way.
And I think we need help to help you do what you're capable of doing. She was, she was great. For the next two decades, on the 21st day of every month, John wrote a love letter to Nellie. Every year brought new honors and awards to Coach Wooden. He received each one graciously while keeping in mind a favorite saying. Talent is God-given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be thankful.
Conceit is self-given. Be careful. Today is the only important day of your life. Yesterday is gone. It'll never change. Tomorrow can only be affected by what you do in preparation today.
And failure to prepare is preparing to fail. My favorite poet is me. I'm a rhymer.
I'll give you one that I wrote recently if you'd like to hear it. The years have left their imprint on my hands and on my face. The erect no longer is my walk and slower is my pace. But there is no fear within my heart. Because I'm growing old, I only wish I had more time to better serve my Lord. When I've gone to Him in prayer, He has brought me inner peace. And soon my cares and worries and other problems cease. He's helped me in so many ways. He's never let me down. Why should I fear the future when soon I could be near His crown? Though I know down here my time is short. There is endless time up there. And He will forgive and keep me ever in His loving care. I'm a rhymer.
That's a rhyme. John Wooden met his maker on June 4, 2010. He was 99 years old. Let's finish the story with Keith Erickson speaking at John Wooden's memorial service on UCLA's campus.
Here's what I remember about Coach Wooden. Kind of a man he was. He was honest. He was wise. He was humble. He was fun. He was kind. He was gentle. He was a man of faith. He was a man of the Bible.
And I repeat to you what he told me, that Jesus was the Lord of his life. On the 21st of the month, the best man I know will do what he always does on the 21st of the month. He'll sit down and pen a love letter to his only girl. He'll say how much he misses her and loves her and can't wait to see her again. Then he'll fold it once, slide it in a little envelope and walk into his bedroom.
He'll go to the stack of love letters sitting there on her pillow, untie the yellow ribbon, place the new one on top, tie the ribbon again. There's never been another coach like Coach Wooden. Quiet as an April snow, square as a game of checkers, loyal to one woman, one school, one way, walking around campus in his sensible shoes and Jimmy Stewart morals. Discipline yourself and others won't need to, Coach would say. Never lie, never cheat, never steal, and earn the right to be proud and confident. If you played for him, you played by his rules. Never score without acknowledging a teammate.
One word of profanity and you're done for the day. Treat your opponents with respect. He believed in a hopelessly out-of-date stuff that never did anything but win championships. No dribbling behind the back or through the legs, there's no need, he'd say.
No long hair and no facial hair. They take too long to dry and you can catch cold leaving the gym, he'd say. That one drove his players bonkers. It's always too soon. When you have to leave that condo, go back into the real world. As he shows you to the door, you take one last look around. The framed report cards, his great-grandkids, boxes of jelly beans peeking out from under the favorite wooden chair, the dozens of pictures of Nellie. He's a little more hunched over than last time.
This step's a little smaller. You hope it's not the last time that you see him. I was with him a couple of years ago and I said to him, Coach, as I'm sitting in his condominium and there are awards and plaques and and I said, Coach, how would you like to be remembered? And he immediately answered me and he said, I'd like to be remembered as a man who came as close as possible to being the man that my father was.
Wouldn't you have loved to known his father? What a man he must have been. Whenever you left his place, you'd go down that elevator, walk through the garage and I had friends with me several times and and we'd be walking along after leaving and they'd have tears in their eyes. They'd say, one of the greatest days of my life, after hearing his stories, quote those poems, talk about Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa.
I'd say, it's not over yet. We'd go up that driveway and I'd say, oftentimes he stands over here at the window or on his patio and he'd say, it's not over yet. We'd go up that driveway and I'd say, oftentimes he stands over here at the window or on his patio and he waves to us and he says, goodbye. He says, thanks for coming and we'd look there and there he was, waving, thank you for coming and I can see him there saying that to us, thank you for coming. Coach, thank you for allowing us into your life. Our coach, our teacher, our mentor, our friend, your father would be very proud of the man that you are. We'll never forget you, coach. Thank you for everything. And what beautiful words and watching grown men that day pulled back tears. John Wooden's story, a remarkable story of love, of faith, here on Our American Stories.
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