June 7, 2010
John Wooden - more than just a basketball coach

By minute, as the eulogies and tributes continue to come in from his former players, colleagues and friends, John Wooden’s impact on basketball, and his impact on the lives of so many people comes clearer into focus. The legendary UCLA basketball coach – the remarkable ‘Wizard of Westwood’ – who built arguably the greatest dynasty in the history of sports, died this past weekend at the age of 99.

And again, we are learning how he touched so many lives, how he impacted his sport and the coaching profession, and how his words, his teachings and his vast wisdom apply to all of us, not just basketball players.

Several summers ago, I was in Los Angeles with our former women’s basketball radio announcer, Tony Luftman. As many of you might know, Tony was the team manager for UCLA’s 1995 NCAA Championship basketball team, and during his time as a student at UCLA, had become close with Coach Wooden. One afternoon, Tony told me “Coach Wooden has invited us to come over and spend the afternoon with him at his home.”

Now, that was one of the most remarkable invitations anyone could ever receive, especially for those of us who revered Coach Wooden as a coach and teacher.

We drove over to Coach Wooden’s modest condo in Encino, he buzzed us up, and welcomed us to his home with a friendly smile.

If it should’ve been intimidating, it wasn’t because Coach was so gentlemanly and warm.

If it should’ve been overwhelming, it wasn’t because Coach was so modest and genuine.

He invited us into his little study where he sat across the room in a small chair. On the walls were pictures of his championship teams and framed letters from former U.S. Presidents, but other than that, you’d have no idea this was the most successful coach in the history of sports. There was a metal file cabinet with some stickers on it and a gooseneck lamp that reached over a small desk. There were ‘words-to-live-by’ prints on the wall and poetry books and pictures of his family on the shelves – lots of family pictures. The modesty of the room reflected his humble personality and his genuine interest in others.

As he spoke, I felt as if I was in a room with Winston Churchill or John F. Kennedy. Or maybe the guy behind the counter at the corner drug store in Martinsville, Indiana? All of the above. He was powerful and carried an enormous presence but at the same time was down to earth and humble.

Among the questions Coach Wooden asked was, “What do they teach the basketball players at Virginia Tech?”

Curiously, I felt somewhat ill-prepared to answer. This wasn’t a basketball question. He didn’t want to know about defending pick-and-rolls or running a secondary break. It was obviously a deeper question.

That’s the way he thought and why he was such a scholar of life. He had an academic and cerebral perspective on all things, and that was the root of his question.

I responded by describing the mission of our university, and UT Prosim, and proudly bragged about some of our basketball alumni like Greg Brink, an executive at Nike; David Herbster, who was the AD at Nebraska-Omaha at the time; and Quinton Nottingham, a professor here at Tech.

“All have wonderful careers and beautiful families. You would’ve enjoyed having all three of them on your team, Coach,” I responded.

He seemed pleased.

When we judge the success of coaches in today’s society, we usually start and end with the won-loss record, and certainly nobody has come close to Wooden’s on-court success.

Yet if you listen to Wooden’s ex-players, you understand their reverence and respect for him, and it has nothing to do with winning and everything to do with love and loyalty.

He quoted poetry. He smiled and shared some of his famous sayings like “What you are as a person is far more important than what you are as a basketball player,” and “Never mistake activity for achievement.”

That day in Encino, Coach talked about still writing letters to his wife, even though his beloved Nell had died in 1985. He talked of his love for his players during his 27 years at UCLA and how loyalty was the key to having successful relationships, winning teams and a happy life.

Those are the same things you’re hearing now during the many tributes from his ex-players.

Virginia Tech has never played UCLA in basketball, and thus, never faced Wooden on the court. Once during a conversation with ex-Bruins assistant Denny Crum, who was coaching Louisville at the time, I asked, “What aspects of Coach Wooden’s program did you bring to Louisville?”

He laughed and responded, “All of them.”

He wasn’t talking about running a “UCLA cut” with Milt Wagner coming off a Pervis Ellison high-post screen. In fact, what Crum meant that day had nothing to do with X’s and O’s, and everything to do with team chemistry, discipline, personal responsibility and loyalty. Every coach today strives for that, and nobody has ever achieved it seemingly as perfectly on the court and in his own life than Coach Wooden.

We should hope all of our teams embrace those values and all of our athletes apply those virtues to their personal and professional lives once they leave Tech.

“You can't live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you,” is another one of Coach Wooden’s sayings.

Well, we’ll never be able to repay Coach for that afternoon in Encino – or for the way he’s changed lives and sports for the better.

