Many people have an image of Coach as a reserved Midwestern calmly dispensing wisdom and enforcing discipline. Yet, the truth was Coach was an extremely competitive person who examined every aspect of the game and left no stone unturned in his efforts to win while staying true to his code and beliefs in everything he did. Below are 10 quick examples.
10. Wooden worked referees and would yell and yes heckle other players. Yes, you read that right.
Surprisingly, he [Wooden] was not above heckling an opposing player. "I'd do that to try to get them thinking about you, hoping it would get them off their game," he says. . . .
The fact that Woden would bait officials and opposing players didn't fit the "St. John" image that many people claim he tried to portray. I can remember one USC player, in particular, calling a reporter over in a the locker room and saying, "You wouldn't believe what Wooden was yelling at me out there."
You can't be the great coach that he was without also being a great competitor.
--An American Treasure John Wooden, Steve Bisheff
9. At one point early in his career, Wooden would challenge players to free throw shooting contests. The players probably started to laugh as Wooden went to the line and shot his free throws "granny style" underhand between his legs. (Like Rick Barry did in the pros.) They would soon stop their chortling as Wooden made almost everyone and inevitably beat them. As a semi-pro player he once made 100 in a row.
8. Wooden did curse, he just never used profanity. Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who had many coaches over the course of his long career, said the scariest words he ever heard from any of his coaches was when Wooden yelled: "Goodness gracious sakes alive!"
7. Wooden worked the media when it was needed. For example, the great KAJ teams lost two games. One was the Houston game when KAJ was hurt. The other was against USC at Pauley, the first lose at Pauley. USC Bob Boyd took advantage of the rules at the time which were before the shot clock to stall the game and beat UCLA in a slowdown game 46 to44. Wooden joined the cat calls in the press questioning whether this was basketball and complained about USC strategy. Boyd was under a lot of pressure despite the win for the way he won.
Wooden reiterated that the slowdown style was bad for the game. Years later, however, he would smile and admit, "I always felt Bob was a fine basketball coach, and I would have probably tried something similar under the same circumstances." An American Treasure John Wooden, Steve Bisheff
But by using the media he put extra pressure on Boyd. USC, which a few years later, may have been not only the second best team in the PAC 8, but in the country, rarely beat UCLA because of this mental edge Wooden held over Boyd. In part because of the pressure Wooden put on Boyd by even taking the air of out Boyd's sails the rare time he beat him.
6. An over achieving CSULB almost upset UCLA in the Tourney and played them three years in the tourney during Wooden's tenure. The team was coached by Jerry Tarkanian. Earlier, Wooden asked to meet with Tarkanian to discuss his 1-2-2 match up zone D when Tark was the one of the best Community College teams in the country. (Tark called the meeting in his usual coarse way "better than sex" for a basketball coach.) Thus, when Wooden was asked who should get the vacant Indiana coaching job, he recommended Tarkanian, arguably his toughest rival in the West at the time. When friends of Bobby Knight pushed Wooden to recommend Bobby Knight instead, Wooden refused. While Wooden had known Tarkanian since he was a community college coach, part of Wooden's motivation may well have been to push his top competition out of the area.
5. Wooden was the first person nominated to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player AND a coach. When he was very young, Wooden considered himself a better baseball player and it was his first love but as a result of being hit by a pitch, Wooden's throwing arm was never the same. He gave up baseball to make himself the best basketball player he could be.
4. The Pool Shark. There are multiple stories of Wooden picking up a pool cue and running the table to the shock of his players. KAJ tells of his shock of this Midwestern school teacher knowing his way around the pool table as well as a big city slicker. Wooden was one of those people who made himself good at everything he did.
3. A great golfer as well?
Wooden had long claimed that he once scored an ace and a double-eagle in the same golf round many, many years ago at a course in Indiana. As recently noted by Jill Painter of the L.A. DAILY NEWS, Golf Digest magazine has past reported that only four people have ever actually documented such a personal occurrence. Including pros.
Make it five.
2. Wooden's efforts to help anyone who asked him are both incredible and well known. My favorite example which I don't have a cite for is from Maryland's Gary Williams in an interview I saw. Williams sent Wooden a question in 1990s on the UCLA Press. Wooden wrote a handwritten 18 page letter in response. But Wooden had his limits. Wooden refused to visit his ex-starting point guard Henry Bibby when he went to coach USC. According to Bibby : "He would say, ‘Henry, you are one of my boys, but I will never go watch you coach over there,' " Bibby said. "He was UCLA through and through."
Wooden was the nicest man but he was still a Bruin and not going to help a Trojan!
1. Wooden's retirement happened for a number of reasons but one is often overlooked. Wooden's last game before he announced his retirement (the NCAA semi-final) was a close game with his former player and assistant coach Denny Crum. After the game Wooden was a bit sad for Denny Crum who it would have meant more for and said "I should have felt elated." Wooden was such a fierce competitor, that he was not going to coach anymore if he did not want it as much or more than anyone else. While Wooden's status as the greatest Coach of all time is for many reasons, one that is often overlooked is he was a fierce competitor. As the leader of his first UCLA team and later his assistant coach Eddie Sheldrake said:
"He was probably the toughest competitor I had ever seen. He was vicious. He'd work out with us sometimes and he was so tenacious you would not believe it. But that is the way he thought the game should be played, and he made us understand that's how he wanted us to play the whole time out there."
[Additional sources: An American Treasure John Wooden, Steve Bisheff; Giant Steps, Kareem Abdul Jabbar; They Call Me Coach, John Wooden]