Saturday, June 5, 2010

John Wooden's Life Masterpiece

In his autobiography, They Call Me Coach, John Wooden described two items he used to carry in his pocket daily.  A lucky rabbit's foot and a diamond-studded money clip perhaps?  No.  Maybe a momento from one of his record 10 NCAA basketball championships as a coach at UCLA and a photo collage of his two College Basketball Hall of Fame plaques (one as a player and one as a coach)?  No.

The two items that Coach Wooden carried with him daily throughout his extraordinary life and incomparable coaching career were a simple laminated cross, which reminded him of his Christian faith and the importance of living a life of humility, and a personal note of advice written to him by his late father, which contained this nugget of counsel: "make each day your masterpiece."

The passing of John R. Wooden yesterday marked more than just the death of the greatest college sports figure of all-time and the loss of one of the most important Americans of the 20th century.  It was the final day of a 99-year life that can only be described as a masterpiece.

Coach Wooden clearly set a standard of success that is unrivaled in college sports.  His teams at UCLA won 10 national championships in a 12-season stretch from 1964 to 1975. From 1971 to 1974, UCLA won 88 consecutive games, still the NCAA record.  Four of Coach Wooden’s teams finished with 30-0 records.

And yet it was Coach Wooden himself who spent much of his life trying to get everyone around him to challenge their very definition of success.  This giant icon in competitive athletics -- an area of life where success is defined by wins and losses, almost without qualification -- sought to persuade his culture that success was not in fact determined by external measurememts such as championships and reputation, but instead by internal measurements such as effort and character.
In fact, his Solomon-like definition of success is one that I committed to memory as a 12 year-old kid and have recited often in the 30 years since: "Success is a peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction that comes with knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming."
Coach Wooden was a committed family man, a devoutly religious man, a humanitarian, and a Hall of Fame college athlete and coach.  Those are all extraordinary indicators of a rich life, but the benefits of those aspects of his life primarily fell on those who knew and loved him.  For those who never met him, perhaps his greatest legacy was that of a teacher.  He taught those of us who regarded ourselves as his students -- through the impersonal media of books and television -- that success is found in the process . . . not the outcome.
In reviewing one of the many obituaries that have been published in the 24 hours since Coach Wooden's death was announced, I came across this intriguing comment from one of his famous students, former UCLA Bruin and Los Angeles Laker Gail Goodrich: "He believed that winning is a result of process, and he was a master of the process, of getting us to focus on what we were doing rather than the final score. One drill he had was to run a play over and over at full speed, but he wouldn't let us shoot the ball. He made us concentrate on what happened before the shot was taken, what happened to make it possible. He made us focus on execution. He built teams that knew how to execute."
Those who were close students of Coach Wooden's can tell you that he was famous for a peculiar coaching tendency: he rarely called timeouts.  It might be tempting to dismiss this as a coincidence since his teams were often so dominant, but this simple explanation would deprive others of an important lesson.  Coach Wooden rarely called timeouts because he believed that his job was to teach his players how to prepare, then to prepare them thoroughly for every game.  Once the game started, he largely left it to his disciplined army of athletes to figure things out for themselves, often times even when they found themselves in a spot of bother.
There is a profound lesson in there for any of us who are parents, business owners, school teachers, etc.  Our focus ought to be on promoting effort, teaching process, instilling discipline, modeling work ethic, requiring commitment, shaping character . . . and then turning our pupils loose to work things out as best they can, letting the results take care of themselves.
Another one of the pearls in Coach Wooden's autobiography -- which sits proudly on one of my bookshelves -- is the idea that we ought not focus on our reputations because reputation is really just a function of what other people think about you.  Your reputation could be wildly unfair and based on hurtful presumptions about you or it could be excessively favorable and based on a certain mythology about your achievements.  Instead, we should focus on character . . . because character is what we are truly made of on the inside.
Coach Wooden would have smiled at the biggest story in the sports world last week, prior to his passing.  Last Wednesday, one of the top umpires in baseball, Jim Joyce, blew a call on a close play at first base in the the Tigers-Indians game.  This would have been a minor footnote to the season except for one thing -- it occurred with two outs in the ninth inning and robbed Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga of a perfect game.
What followed, though, was character on display for the entire sporting world to see, including millions of American sons and daughters.  As soon as the game ended and Joyce saw the replay, he went straight to the Tigers clubhouse and apologized to Galarraga for his mistake.  He then faced the music with the news media, accepting full responsibility for the blown call and expressing sincere tearful remorse for the fact that his error had cost a player his rightful reward.  In response, Galarraga publicly forgave Joyce for his mistake, then greeted him at home plate before the next day's game and shook his hand.  Meanwhile, the Tigers organization saw to it that Joyce was well-received when he came out to umpire the game, including an ovation that was led by Tigers Manager Jim Leyland from the top of the dugout steps during his introduction.
This was character in the mold of John Wooden: the willingness of Joyce to own up to his mistake and take responsibility, the willingness of Galarraga to forgive and move on, the willingness of the organization damaged by the mistake to try to pick up a hurting man during a difficult time and help him put the pieces back together.
Our world is a better place because of John Wooden.  He lived a quiet life, never making much money and rarely participating in any ceremonies to honor him, but fortunately for us he left behind something of lasting value: a life masterpiece.  Coach Wooden did more than just pursue arete -- he modeled it in his career and his writings, teaching priceless life lessons for those of us who are willing to stop and take notice.


  1. Just a little trivia. The runner who was called "safe" at first base, was none other than Buchanan High School graduate, Jason Donald! Great article!!

  2. Coach Wooden, a mans man. Great tribute D!