I read Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections on and Off the Court shortly after the Coach passed away. While there is every indication that John Wooden was a serious and devout Christian, the first thing I noticed about the book is that the author (Steve Jamison) and/or the publisher (McGraw-Hill) seemed to downplay this, as should perhaps not be unexpected. Consequently, the moral aphorisms that fill the book come across as somewhat detached from the gospel of grace. That said, the book (as promised) was full of the wisdom of John Wooden. It wasn’t really a biography, but a compendium of thoughts from John Wooden on matters ranging from family, to friendships, to basketball, to the importance of perseverance in adversity.
Wooden was strongly influenced by his father, from whom he gained these maxims: Never lie, never cheat, never steal. Don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses. John was born in 1910 in the town of Hall, Indiana and at the age of 8 moved with his family to a small farm in Centerton in 1918. After graduating in 1928, he attended Purdue University, where he helped lead the Boilermakers to the 1932 National Championship, as determined by a panel vote rather than the NCAA tournament, which did not begin until 1939. Graduating with a degree in English, John was named All-Big Ten and All-Midwestern (1930–32) while at Purdue, and he was the first player ever to be named a three-time All-American.
After college, Mr. Wooden balanced professional basketball while teaching high school English. He also began to coach at the high school level. In 1942, he joined the Navy in the midst of World War II, leaving three years later as a lieutenant. In 1961, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
After WWII, Wooden coached at Indiana Teacher’s College (now named Indiana State University) for a few years, during which time they also made him the baseball coach and the athletic director. He did this while teaching and earning a masters degree in education. This from Wikipedia is fascinating:
In 1947, Wooden’s basketball team won the Indiana Collegiate Conference title and received an invitation to the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball (NAIB) National Tournament in Kansas City. Wooden refused the invitation, citing the NAIB’s policy banning African American players. One of Wooden’s players was Clarence Walker, an African-American from East Chicago, Indiana.
After the 1947–48 season, Wooden became the head coach at UCLA, a position he held for 27 years, winning 10 national championships during his last 12 years and becoming (arguably) the most successful coach in the history of college basketball. After retiring from UCLA, he fulfilled a variety of public speaking engagements but lived a relatively modest life until passing away earlier this summer just four months shy of his 100th birthday.
Here are some of my favorite Wooden quotes, which I culled from Jamison’s book. Most of them deal with success:
1. Don’t try to be better than someone else. But never stop trying to the best you can be. The latter is under your control. The former is not.
2. The outcome is the by-product of the level of preparation. Don’t make the by-product the main product. Focus on being excellent in the process and the outcome will take care of itself. To do anything else is to work below your level of competency.
3. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.
4. When you blame others you are trying to excuse yourself. When you make excuses you can’t properly evaluate yourself. Without proper self-evaluation, failure is inevitable.
5. Think positively, but don’t think “anything is possible.”
6. It is best not to drink too deeply from a cup full of fame.
7. The best thing a man can do for his children is to love their mother.
8. Don’t measure yourself by what you’ve accomplished, but rather by what you should have accomplished with your abilities.
9. Failure waits for all who stay with some success made yesterday.
10. Leadership is the ability to get individuals to work together for the common good and the best possible results while at the same time letting them know they did it themselves.
11. Fairness is giving all people the treatment they earn and deserve. It doesn’t mean treating everyone alike. That’s unfair, because everyone doesn’t earn the same treatment.
12. Leaders are interested in finding the best way rather than having their own way.
13. If you get caught up in things over which you have no control, it will adversely affect those things over which you have control.
14. Talent is God-given: be humble. Fame is man-given: be thankful. Conceit is self-given: be careful.
15. You are just as important as anyone else, but you are no more important than anyone else.
John Wooden strikes me as having been a great man in every sense of the word. It is said by those who met him that he was enormously humble, making them feel important regardless of who they were. His strength and competitiveness was tempered with tenderness and love, and his optimism was balanced by realism.
My only disappointment with the book is I would have liked to know more about his personal practice of the Christian faith. He is said to have read the Bible daily, regularly attended church, and been a friend of Billy Graham. I recommend this book as an entertaining and easy read, but would caution against the “moralistic therapeutic deism” with which it might leave the reader.