U.C.L.A. Head Coach John Wooden died at the age of 99 on June 4, this past Friday. The basketball coach of the most winning team in college history, Coach Wooden’s life was above all one of extraordinary faithfulness. Faithful to his wife for 53 years (the only girl he ever kissed or dated), faithful to his calling as a basketball coach, faithful to the U.C.L.A. Bruins, whom he coach for 28 years, and (by all accounts) faithful to his Master Jesus Christ.
His teams at U.C.L.A. won 10 national championships in a 12-season stretch from 1964 to 1975 (at which time he retired). From 1971 to 1974, U.C.L.A. won 88 consecutive games, still the N.C.A.A. record. (In fairness, it is more difficult for today’s coaches to assemble such dynasties, because many great players quit college to go pro.)
Coach Wooden could recall poetry and had a number of pithy remarks. Here’s one:
At God’s footstool to confess,
A poor soul knelt and bowed his head.
I failed, he cried. The Master said,
Thou didst thy best, that is success.
This short poem conveys the important difference between success by external markers (such as a letter grade in a class, or a team’s record of wins and losses) and success before God, the Audience of One. Wooden expressed this another way:
Don’t be too concerned with regard to things over which you have no control, because that will eventually have an adverse effect on things over which you have control.
In other words, focus on the fundamentals, do your very best, and let the results play out. Don’t get caught up in comparing yourself to others, because that actually hinders you from reaching your potential. This Wooden quote is particularly helpful for talented but lazy people:
Don’t measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but by what you should have accomplished with your ability.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of the champions who played for Wooden, recalled that there “was no ranting and raving, no histrionics or theatrics.” He continued:
“To lead the way Coach Wooden led takes a tremendous amount of faith. He was almost mystical in his approach, yet that approach only strengthened our confidence. Coach Wooden enjoyed winning, but he did not put winning above everything. He was more concerned that we became successful as human beings, that we earned our degrees, that we learned to make the right choices as adults and as parents.”
“In essence,” Abdul-Jabbar concluded, “he was preparing us for life.”
In the tumultuous 1960s, a reporter asked one of Wooden’s African-American players about racial problems on the team. In fact, Wooden had racially integrated his team early in his tenure at U.C.L.A. The Black player replied, “You don’t know my coach, do you? He doesn’t see race at all, he sees ball players.”
With the help of Steve Jamison, Wooden penned an autobiography, Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections on and Off the Court.