When it comes to college basketball coaches, John Wooden’s legacy rises high above anyone else’s.
His UCLA teams won 10 titles in a 12-year span (beginning in 1964, depicted above). Four of these championship teams posted undefeated seasons (1964, 1967, 1972, and 1973). Wooden’s epic 12-year run also included a span of seven straight titles (1967-73).
This year’s NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament marks the 40th anniversary of Wooden’s final season, during which his UCLA squad won yet another title (with a 92-85 victory over Kentucky). Here are seven leadership and team-building lessons from that final season. My source is Seth Davis’s superb biography, Wooden: A Coach’s Life.
1. Never stop teaching, but keep it brief.
Prior to the season, Wooden granted permission to two psychology professors, Roland Tharp and Ronald Gallimore, to observe his afternoon practices. All told, they observed 30 hours of practices and coded 2,326 discrete acts of teaching. Here’s Tharp’s summary:
His teaching utterances or comments were short, punctuated, and numerous. There were no lectures, no extended harangues. Although frequent and often in rapid-fire order, his utterances were so distinct we could code each one as a separate event. He rarely spoke longer than 20 seconds….The major findings of our coding scheme can be summarized as follows: 75 percent of all utterances carried information, much of which was repetitive. Minimal use of praises and reproofs.
In his book, Davis points out that Wooden gradually honed his communicative efficiency over a long career. His methods in practice were “the result of a lifetime of small, almost unnoticeable advancements.”
2. No matter how successful you become, you’ll deal with critics and loudmouths.
Shortly after winning the 1975 title, Wooden stood outside the team’s locker room and spoke to reporters. A UCLA alum came up to him and said: “Congratulations, Coach. You let us down last year, but this made up for it.”
The remark upset Wooden, especially because the previous season was a great one. UCLA had finished with a record of 26-4. The team made the Final Four before losing in double overtime to the North Carolina State squad that won the title.
Moreover, prior to Wooden’s arrival in 1948, UCLA’s basketball teams weren’t particularly distinguished. In the previous 17 seasons, the team only twice had a winning record. Under Wooden, the team had a winning record every season.
So the alum had voiced disappointment with Wooden, yet it was Wooden’s distinguished tenure that had created (and inflated) the alum’s lofty expectations. The point is: Sustained success can distort levels of expectation. Likewise, it can breed a disproportionate sense of disappointment.
3. Measure yourself on the maximization of potential, not necessarily the bottom-line result, and…
4. When the light shines on you, deflect it to another who’s deserving.
Wooden exemplified both of these lessons shortly after winning the 1975 title. After the game, reporters–knowing of Wooden’s imminent retirement–asked him how he wished to be remembered. Wooden took the opportunity to give a shout-out to another coach. He said:
I’d like to be remembered as a person who tried to do his best, I guess. A man I’ve admired for so long, Tony Hinkle of Butler, never got the recognition he deserved because his won-lost record wasn’t that great. But no coach ever got more out of his players. It’s hard to keep things in perspective sometimes, but we ought to try.
In other words, Wooden used his crowning moment to honor the legacy of another coach. And that legacy was not wins and losses, but potential fulfilled.
5. You’ll win with star performers who’ve learned humility.
Marques Johnson, a star 6-foot-5 forward on the 1975 UCLA team, could ordinarily overcome taller players with his strength and quickness. But the title game against Kentucky–a team boasting three 6-foot-10 big men–presented “the one occasion where he was overmatched,” Davis writes.
So when Kentucky established a six-point lead in the first half, Wooden replaced Johnson with seven-footer Ralph Drollinger. Rather than fume, Johnson cheered. “It wasn’t about me and my minutes,” he told Davis. “It was like, we need to win this game by any means necessary.”
6. Don’t hold grudges.
Prior to the 1975 season, Wooden allowed Los Angeles Times reporter Dwight Chapin to join him on his daily five-mile walk on UCLA’s track.
It may seem like nothing, but as Davis points out, it was actually a sign that Wooden didn’t hold a grudge. Chapin had coauthored a 1973 Wooden bio called The Wizard of Westwood. The book corrected the long-held myth that Wooden had never had a losing season on any level. It also shined a light on a UCLA booster named Sam Gilbert. In other words, it wasn’t all roses and sunshine.
Still, Wooden relinquished any anger he held toward Chapin and opened up to the reporter prior to his final season.
7. Don’t forget to have fun.
Players on Wooden’s final team tell tales of how their coach loosened up in his final season.
After practice one day, freshman guard Raymond Townsend was playfully taking half-court shots. “In previous years, Wooden might have ripped into Townsend for horsing around,” Davis writes.
On this occasion, Wooden–64-years-old at the time–asked Townsend for the ball. The coach promptly took his own half-court shot–and made it. “Child’s play,” he said to Townsend, before walking away.
On another occasion, Wooden spotted Johnson shooting pool in the student union. Johnson thought he was about to get scolded. Wooden didn’t scold–he just asked Johnson to borrow the cue stick. The coach promptly “made five or six in a row, maybe more,” Johnson told Davis.
“Then he handed me the cue and walked out. Didn’t say a word. Didn’t say one word the whole time.”