John Wooden’s Legacy Is a How-To Guide for a Successful Life
Article by Don Yaeger
He was the greatest coach of all time and a mentor to many.
At the University of California-Los Angeles, John Wooden won a record 10 NCAA men’s basketball championships, but he considered his legacy to be as a teacher.
Although Wooden’s last on-court victory was secured more than 40 years ago and he passed away in 2010, his lessons are as relevant today as ever. Coach, as he was simply known to all, believed that real success is defined not by wins and losses, but by the daily development of yourself and giving your best in all you do. Simple as those principles might seem, truly delivering on them requires effort most won’t give. Those who do – and those who did while playing for him – become world-class.
In partnership with the Wooden family, SUCCESS has built an online learning course designed to help you put the legend’s lessons into action. The Wooden Effect, as we call it, is the well-worn method studied and engineered by Wooden that will allow anyone to reach their full potential and competitive greatness. To create the course, we enlisted the help of some of the very greats who called Coach their mentor. As a look inside the wisdom offered, we reached into several of those interviews to tell Wooden’s story.
Considering all that he accomplished and his eventual status as a national treasure, the contrast with Wooden’s upbringing becomes even more dramatic.
Wooden was born in the rural town of Hall, Indiana, on Oct. 14, 1910, one of six children to Joshua and Roxie Anna Wooden.
“His parents ought to get an awful lot of credit for raising him right,” explains legendary Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden, a contemporary. “They gave Wooden a foundation that set him on a path that would serve him for the rest of his life. His principles were right out of the Bible, and you’re not going to get better principles than that. And what was more, he lived the Bible. That impacted everything else he ever did as a coach, as a teacher, as a mentor, and as a man.”
Tubby Smith, who coached the University of Kentucky to an NCAA championship in 1998 and now leads the University of Memphis men’s basketball team, agrees. “His basic philosophy he learned from his dad about many of the things he conveyed to his players and in his writings, and his teachings were about being respectful of others: Don’t complain, don’t whine, don’t steal. Be a good person. Don’t lie. Don’t cheat. Just basic principles in the way he was brought up that guided his life and helped him achieve his dreams, not just as a basketball coach but as a person.”
Wooden graduated with a degree in English from Purdue University in 1932, having enjoyed a highly successful career as a college basketball player. Afterward, he began to play professional ball while also coaching and teaching high school in Kentucky and Indiana. Throughout his life, the deeply personal faith Wooden cultivated in his childhood colored everything else. His notions of sportsmanship, fair play, integrity, and character were all rooted in the religious upbringing his parents instilled in him early, and they spilled over not only to his players but to the people around him.
“You look at his eyes and see how he could be a tough disciplinarian even though he was a man of God,” sportscaster Dick Enberg, a longtime friend, recalls. “We see a lot of his photos from later in his life where he had that sheepish, sweet smile and innocence all over his face, but if you go back to his coaching days, his players knew what he meant when he burned a hole through them with those eyes of, at times, toughness. If you stayed around him enough you learned an awful lot about life and yourself and how to be good. You felt a responsibility to conduct yourself the way Coach would want you to behave if you were wearing one of those jerseys sitting on his bench, so you checked your behavior each day that you were around him. Now, that’s power. That’s influence in all the right ways.”
“A lot of strong personalities and strong leaders feel that in order to really fulfill that role, they have to change everyone around them and make them like themselves, but Coach wasn’t like that,” Enberg continues. “I mean he had his plan and you lived within the plan, which was of course teamwork, and love for one another, and the team being more important than the individual, and winning (not necessarily the score) defining your success in life. But Coach didn’t impose his religion, his philosophy, his lifestyle on others. He allowed each of us to be an individual.”
Wooden was 21 when he married his high school sweetheart, Nellie Riley, in 1932. The couple had two children, Nancy and James, and Wooden continued coaching high school until joining the Navy in 1943. He served as a physical trainer for combat pilots for the better part of World War II and left with the rank of senior lieutenant. When his duties concluded, he took over as the coach of Indiana State Teachers College (now Indiana State), juggling other duties within the school’s athletic department while working toward his master’s degree in education. After guiding the school to a conference title in 1947, he turned down a national tournament invitation because the tournament did not allow black players.
In 1948, Wooden was offered the head coaching position at UCLA. He soon began putting in place the foundations of a program that, when running at scale, would become the greatest dynasty in sports history. All the while, he continued to formulate the building blocks of success and character. It took 16 years for Wooden to create the kind of team he had envisioned, winning his first national championship in 1964. Over the following 11 years, he would win nine more championships.
Despite his incredible record, he remained humble. He insisted that his teams’ victories were due not to any great secret or brilliance on his part, but to a combination of two things. First, the teams memorized and embodied his definition of success as “peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” Second, they adhered to the fundamental principles of hard work and right living he collected in what he called the “Pyramid of Success.” These philosophies quickly became one of the most widely celebrated leadership tools in America.
Best-selling author and leadership expert John C. Maxwell remembers his first encounter with Wooden’s Pyramid as a young man: “I’ll never forget the day I got Success Unlimited magazine [an ancestor of the modern SUCCESS title]. I opened to the middle of it, and there was the Pyramid of Success. I began to look at those building blocks and how we need to take our life and build our life correctly, and I began to look at all of those qualities, and I began to say, ‘This is something that I need to learn.’ So I cut it out. I had a filing cabinet right beside my desk, and I Scotch-taped the Pyramid of Success on the side of my filing cabinet so that every day while I worked, I could look over and I could see all of these great insights into industriousness, and self-control, and all this stuff. I could look at that and say, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the way that I am to live.’”
Maxwell was not alone. Wooden’s Pyramid of Success provided – and continues to provide – a road map for new generations of leaders in sports, business, and any walk of life.
“As a young athlete, I tended to look at the blocks and really focus on those characteristics,” explains current Wake Forest University coach and retired NBA star Danny Manning, a past winner of the John R. Wooden Award, given annually to the nation’s best college player. “But once I became a coach, I began to pay more attention to the triangles that hold the blocks together – the mortar, as Coach Wooden called it. The mortar takes it outside of just the sports mentality and makes the philosophies more life-encompassing. I think that was Coach’s intent: You find significance and value wherever you are.”
“Now I keep a copy of the Pyramid hanging in my office across from my desk,” Manning says. “Each time a kid comes in, I can look at it. There’s not one kid that has come in here and I haven’t been able to look at the Pyramid and relate to them or help them out in some way. It’s a reminder to me of the steps I need to take to be the best person I can be, and the path I should be making sure my players are on as they strive to be the best people they can be. Are you getting up every single morning and giving the best you have to give on that particular day? It’s true that we don’t all work at 100 percent capacity all the time, but each day we can give the best we have to give. If you go out and do the best that you can today and it’s not good enough, we have some more work we’ve got to do, but we’ll have another opportunity. That attitude is so important, and it is central to Coach’s philosophy.”
Management expert Ken Blanchard examined Wooden’s leadership techniques and found that his understanding of group dynamics was fundamental to his success.
“What’s fascinating about basketball and studying Coach Wooden,” Blanchard explains, “is that basketball is a wonderful metaphor for life, for organizations, for businesses. His basic philosophy is that none of us is as good as all of us. Basketball’s a sport in which you might be good, but you can’t win by yourself. A star player can’t win a championship alone; he has to get a cast of characters around him who really play well with him.”
By encouraging his athletes to push one another in positive ways toward a common goal, rather than just focusing on one or two stars, Wooden was able to foster trust and chemistry among his entire roster. The result was a culture of self-motivation that continued to attract players who shared the same values.
The coach was also an active mentor, advocating on behalf of people and seeking out younger coaches he felt demonstrated a commitment to building character as much as constructing winning teams.
