The Legacy of Coach John Wooden

The greatest opportunity for all young professionals can be found in the lessons of Coach John Wooden, who recently passed away at the age of 99.

“He was bigger than just our school, he was college basketball,” stated Carie Spidel a junior at UCLA and reported in the Los Angeles Times.  She was not even alive when Coach Wooden set his records.  But it was not his records that set him apart from the crowd – it was his character.  As Duke University Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski explained, “He was one of the greatest men to grace this planet and we were blessed to have him in basketball.”

Coach Wooden and my grandfather, George Wright, were competitive allies while coaching high school basketball in Indiana and Kentucky, respectively.  I had the fortunate opportunity to meet Coach Wooden in 1985 when he was the guest speaker at our post-season banquet for Birmingham-Southern College.  My grandfather had already passed away and at twenty-six, I figured the story of Wooden and Wright’s relationship was more myth than fact.  To my amazement Coach Wooden remembered my grandfather seemingly better than I did.  To all of our amazement, he kept his commitment to come speak at our event just weeks after his wife had died.   From that day, Coach Wooden and I became pen pals, writing each other ever so often over the next several years.

Life Long Learner

Coach was the consummate learner and teacher; he always felt he was a teacher first and foremost and he inspired me to become an avid reader.  He wrote: “Learn as if you were to live forever; live as if you were to die tomorrow.” Too many of us focus on the second part of that statement as a license to live as freely as we want, only to wake up the next day realizing the consequences of living without morals is not only painful but far-reaching.

He shared his “Pyramid of Success” with me and it hangs on my wall to this day.  His book, Wooden on Leadership, which explains in great detail the fundamentals of the Pyramid, should be mandated by every high school as required curriculum.  If we desire to truly save our country and raise children properly, this is one of the single most important pieces of writing ever accomplished.

The Pyramid focuses on Relational Cooperation and Personal Responsibility; it teaches you to focus on your personal BEST, not winning, and that everything in life involves other people so you have to know how to cooperate within a team environment.  Winning and teamwork are the results of the individual being their best.  Serving as president of a Little League program for 5 years, I can tell you that this one principle is far more important than any other principle of writing, reading, math, or science.  The principles that create the attitude and determination to become your best force you to become the person you want everyone else to become.  As Coach Wooden has said many times, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

Foundational Principles

Work and joy must coexist in order for personal success to be achieved.   These are only the first principles in the Pyramid but they are the foundation and without these two being achieved the other ten principles will not be developed properly; therefore the achievement of your personal BEST is not obtainable.

The principles of industrious (work) and enthusiasm (joy) coexisting has become so obsolete and misunderstood that this should whet your appetite enough to seek what else this great man stood for and why.  Our society has lost an understanding of what each principle means by itself much less the complexity of what they mean together.

Another of his foundational principles was loyalty.  The best example he gave of this was with his beloved wife, Nell.  She was the first girl he ever kissed and he promised her there would never be another.  She died in 1985, and he kept his promise to her for another 25 years.

We have been blessed to have this great man influence our society at a time when we needed it the most.  My dream is that all of us could be influenced by his example.  As his time here on Earth was waning, his dream was to see Nell again.  True to Coach Wooden’s character, he always told everyone “don’t give up on your dreams, or your dreams will give up on you.”  It makes me smile to know that his dream has undoubtedly come true.  As he said in his final interview about how he hopes to be remembered and what God thinks of him: “Well done, Coach.”

Order Wooden on Leadership: