FanPost

UCLA Basketball: Wooden -- Did You Know, Part 2?

Stephen Dunn

John Wooden is the greatest coach of all time, and, perhaps, is the face of UCLA, but he wasn't the Bruins first choice in a basketball coach, and UCLA wasn't his first choice. We almost lost him twice.

Let's start at the beginning.

After his second season at Indiana State, Wooden wanted to leave. He had just brought the Sycamores to the championship game of the NAIB -- the forerunner of the NAIA, and along with the NCAA and the NIT tournaments, considered one of the college basketball championship playoffs. In the already basketball-crazy state of Indiana, the pressure to win for the major high school and college basketballs teams was high, and Wooden couldn't face going back to Indiana State for a third season in which he would be expected to win the championship this time. Low pressure Los Angeles looked good to Wooden.

Then Athletic Director, Wilbur Johns, wanted Indiana coach Branch McCracken to fill his 1948 opening. McCracken accepted the job, but Indiana countered, and McCracken reneged. He recommended Wooden to Johns.

Johns then reached out to Louisville coach Peck Hickman who also recommended Wooden. Piggy Lambert, Wooden's coach at Purdue, had recommended Wooden to Johns in a casual conversation over lunch as far back as 1941. The recommendation that sealed the deal came from Dutch Fenrig, Wooden's teammate at Purdue who had become an assistant football coach at UCLA.

Boston University and Purdue also came calling for Wooden. Purdue would be Wooden's ideal choice in the future, but right now, Wooden wasn't ready for the pressure to succeed, and Purdue wanted Wooden to wait one more season at Indiana State while they waited for present coach Mel Taube's contract to expire. The offer also came with strings -- Wooden would have to keep the rest of the staff.

Given the complicated situation at Purdue, Wooden's first choice was the University of Minnesota. Minnesota too had their conditions -- Wooden would have to retain current coach Dave McMillan on the staff as an assistant. Wooden was a Midwesterner, and wanted to be in the Big 10, so he gave Minnesota his own conditions including bringing his Indiana State assistant Edwin Powell. Minnesota Athletic Director Frank McCormick would talk to his administration about it, and call Wooden back at 6 PM, April 17, 1948.

The call didn't come at 6. Minnesota was hit by a snow storm that took out some of the telephone lines, and McCormick couldn't get through to Wooden. Wilbur Johns called at 7 PM, and pressured Wooden for a decision. Wooden agreed to be the next UCLA Basketball coach.

McCormick got through to Wooden at 8 PM, explained the circumstances, and asked Wooden to call Johns back to tell him that he had changed his mind. Wooden had given his word, and would not renege. Further, Johns had wisely told Wooden that he was issuing an immediate press release -- Wooden would not embarrass UCLA in the media.

As chronicled here, Wooden had immediate success at UCLA. However, Nell Wooden pined for the Midwest.

In 1950, Purdue sent three top administrators to Los Angeles to offer the head coaching job to Wooden. They offered to double Wooden's salary to $12,000 per year, give him a five year contract, a country club membership, a new car every year, and a house at reduced rent. More importantly, Wooden would get two full-time assistant coaches and a new arena -- which UCLA promised, but wouldn't ultimately open until 1965.

Wooden's ultimate boss at UCLA was not actually Wilbur Johns, but Bill Ackerman, general manager of the Associated Students, under which the Athletic Department reported. They refused to fund construction of a new arena. The Bruins played in the Men's Gym, which seated 2,400, until the Los Angeles City Fire Marshall limited the capacity to 1,500 in 1955. The Bruins then played first in the Pan Pacific Auditorium and then the Sports Arena until they moved into Pauley Pavillion. The first game, in 1965, at Pauley Pavilion, was the intersquad game when Lew Alcindor's (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) freshman team beat the prior season's National Champion varsity team.

Wooden accepted Purdue's offer, but he needed UCLA to let him out of the third year of his contract. Knowing Wooden was an honorable man, Wilbur Johns said he would let Wooden out of his contract if that's what he wanted, but he pulled a guilt trip about it on Wooden.

Although he was irritated by the pressure, and always thought he would leave, Wooden agreed to stay at UCLA, figuring that Purdue had called twice, and would call again. UCLA offered a permanent three year contract that automatically renewed at the end of each year.

Wooden's final salary at UCLA was $35,000. After his retirement in 1975, Wooden turned down an offer from Jack Kent Cooke to coach the Los Angeles Lakers for $350,000 per year. Wooden was already in his mid-60's, didn't think he would be an effective teacher at the pro level, and didn't want the pressure.

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.

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