I'm reading the Seth Davis Wooden biography, and I wanted to share with you, from time to time, my favorite less well-known stories and anecdotes from Wooden's UCLA years.
Wooden came to UCLA in 1948 after coaching Indiana State for two seasons. Until that point, UCLA had only three winning seasons in the preceding 21 years. We all know Wooden's first NCAA Championship came in 1964, but Wooden coached UCLA to the Pacific Coast Conference Championship game in his first season. He lost to Oregon State, but came back the next season to beat Washington State for the PCC Championship. The win gave UCLA its first invitation to the eight-team NCAA tournament where they lost in their first game to Bradley, the number one-ranked team. Wooden was not famous for scouting his opponents, but since Bradley was a Midwestern team from his old conference, the Missouri Valley Conference, he asked a friend to deliver an hour long scouting report to his players. It backfired.
Wooden was famous at that point for his up-tempo style -- in a slow-down world. His coach at Purdue, Piggy Lambert, was the most re-known proponent of the run-and-gun philosophy. Wooden took it to Indiana State, and then to UCLA. The PCC, including USC (which owned the LA sports scene at that point in time), was a walk-it-up conference.
Wooden achieved immediate PCC success by having the best-conditioned team. We now remember Wooden for his zone press and high-post offense, but those tactics came much later. Wooden was not a defensive coach at the beginning. He was bored by defense, and just wanted to wear his opponents down on the offensive side. It wasn't until 1962 (UCLA lost in the NCAA semifinals to eventual champion Cincinnati after a controversial foul was called) that his assistant, his ex-player Jerry Norman, convinced Wooden to install the zone press to compensate for the Bruins lack of size but take advantage of their superior speed and conditioning.
Wooden also didn't believe in boxing out. He called that "negative rebounding" as opposed to "positive rebounding" where the player chases after the ball. As someone taught to do both at a very early age, I really had to think about this one. The book doesn't go into it, but I surmise that players weren't nearly as big or athletic as they are today (Wooden's first UCLA center was 6'3"), so the rebounder didn't have to worry about someone jumping over or out-hustling him. Further, organized college basketball was only about 25 years old at that point. Like everything else, the development of tactics and strategy happens incrementally -- we can't expect Wooden to invent everything!
Wooden was shocked to see only 42 players come to his first open tryout at UCLA. He had 187 players at his first Indiana State tryout -- and UCLA had five times as many students! However, timing was on Wooden's side. Most of those first players were ex-World War II vets in their early to mid-twenties. Then there were the Sacramento Junior College transfers recruited to UCLA by Bill Putnam, a holdover assistant coach from the prior regime. That group included Georege Stanich who had won a bronze medal in the high jump at the 1948 London Olympics. Fortuitously, that rag-tag group was ideally suited to Wooden's style.
Thus began the legend of John R. Wooden at UCLA. Next, perhaps I'll tell you about how we almost lost Wooden to Purdue in 1950.