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John Wooden ( 1910 - )  Category ( Sports_Coaches ) [suggest a correction]
 

John WoodenJohn Wooden is to basketball as Walter Cronkite was to broadcasting -- a man who has transcended his profession and become a national icon.

As head coach at UCLA, Wooden presided over 10 national championships in one 12-year stretch, a string of success that none of his predecessors or successors in the coaching ranks have even come close to challenging.

Success, of course, breeds success, and the better UCLA became, the more blue chip athletes it attracted. Like New York City's Lew Alcindor, who starred for Wooden before becoming Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And homegrown Bill Walton, another legendary center.

Yet unlike many other winning coaches, Wooden finished his 27 years as the "Wizard of Westwood" without a breath of recruiting scandal, player rebellion or outburst of egotism. The most he ever earned in a season was $35,000.

In the sport that gave us March Madness, he was March Sanity.

A story told about his relationship with Walton epitomizes Wooden's iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove style.

The 6-fot-11 Walton arrived on campus as a freshman with a full beard. Wooden told him that his policy was not to allow facial hair and asked him to shave it off. Walton refused.

"I admire that in you, Bill," Wooden supposedly said. "I have a tremendous respect for someone who sticks to his convictions even when it's inconvenient. We're really going to miss you on the team, though."

Walton shaved.

Although best-known for refining the talents of talented giants Alcindor and Walton, however, Wooden succeeded year after year with whatever he had to work with. His 1964 championship team, for example, was an undersized group that won with outside shooting and speed. Few of Wooden's players became stars in the National Basketball Association, and he earned a reputation for getting the maximum out of every Bruin's talent.

Even more telling is the fact that after Wooden announced his retirement (on the eve of the game with Kentucky that gave him his 10th national title), it was 20 years before a UCLA team got that far again.

Wooden was a product of the Indiana basketball culture celebrated in the movie "Hoosiers." After leading Martinsville (IN) High School to the state championship game three years in a row, he earned All-American honors on a Purdue University team that was named national champions by a poll (this was before the NCAA tournament began) in 1932. After that, he played professionally for several years before settling in as head coach and athletic director at Indiana State.

He finally left his beloved Indiana in 1948 to accept a new challenge at UCLA, and produced a succession of good but not great teams before his first national title in 1965.

On October 14, 2009, John Wooden turned 99. He continues to speak to groups about his career and philosopher, and has enjoyed remarkably good health for someone on the cusp of the century mark.

He and his wife Nell were married for 52 years -- and according to one account, he continued to leave love letters at her grave every year after she died in 1985 of cancer.

Wooden was one of the founding members of the College Basketball Hall of Fame and the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. The annual trophy honoring the nation's best college player was christened the Wooden Award.


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