“When I was just starting out as a high school coach, I started reaching out to people I admired to find out whether they would share a moment of their success with a young guy aspiring to be a coach on a collegiate level,” says National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame member Dick Vitale. “A lot of people, of course, never wrote back, but I was absolutely in awe when I opened the mail and realized I had received a response from the Wizard of Westwood [one of Wooden's nicknames] – to me, a nobody. His advice: Be organized, make things simple, and have within you that enthusiasm to set the tone.”
A few years later, Wooden happened to be announcing a game that Vitale was coaching and was impressed by Vitale’s enthusiasm; Wooden recommended him to a producer at a new network called ESPN as someone who might be good as an on-air commentator. Vitale has been synonymous with college basketball broadcasts ever since.
“Coach Wooden’s legacy is winner, winner, winner in every way of life,” Vitale explains. “Not just winning basketball games, but building men and building character. He did it far beyond just his own team roster, though. He did it for a nobody high school coach who wrote to him for advice, and whom he later figured deserved a shot at sharing his enthusiasm for the game in a new way.”
Four-time World Series winner Joe Torre had a similar experience, finding himself on the receiving end of some powerful mentorship: “I had recently started managing the Yankees and was sitting in my office one day, when suddenly a man walked through with no warning, causing me to jump to my feet. What in the world was Coach Wooden doing in my office? Of course I knew him by reputation and knew the domination that UCLA had enjoyed during the 1960s and 1970s, but I’d never met the man. Now here he was, looking me in the eye and saying, ‘I wanted to meet you because I like you, and I admire the way your teams play.’ I could barely stutter out my thanks before a parade of players started knocking on my door because they had seen Coach on his way up to my office and they all wanted to meet him, too.”
Wooden’s ideas on personal growth were never limited to the basketball court, and neither were his passions. He loved great literature, art, and music.
“You could talk to the man for four or five hours and leave there thinking, ‘I just received a wheelbarrow of knowledge and wisdom from this guy,’” says retired NBA player and current University of Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar. “He was just so well-versed on so many different subjects and had such a sincere and pure heart, and was willing to share that with you. Basketball didn’t have to come up for you to get pearls of wisdom from him.”
Enberg recounts something similar during a bus ride with the UCLA team, during which he spent two hours next to Wooden with no talk of basketball. Instead Wooden wanted to talk about the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay.
“Other than going on the air in some poetic form, that trip meant nothing for my career, but it meant a great deal in terms of getting to know the man and the depth of his interest in life,” Enberg says.
His taste in poetry and prose aside, the coach was a wordsmith of sorts himself. After Nellie Wooden passed away in 1985, Coach wrote a love letter to her every month for 25 years, until his eyesight started to fade. He died in 2010, only four months shy of his 100th birthday. He had made the most of every day. One of his favorite quotes was “Make each day your masterpiece.” He lived it.
“I don’t think he ever wasted a single minute,” Enberg says. “He just kept doing what he did so well, encouraging people and sharing his wisdom right up to the very end. And he was never afraid to die. We were all rooting for him to make 100, because 100 meant something to all the rest of us … but it didn’t mean a thing to Coach. He was ready to go when it was time, and he was eager to be reunited his sweetheart, Nell.”
Coach may be gone, but his ideas remain relevant, significant and impactful.
“He stood the test of time during a period when there were a lot of changes and a lot of turmoil in our country and in our society,” Smith says. “He was able to bridge that gap and win and graduate his players and influence so many people because of his timelessness.”
Today, next year, a century from now, Wooden’s teachings will still have value.
“Because he was so deeply rooted in timeless principles, he was able to have a career that was timeless,” Bowden says. “I don’t know of anybody who did it better than he did. And to get the results he did by doing it the right way, without cheating or compromising, that’s what made him such an incredible example. It’s easy to get to the top by cheating, but it’s not easy to stay there. Wooden did it the right way, and that’s why he was able repeat his amazing success season after season after season. Once he got that foundation, buddy, that’s the way he lived his life. And that made everything else possible.”
Don Yaeger is an nine-time New York Times best-selling author, longtime associate editor to Sports Illustrated, and keynote speaker. Learn more at www.donyaeger.com.
Cover photo courtesy of the UCLA film archive.
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