On this day when John Wooden celebrates his 99th birthday, you can browse the Internet and read many stories exalting his amazing accomplishments in basketball. Wooden is widely regarded as the greatest coach of all time—in any sport. Sports Illustrated and ESPN named him the greatest coach of the 20th century, and with good reason. While at UCLA, he led the Bruins to 10 NCAA titles, including seven consecutive championships. At one point during his tenure, UCLA had an 88-game winning streak that spanned four seasons. Wooden retired on top, winning his 10th national championship in his final game in 1975.
As a player at Purdue University, Wooden achieved equal success. He was a consensus three-time All-American from 1930-32 and led the Boilermakers to the 1932 national championship. Later, he became the first person ever to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player (1961) and a coach (1973).
But while many consider Wooden the greatest coach of all time, he has always considered himself more of a teacher than a coach. Consider the comments Wooden made when speaking to former UCLA player Swen Nater (known at the time as Bill Walton’s backup) and current UCLA professor Ronald Gallimore, co-authors of You Haven’t Taught Until They Have Learned: John Wooden’s Teaching Principles and Practices, published by Fitness Information Technology.
“I always considered myself a teacher rather than just a coach,” Wooden said. “Everyone, everyone is a teacher. Everyone is a teacher to someone; maybe it’s your children, maybe it’s a neighbor, maybe it’s someone under your supervision in some other way, and in one way or another you’re teaching them by your actions.” (pp. xv-xvi)
Because of his mastery of coaching and success on the court, years ago Wooden was labeled as the “Wizard of Westwood,” but he is quick to say, “I’m no wizard, I’m a teacher.”
Many people may not realize that Wooden spent 10 years teaching English and coaching at the high school level before becoming a collegiate men’s basketball coach. And even then, in his first job at that level at Indiana State University, Wooden still taught English courses (in addition to serving as athletics director and head baseball coach).
It was during the formative years as a high school teacher and coach that John Wooden began to craft his teaching principles and practices—and then he transferred those principles and practices onto the basketball court, enabling him to enjoy unmatched success. As the authors of You Haven’t Taught Until They Have Learned wrote, Wooden “was a great coach because he was a master teacher.”
What’s so amazing about Wooden is that even though he is 99 today, he continues to be a “teacher” to anyone he meets. Even though his health has declined in recent years—limiting his public speaking events—he continues to teach others at every opportunity: at a basketball clinic, corporate retreat, or just during a casual conversation at his favorite diner or in his quaint apartment.