Dear Bill,
No question – thank you Bill for your May 11th article. What a wonderful tribute, not only to those Tech students graduating, but also to the success of Virginia Tech athletics during the past four years. Thank you for remembering the horrific time of April 16 and those we lost. Tom Adams, Lebanon, Ohio

Hey Bill,
This isn’t a question, but I just wanted to say great piece of writing on the graduation Roth Report. As a graduating senior, what you said is exactly right. We have been here for the low of all lows, but have been blessed to come together to become a tight knit Hokie family. And one of the biggest things that brings us together is Hokie sports. We, by far, have gotten to see so many memorable Hokie sports moments. Cheers to Hokie Nation. Adam Sharrow, South Hero, Vermont

Hi Bill,
Two things. First, your article regarding this year’s graduation gave me goose bumps. It so clearly points out why Virginia Tech and Blacksburg is such a special place and never leaves our orange and maroon blood. Second, your answer regarding the USC team gave me cause to realize something. Our losses to USC, LSU and Alabama were all losses to undefeated national champion teams in the years we lost to them. I wonder how many realize that when talking about our big-game losses. Greg Clabaugh, Floyd, Virginia

Tom, Adam and Greg,
Thanks for the kind remarks!

Dear Bill,
Do you think we can win the national championship in football in 2010 or 2011? I think we can but what do you think? Andrew Ritenour, Martinsburg, West Virginia

Absolutely! This could be the year. But the first big hurdle will be winning the ACC’s Coastal Division, which is absolutely loaded this season. It looks like it will take a ‘top-five’ type of team to win this division. If the ACC gets two teams in the BCS this year, it would not be a shock if both come from the Coastal.

Dear Bill,
Maybe you need to live outside the ACC media market to see it, but do you think that Tech’s had trouble making the NCAA Tournament field in part due to its portrayal in the media? Fox Sunday Night Hoops to my knowledge has never broadcast a game from Cassell and tends to broadcast only games at Duke or North Carolina, games Tech has historically (like everyone else) had trouble winning. ESPN has also favored broadcasting games Tech is unlikely to win. ESPN’s basketball Web site shows pictures not from any win in the NIT, but from the Miami loss in the ACC Tournament and likely will do so the entire offseason. Sports Illustrated’s basketball site also displays unflattering photographs. Let’s face it – every team but Duke lost its last game. But that last loss may not define their season.

In my opinion, Tech basketball is being portrayed as a loser program. I don’t see any conspiracy in this, but would hope that the athletics department would go to the networks and their sites and suggest that the patterns described above disparage a program that Seth Greenberg has done a great job of building from the ashes amid which he found it when he arrived. Duncan Auckland, Worthington, Ohio.

Thanks for your note. I think what you’re trying to say is that the Hokies don’t have the ‘cache’ or ‘equity’ in men’s basketball as a UNC or Duke (But then again, who does?). If UNC had the exact same resume, record and a third-place finish in the ACC as Tech did in 2010, would the ‘Heels have made the NCAAs? That’s where the human element comes in to play.

Now, the Hokies were 6-3 on ESPN this past season, so I’m not sure your claim that the network ‘favored broadcasting games Tech is unlikely to win’ is accurate. I also disagree with your statement that ‘Tech basketball is being portrayed as a loser program,’ nor do I think the national media is engaged in a practice of disparaging the program whatsoever. Conversely, Coach Greenberg has been exceptional with getting Tech’s name out there and has been tireless in promoting the program on various national media platforms.

Like you, I was disappointed with the NCAA Selection Committee’s decision in March, but that decision was reportedly based on Tech’s non-conference strength of schedule, quality wins, and on-court achievement compared to other teams. The best way to change the perception and raise the profile of Tech’s program is to win games in the NCAA Tournament. Hopefully that will happen next spring!

Dear Bill,
UNC has starting a new $70 million dollar expansion to Kenan Stadium in June. Are there any plans to expand Lane Stadium or upgrade our football facilities? Carl, Greensboro, North Carolina

Virginia Tech is currently completing an $18 million, 42,000-square foot locker room facility adjacent to Lane Stadium and the team’s practice fields. The facility will not only include lockers and a player lounge area, but also a new area for Tech’s wrestling program.

Barton-Marlow, who did the work at Camden Yards in Baltimore and Coors Field in Denver, is the design-build team for this project, which is nearing its completion, and it will be a sensational addition to our program, and much needed. By the way, visiting teams will enjoy Carolina’s new expansion, too. The current visitor’s locker room at Kenan is a bit cramped.

For updates on Virginia Tech Athletics, follow the Hokies on Twitter (@hokiesports).

HokieSports Shop