For years John Wooden was a very good coach making a name for himself and basketball in the West. But then, he went from a very good basketball coach and teacher to the greatest coach of all time. As far as basketball strategy, he made one change in that he played the first 7 or 8 players (the rotation of players who were going to play every game) together instead of just the first five in practice.
But another reason for Coach Wooden going to the next level was an assistant coach, Jerry Norman. As Steve Bisheff writes in his very good book John Wooden An American Treasure:
In many ways, Norman was the assistant who nudged Wooden into greatness. But it is also a measure of the game's most legendary coach that he would actively seek out this former player that was anything but a sycophant.
"I never wanted a yes man," Wooden says. "I always preferred someone who would stand up to me. A rebel you might say."
Norman certainly fit that mold. A starting forward on Wooden's teams from 1950-52, even though he was only six feet two. Norman was better known for his temper than his skills. "He was obstinate and profane," Wooden says.
The reason I write this today is I wonder if there is anyone who will stand up to Coach Howland and disagree. For example, who will say to him we need to not play two Wears at once. Coach Wooden's greatness is shown that he knew he needed someone like Norman, seemingly the opposite of him. And even Coach Wooden could not do it all alone as a coach.
But not sure that is happening with today's assistants. As current assistant coach Phil Matthews said:
"Ben doesn't need help coaching," said Mathews.
Even Coach Wooden needed help. Howland does as well. It was Norman who convinced a reluctant Wooden to start pressing, which was key to the first two championships and the start of the dynasty. Again from American Treasure:
Wooden admits he was not thrilled at the idea at first. He'd use a zone press in high school, but he felt college guards, with more experience and skill, wouldn't have much trouble breaking it. Norman, who often clashed with his boss over strategy and tactics, usually lost these battles. This time he won. This time he convinced Wooden. "He was willing to try it," Norman says. "He knew we had to do something."
"Jerry was fiery assistant who got a lot of technicals," Wooden says. "But he also was a very fine assistant, very smart. Jerry was insistent I stick with the press, or I might not have."
Look at Phil Jackson, the most successful pro coach. It was not his offense but assistant coach Tex Winter who taught for Jackson's great pro teams.
UCLA needs the assistants to disagree with Howland and Howland to listen. An interesting example involves one of the few times UCLA under Wooden played a zone. In arguably the most famous rematch in UCLA history against Houston in the final four:
In 1968, it was Norman's diamond-and-one defense, with Wooden's blessing, that smothered Houston and Elvin Hayes in the storied rematch of their Astrodome game at the L.A. Sports Arena.
Are any of the current UCLA assistants in Howland's ear telling him he needs to play zone at times because of the talent and/or to protect a player like Josh Smith?
Norman also helped with recruiting, something the current assistant coaches are doing very well at right now. But for UCLA to come all the way back, it seems someone needs to tell Howland when he is wrong, not to be so stubborn and Howland needs to listen. It is one of the characteristics that made Wooden the greatest coach of all time.