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Wooden ended a winner

Wizard of Westwood
By Mike Puma
Special to

"There is this perception of John Wooden that he is this saint-like creature and so calm, so reserved. But there is also the side of Coach Wooden that he is this caged tiger," says Bill Walton on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

He didn't invent college basketball, but that's about the only thing missing from his resume. John Wooden seemingly did it all.

No dynasty in college basketball history compares to the monster Wooden built at UCLA in the 1960s and 1970s, winning 10 NCAA titles in his last 12 seasons before he retired in 1975. From 1967-73, the "Wizard of Westwood" guided the Bruins to a record seven straight national championships.

There's more. Starting in 1971 and ending in 1974, UCLA won 88 straight games, an NCAA record that hasn't come close to falling. Wooden's teams also compiled four 30-0 seasons and won 19 conference championships, including eight undefeated Pacific Conference seasons.

A three-time All-American guard at Purdue, Wooden was the first man honored in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and coach. In his 27 seasons at UCLA, the Bruins went 620-147.

No coach left a blueprint as revered as Wooden's. His 15-step Pyramid of Success is a fixture in locker rooms, offices and boardrooms across the nation.

A gentle, studious man who appeared more suited for a lecture hall than a gymnasium, Wooden accepted his success modestly. "I am just a common man who is true to his beliefs," he said.

Born on Oct. 14, 1910 in Hall, Ind., Wooden was raised in the nearby town of Martinsville. Wooden and three brothers grew up on a farm, where they played basketball in a barn, using a tomato basket and a makeshift ball consisting of old rags.

He played his high school games in a gymnasium that seated 5,200 - or 400 more than the number of people who lived in town. Yet there was rarely an empty seat. As a junior, Wooden led Martinsville to a state title.

In 1928, he entered Purdue, where he won letters in baseball and basketball as a freshman. He became captain of the basketball team as a junior and led the Boilermakers to two Big Ten titles. In 1932, when he was named college basketball's Player of the Year, Purdue was voted the national champion.

Upon graduation that year with a degree in English and the Big Ten medal for proficiency in scholarship, Wooden was offered $5,000 to join a barnstorming tour with the original New York Celtics. He was tempted to accept - the money represented more than three times the amount he could earn in a year teaching - but decided to put his education to use.

He took a teaching position at Dayton High School in Kentucky, where he coached several sports, and married his sweetheart Nellie. In 1934, he returned to Indiana to become an English teacher at South Bend Regional High. He also coached basketball, baseball and tennis.

Wooden's teaching and coaching career was interrupted by World War II, in which he served almost three years as a lieutenant in the Navy. Discharged in 1946, he became athletic director, basketball and baseball coach at Indiana Teachers College, which later became Indiana State. In Wooden's two seasons, the basketball team went 44-15.

In 1948, Wooden was faced with a major decision to make when he was offered the head basketball job at both Minnesota and UCLA. He was prepared to accept the Minnesota job - he liked the idea of remaining in the Midwest - but a hitch briefly delayed the deal.

When Minnesota didn't call by a stipulated deadline, Wooden said yes to UCLA. Minutes after the deadline, a Minnesota official called, explaining that a snowstorm had caused him to be late calling because he couldn't get to a phone. The Gophers still wanted Wooden. But he refused to break the promise he had made to the Bruins minutes earlier.

"If fate had not intervened," Wooden said, "I would never have gone to UCLA."

Wooden faced a formidable challenge in Westwood. The program was hindered by the lack of an on-campus arena, and for Wooden's first three years the Bruins played in their tiny practice facility before fire codes forced the games to be moved. For the next 14 seasons, UCLA's "home" games were played at the likes of Santa Monica City College and Venice High School.

Still, Wooden found ways to win. UCLA went 22-7 in his first season. The next year, the Bruins were 24-7, and Wooden was in his first NCAA Tournament.

No detail was too small for Wooden. One of the first things he taught players was how they should wear their socks and tie their shoelaces. His explanation: He didn't want players developing blisters on their feet.

And Wooden kept notes detailing every minute of every practice. He tried to make his workouts as pressure-filled as any game. "Coach taught us self discipline, and he was always his own best example," said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor when he led UCLA to three NCAA titles from 1967-69). "He discouraged expressing emotion on the court, stressing that it would eventually leave us vulnerable to opponents."

Wooden's teams averaged 19 victories a season throughout the 1950s, but had little NCAA Tournament success. In his first 13 seasons, the Bruins made the tournament only three times - and on each occasion they were eliminated in their first game - before reaching the Final Four in 1962.

Wooden's first national title came two years later, when UCLA defeated Duke 98-83 to cap a 30-0 campaign. The following season the Bruins (28-2) beat Michigan 91-80 to become the fifth school to win consecutive championships.

In the 1965-66 season, UCLA moved into Pauley Pavilion. Although the Bruins went 18-8, they didn't qualify for the NCAA Tournament. But with Alcindor moved up to the varsity the next season, the UCLA dynasty began in full force. The Bruins went 30-0 in 1966-67 and defeated Dayton 79-64 in the NCAA final.

The most memorable regular-season game of Wooden's career took place on Jan. 20, 1968, when the No. 1 Bruins faced Elvin Hayes' Houston Cougars in the Astrodome before a then-record 52,693 fans. Hayes outscored an injured Alcindor 39-15 to lead No. 2 Houston to a 71-69 victory in what was billed as the "Game of the Century."

The loss ended UCLA's 47-game winning streak. The Bruins avenged their only defeat of the season by routing Houston 101-69 in the Final Four and then won their second straight NCAA title with a 78-55 victory over North Carolina.

In 1968-69, Alcindor's senior season, Wooden led the team to a 29-1 mark, capped by its 92-72 rout of Purdue in the NCAA final.

A year later, the Bruins rolled to a 28-2 record and their fourth straight national title with an 80-69 victory over Jacksonville. UCLA kept going. In 1970-71, the Bruins went 29-1 and beat Villanova 68-62 for the national championship. Then came two straight 30-0 seasons, with the Bruins defeating Florida State 81-76 and Memphis State 87-66 for NCAA titles.

The string of national championships - and a 38-game tournament winning streak - ended in 1974 when the Bruins lost to North Carolina State and David Thompson, 80-77, in double overtime in the semifinals.

But Wooden had one last hurrah. In 1975, after beating Louisville in the Final Four, the 64-year-old Wooden told his players he was retiring after the final. Two days later, Wooden became the only coach to reach double digits in NCAA basketball titles as UCLA (28-4) defeated Kentucky 92-85 for the championship.

He finished his 29-year college coaching career with a 664-162 record, a remarkable .804 winning percentage.

Wooden is remembered not only as an exceptional player and builder of a dynasty, but as a molder of men. "He taught us how to focus on one primary objective," said Bill Walton, UCLA's three-time All-American center of the early 1970s. "Be the best in whatever endeavor you undertake. Don't worry about the score. Don't worry about image. Don't worry about the opponent. It sounds easy, but it's actually very difficult. Coach Wooden showed us how to accomplish it."

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