The Search for a Coach: 1948 vs 2013

Will UCLA eventually end up with an inexperienced and ineffective coach? We all know how the story might go. A deceitful, inept and penurious athletic director, rejected by big name candidates, eventually will settle on hiring about the 89th choice. It may surprise some, but this is exactly how UCLA ended up with John Wooden. After extensive research, that is my conclusion.

So how did a coach from the midwest with only two years of four-year coaching experience at an NAIA school end up at UCLA? Some of us know some of the story of how it took a freak of nature for UCLA to get Wooden. It's in his book. But I did some further investigation and found out that the coaching search had some remarkable similarities to the events of the last 15 years - a bungling A.D., waffling coaching candidates, rejection by name coaches, etc.

It wasn't easy finding information. Unlike today, where every rumor is instantly disseminated over the Internet, in the spring of 1948 not only was there no Internet, but only one fully functional local TV station and no radio call-in shows. The only source of the latest news was one of several newspapers, most notably the L.A. Times and L.A. Examiner. But the UCLA basketball coaching search was not really of much interest. The papers featured stories about the big sports of the era, baseball and track & field, but few updates or speculation on a new coach of a mediocre college basketball team. Even on campus, there seemed to be more interest in spring football practice and the big debate over whether women should be allowed into the card stunt section at football games than who was going to coach the "melon tossers" as basketball players were called in those days. But here is what I've been able to piece together.

1947-48 was Wilbur Johns' ninth and last year as the UCLA basketball coach. He had been a star player and team captain for UCLA, but his coaching career was not very successful - only two winning seasons. But he was not fired for his ineptitude. He was let go by the athletic director . . . Wilbur Johns! He had become A.D. the previous year and didn't want to continue in the dual role. (Now if DG could only fire himself . . .) At the conclusion of the season he announced he would attend the NCAA coaches meetings in New York at the end of March and would conduct a nationwide search for the best coach possible. Up to his final decision, he always insisted that he would hire "A big name coach with experience at a big time program". On the eve of the meetings, Ohio State coach W.H."Tippy" Dye stated that he had been offered the job. An embarrassed Johns quickly backtracked and claimed that he had just sent him and several others a letter asking if he would be interested in the job. It seems that Johns had lost the opportunity to hire a big name coach (not sure which sport) the previous year because his name became public prematurely and didn't want to make the same mistake. That seemed to derail the search and he returned from the meetings with no coach and no prospects. Dye seemed to be an unlikely candidate. In 10 years at Ohio State, he had won one conference championship and lost his only NCAA playoff game. Shortly after he left, Fred Taylor took over and made the Buckeyes a national power.

Then, a couple weeks later, legendary Oregon State coach Henry "Slats" Gill announced that he had been offered the UCLA job and the Minnesota job and that he was very interested in one of them. This was Johns' number one choice. He had hinted to a DB writer that the new coach would come from a place where it rained a lot. Gill had been an OSU player and then coach since 1924 with good success. But when it leaked out that he wanted to accept the UCLA job there was an uproar among OSU alumni and students. A major letter-writing campaign convinced Gill to remain in the Northwest. (Shades of Larry Brown II?)

Now fast forward to the present. If the only two names made public were Dye and Gill, the message boards would be burning up clamoring for the legendary successful experienced coach (Gill) over the one with the mediocre record. So what happened? Gill had six losing seasons in the next nine years. Dye was hired by Washington the next year and promptly made the Final Four. But more significantly, he later became the A.D. at Nebraska and was responsible for hiring a football coach named Bob Devany who started an incredible run of success at the school. A seven-foot center named Mel Counts allowed Gill to finish his career with three successful seasons but the next year the UCLA dynasty put an end to the chances of the rest of the west coast teams for a long, long time.

In all, 64 coaches were contacted by mail and 25 others were interviewed in person. So why did Wooden end up with the job?

  • The only other names made public were not really serious contenders for the job, just personalities who were sentimental favorites in Westwood: former Bruin player and Olympian Frank Lubin, current assistant Bill Putnam, and University High coach Jerry Marvin. There just weren't any "big name" west coast coaches available for the job.

  • Probably the most important factor was that although Johns wanted a big name coach, he probably couldn't pay for one. In fact, during the search, a rumor that ex-Michigan football coach, Fritz Crisler, who had been national Coach of the Year the previous year but then resigned, was in Southern California to pursue the UCLA or USC job. Johns issued a strong denial claiming that "we couldn't afford him even if we wanted him".

    After Gill turned down the job, Johns went to his "B" list. There were three names on that list, Wooden being one of them. Why was he on it?

  • Johns was a big admirer of Wooden's college coach, Ward "Piggy" Lambert, and had tried to get him to come to UCLA at one point. Lambert in turn, had told Johns that one of his ex-players, a high school coach named John Wooden, would be an excellent coach some day. Although Johns never met Wooden, that recommendation stuck in his mind 10 years later.

  • Wooden said he did not know Johns and suspected that Bob Kelley, radio announcer for the Los Angels Rams, who previously worked in Indiana had recommended him. Now in those days, the Rams were the only major league pro team in town and Kelley was quite influential, sort of like a Chick Hearn or Vin Scully.

  • Although Wooden's experience consisted of only high school and two years at Indiana State, he had been a great All-American only about 15 years previously, so his name was well known as a player if not for coaching.

  • There were some Indiana connections at UCLA. One of the assistant football coaches had played with Wooden at Purdue, and one of UCLA's star basketball players at the time of the search, Dave Minor, had played high school ball in Indiana against Wooden's team.

  • Maybe Johns just didn't want a coach with one of those silly nicknames like "Tippy", "Slats", or "Piggy", that most coaches (except for Wooden) seemed to have in those days.

    Wooden had two offers: UCLA and Minnesota. He preferred Minnesota, but they wanted the man who he was to replace to remain as his assistant. Wooden wanted his own man. Minnesota had to get approval and promised to call at 6:00 P.M. A snow storm prevented the Minnesota A.D. from getting to a phone and when UCLA called at the appointed time of 7:00 P.M., Wooden accepted.

    When Minnesota finally got through, Wooden refused to change his mind because he had given UCLA his word. Unfortunately for Wooden, UCLA didn't keep theirs. One reason he preferred the Minnesota job, was that UCLA had very poor facilities. However, he was promised that they were about to start building a new facility. In fact, the day he arrived on campus to take the job and attended the team banquet, there was a story in the paper about the plans for a new arena to be built within three years. But that wasn't true. (It only took seventeen.) Even more discouraging was the fact that when he ran the team through a spring practice, he was appalled at the lack of talent. Wooden said that if had known how to abort the agreement he would have, but being the honorable man he was, couldn't leave. Even worse, he had been misled about the nature of his position. Instead of being employed by the university, he was really working for ASUCLA. In other words, the student body president was his boss. Had he known this, he said he would have never taken the job.

    Wooden had a tough task ahead of him. All the starters from the previous year were gone. Now this was an era of the real "student-athlete". I do not know if athletic scholarships existed in those days, but all students were not only welcomed, but encouraged to try out for the team. Wooden was disappointed that only 46 candidates for the team had signed up for tryouts. He couldn't understand how a school as large as UCLA (14,500 enrollment) could have such little interest, since he had 178 come out for the team at Indiana State out of an enrollment of only 2500.

    Eventually 57 tried out and the starters weren't determined until a few days before the first game. Building a program at UCLA wasn't easy. UCLA had lost his best players, Wooden hurt his back trying to demonstrate fundamentals to the team in pre-season practice, and was playing in a tiny gym with only 2600 capacity, with 1500 of those seats allocated to students.

    But Wooden had brought in a couple of JC transfers and despite the problems, the Bruins won the conference Southern division championship with it's novel (at least on the west coast) fast break offense, breaking the school record with 22 wins.

    The next year was even more successful, this time winning the Southern division and then beating Northern division champ WSU for the conference championship to make the NCAA playoffs. But it did take some luck as UCLA won one game in the two of three series on a half-court shot at the final buzzer. In the first round of the 8-team tournament at Kansas City, UCLA led #1 ranked Bradley by seven with under five minutes to go, but were outscored 23-2 after a series of silly mistakes for which Wooden blamed himself. He slowed the game down after building a 57-50 lead with a quick pace. As the Daily Bruin aptly put it: "Then the Bruins, glancing at the score and figuring it was all over, let down and watched Bradley go by". The consolation game against BYU was almost an instant replay. UCLA, an 11-point favorite, was tied at 56 -56, but was outscored 27-6 the rest of the game. The L.A. Times called it a "humiliating defeat". The DB's opening line in the game story sounds familiar: "UCLA's aversion to basketball in the closing minutes of play cost the Bruins their second victory in two days."

    Not only were there problems on the court, the off-court behavior of the players was also an issue. Taken on a tour of the area, they drove by President Truman's "summer White House" in Independence, Mo. Two Bruins (including future Wooden assistant Jerry Norman) decided they wanted a closer look and climbed over the fence. They were apprehended by secret service agents and taken to FBI headquarters for interrogation. Then, following the second loss, the team partied until late at night, causing a large disturbance in the hotel. (Which coach had no control over his players?)

    Even without the Internet and talk radio, where modern day fans would have tried to hound him out of town for that "embarrassing first round loss", he was ready to bail out and return to the midwest. His alma mater, Purdue, made him a tremendous offer with all kinds of perks. He had one year left on his UCLA contract and expected to be released. To his surprise, Johns and ASUCLA manager Bill Ackerman (of Ackerman Union fame) told him that since Wooden himself had insisted on a three-year deal, he should honor it. Although he felt that was unfair, again, Wooden's sense of integrity convinced him to stay. After the third year, he again was prevented from leaving because of his strong sense of family, since by then his children had fallen in love with Southern California.

    So not only did it take a freak of nature to get Wooden, it took a unique man with enormously strong principles to stay here.

    * * * * * *

    One postscript. Now Johns must have been a genius or the luckiest guy in the world. Just before Wooden's first season at the helm, the Bruin football team was having its problems. Coach Bert LaBrucherie was under fire and even a mid-season win at Nebraska couldn't save him from a player revolt and the staff resigned right after the season ended. The A.D. was on another coaching search and this one got a little more publicity. Many big names were mentioned as candidates, and Johns was off to the national coaches convention again to find his man, this time in San Francisico. A little known coach from Vanderbilt with a good but not great record (36-22-2) and whose teams had rarely been seen on the west coast was on his way to the convention, but was stranded in Chicago due to a blizzard. With no trains running, he was about to return home when he caught a flight at the last minute to San Francisco. "The last thing I thought of was coaching at UCLA" said Henry "Red" Sanders, but met Johns at the convention and the meeting led to his hiring. Not only did Sanders become the greatest football coach in UCLA history, leading the school to its only national championship in 1954, one of the assistants he brought along was Tommy Prothro, who later also coached UCLA with great success.

  • <em>This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of BruinsNation's (BN) editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of BN's editors.</em>

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