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Mark Bennett Opinion

June 12, 2010

MARK BENNETT: Beyond the court, America fondly saw Coach Wooden as the ultimate role model

TERRE HAUTE — The sad part of John Wooden’s passing isn’t his death.

His deep faith, as a Christian, kept him confident and hopeful of his eventual destination. For him, heaven offered a reunion with the love of his life, his wife, Nellie.

“I have no fear of death,” he wrote in “Wooden,” his 1997 book of observations. “When it comes, I can be with her again.”

The moment arrived 10 days ago. On June 4, John Robert Wooden died, just four months shy of his 100th birthday. Twenty-five years after he lost Nellie, his sweetheart for nearly 60 years, to cancer. Thirty-five years after Wooden won his 10th and final NCAA championship as coach of the UCLA basketball team.

Since his passing, several people have told me, admiringly, that we’ll likely never see the likes of Coach Wooden again.

That’s high praise. It’s also sad.

Why aren’t more of us — any of us — like John Wooden?

Sure, his mastery of a game was a God-given gift that has not, and probably will not, be equaled. It’s hard to imagine another college hoops coach winning 10 national titles at one school, or seven of those NCAA championships in a row, or 88 consecutive games, all at UCLA. The world knew him as “The Wizard of Westwood,” even though he loathed that nickname.

There’s nothing troubling about the certainty that no human will ever coach basketball as expertly as Wooden.

His legacy isn’t that superficial, though. Beyond the court, America also fondly saw Coach Wooden as the ultimate role model — not as a perfect person (he made mistakes, just as we all do), but as a man whose beliefs and actions were virtually identical.

This guy did his best to walk the walk, and made it look so simple. A gentleman.

The words “corny” and “homespun” often label the axioms by which Wooden lived. But this English teacher who also coached basketball could quote the succinct sayings of Socrates, Lincoln, Psalms and his father without a pause to think. Life gets complex, but virtues that help us navigate its troubles are not so complicated. It takes some of us years, even decades, to return to the advice of our parents. On a small piece of paper, Wooden’s dad — Joshua Wooden — once wrote “Seven Things to Do” and gave it to his son. He told Johnny to “try and live by them.”

Coach Wooden carried that list with him.

Here are those “corny” things to do:

Be true to yourself. Help others. Make each day your masterpiece. Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible. Make friendship a fine art. Build a shelter against a rainy day. Pray for guidance, and count and give thanks for your blessings every day.

“I wish I could say I have lived up to them,” the coach wrote in “Wooden.” “I have tried.”

Obviously, he tried pretty hard.

When Wooden left small Indiana State to accept an offer from UCLA in 1948, the Bruins’ only playing facility was a musty gymnasium known as the “B.O. Barn.” “I was led to believe we’d be playing in a new arena,” he recalled. Wooden’s program got that new arena — stately Pauley Pavilion — in 1965, 16 seasons later. He persevered. His income never exceeded $32,500 at UCLA. During his first four seasons there, he also worked mornings as a truck dispatcher for a dairy.

Not surprisingly, the first cornerstone of Wooden’s famous blueprint for good living — the Pyramid of Success — is industriousness (or, hard work).

At the same time, he understood that life should be more than labor. One of his favorite sayings was, “Don’t let making a living prevent you from making a life.” That life, for him, centered around Nellie, their two children, seven grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. John was a sophomore at Martinsville High School when he met Nellie, a freshman. He never dated anyone else. They were married 53 years. She was a fixture in the stands during his teams’ games at Indiana State and UCLA. When cancer struck, John watched her slip into a coma that lasted 91 days. After she died in 1985, he continued writing her love letters each month, placing them on her pillow on her side of their bed, which he left otherwise undisturbed.

“‘Love’ is the greatest of all words in our language,” Wooden once said.

I had the good fortune to interview Coach Wooden twice. Our first talk happened in 1997. I still have my notes, with his 818 area-code phone number written at the top in blue ink.

I was stunned when the voice answering my call to Encino, Calif., sounded amazingly like that of John Wooden. I expected a personal assistant or secretary to respond first. When I asked for Coach Wooden, he said, “Speaking.”

I should’ve known. Homespun. He’s a Hoosier, born and raised. Why wouldn’t the greatest basketball coach in history answer his own phone? As one of his axioms says, “The worst thing you can do for those you love is the things they could and should do for themselves.”

During that interview, I asked Wooden about his first season at Indiana State, 1946-47. That year, he brought in several players from South Bend, where Wooden coached South Bend Central High School for 11 seasons. The newcomers had just finished serving in the military during World War II. They were older than most college kids. And, to make room for them, Wooden moved some guys from the Terre Haute area to bench roles. “I know some of those parents were upset by that, and some of their sweethearts and the media, because they had followed them,” he recalled.

Amazingly, John Wooden — the future Wizard of Westwood — was not a popular guy, initially, in the town where he got his college coaching start. (Of course, when the Sycamores started winning, the waters calmed and the locals warmed up to Wooden.)

“You have to do what you think is right,” he explained quietly, “and you have to rise or you have to fall with it.”

Write that down on a piece of paper and carry it with you.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or

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    March 12, 2010