How else to describe college basketball’s greatest coach?
The quote’s from UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, but anyone who knows the bare minimum about the Bruins icon could’ve said it. Terms like “legend” or “greatest” usually qualify as hyperbole in appreciations or obituaries. Not so with Wooden. He defined those terms, and sometimes exceeded them.
Ten NCAA tournament titles. An 88-game win streak. Never a losing season. Four unbeaten campaigns.
And those are just the numbers, the on-court accomplishments. His Pyramid of Success influenced coaches, businessmen and teachers, and by proxy, their students.
That influence reaches beyond sports and elevates Wooden into another sphere of excellence occupied by a select few.
Perhaps that heaps a bit too much upon Wooden’s legacy. But it reinforces there will never be another coach like Wooden. He came along at the perfect time, had the perfect players and the perfect results.
He coached Hall of Fame players in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor), Bill Walton, Gail Goodrich, Sidney Wicks, and numerous other all-american and all-conference players. Wooden won with good players and once the great players started flocking his way, he kept winning — like no one’s done before or since.
“When I think of a basketball coach the only one I ever thought of was coach Wooden. He had a great life and helped so many coaches until well in his 90s,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim told the AP. “Every time I talked to him he would give me some words of advice. He’s the best of all time. There will never be another like him, and you can’t say that about too many people.”
How could there be another Wooden?
Who could possibly match his success?
Say John Calipari continues to stockpile talent at Kentucky, much like Wooden did at UCLA. All he has to do is win the NCAA tournament 10 times in 12 years, then extend his coaching philosophy into all facets of life and spend his retirement preaching excellence, and how to reach that excellence. It sounds like some kind of Hollywood script.
Frankly, today’s game won’t allow that kind of unmatched success. There are too many variables, too many obstacles to overcome. Yet … part of me thinks Wooden would’ve thrived in today’s game as well.
“I always thought John Wooden was ahead of his time. He played at a quicker tempo than most people did then. I borrowed a lot of what he did in developing my coaching philosophy,” said longtime Arkansas and Tulsa coach Nolan Richardson. “He had great players, but he also had a great system to take advantage of his players’ talents.”
Perhaps that’s because Wooden knew what he wanted and how to accomplish it, yet had the ideal setting in which to build his program into a powerhouse. He coached for 15 seasons at UCLA before winning a national title. And once he determined what worked, he ran with it, and always with a sense of calm.
Wooden was the ideal coach, and the best anyone’s ever seen. How could there ever be another?
“There has been no greater influence on college basketball not just about the game but the team,” said UConn coach Jim Calhoun. “He gave so much to basketball and education. In my opinion if he’s not as important as Dr. Naismith, he’s right next to him.”
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