He Was A Teacher First


I was working on an education piece but I first want to express my thoughts about John Wooden’s death at the age of 99 on Friday (June 4, 2010).

I do not remember when it was that I became interested in John Wooden. It was probably, as I wrote in my review of his last book (John Wooden – A review of “A Game Plan for Life – the power of mentoring” by John Wooden and Don Yaeger), back in 1968 when I bought his book on coaching basketball, Practical Modern Basketball, and I was harboring some thoughts of going into coaching.

But over the years, as I read about him and what he had done, I began not only to respect him but also to admire him. Not just because of his coaching record and all the titles but because of what transpired after the game was over. Before John Wooden became a coach, he was a teacher and it was as a teacher that he honed his skills as a coach.

When you listen to all that is said about Coach Wooden, listen to what his players said. You will not hear much about basketball or winning but you will hear about what he taught them. And it is what he taught them that we should be remembering Coach Wooden on this weekend.

But, you know, it is sad to think that if he were coaching basketball today, he may not have the same success that he is receiving all the accolades for today.

How many coaches today would be able to say to a star player that their hair was too long and it had to be cut if they expected to stay on the team? How many coaches today would last if their vocabulary did not include the words victory and winning and doing it right now? How many coaches would survive if they sacrificed a number one ranking to make a point about the need to stay focused? (I recall reading one time that the 1974 UCLA team, in the midst of the 88-game winning streak, became overly self-confident and head strong, to the point that they felt that they could win no matter what. When the time came and the pressure was on the players, Coach Wooden refused to call a time out and bring them back into focus. As a result, they lost at Notre Dame, lost two conference games and the national semi-final game to North Carolina State. If a coach were to do that today, the odds are that he or she would be fired before the sun rose the next day.

But the players, to a man, know that though they came to UCLA to play basketball, they left with a degree and an education; because John Wooden was a teacher first.

And there are lessons to be learned from this master teacher, lessons that we need to be learning but are apt to ignore. We really need to contrast how it was that John Wooden taught his players with the manner in which we teach today.

We teach for the moment when we should be teaching for tomorrow and, more importantly, the day after tomorrow, for the future.

I have no doubt that Coach Wooden was a fierce competitor. But he recognized that success does not come immediately but rather over time. It took him many, many years to build what has become know as the Pyramid of Success but there are many people today who seem to think that owning a copy of this pyramid will bring them success.

We teach by giving the answers to the questions when we should be teaching our students how to get the answers. (In light of our current fascination with testing, this will be very difficult.)

We simply give out the information as information when we should be utilizing it and expressing it in real-life terms. The most important part of a UCLA basketball game was the practices that preceded the game, not the game itself. Each game was organized and there were drills to be run at a specific time and with a specific speed. The drills started off simply but increased in speed and complexity with practice concluding with what was essentially a full court game. The actual game was nothing compared to the practices that lead up to the game. (How many practice players do you know who were drafted #1 in professional basketball – Swen Nater was recruited to play basketball at UCLA in his junior and senior year. He never started a game but, according to Bill Walton, was the toughest center Walton ever played against.)

We can test our students all we like but if all we do is simply set it up so that they repeat or parrot what they were told, they will have learned nothing. On the other hand, if we work on the basics and we expand the basics and we culminate the process with real-life problems, then what transpires outside the classroom and after graduation will seem quite easy by comparison.

John Wooden also taught us the need to listen, the need to think, and the need to change when it was appropriate (look at what happened when Wilt Chamberlain pointed out that you handled things, not people; upon hearing that, Coach Wooden went to his basketball textbook and changed all the references to “handling your players” to “working with your players”).

He himself admits that it was his own stubbornness that prevented him from implementing the 2-2-1 zone press that so devastated basketball in 1964 and 1965. But he listened to Jerry Norman and Norman’s analysis of the press in light of the players on the 1963-64 team and the result was 30 victories, no defeats, and the first of ten national titles.

We live in a world where success is called for immediately, where learning is instant, and the measure of success is determined right now. It is a world where the individual counts most of all.

Coach Wooden pointed out many times that it is what you learn after you have learned everything that is important. He pointed out that working together can accomplish far more than going it along. He taught us all that success comes later and you look back at it, not to it. He also pointed out that success is far more than the number of victories in life and that life cannot be measured in terms of wins and losses. The lessons of life are there to be learned; in this day and age, I hope that as we celebrate the life of John Wooden, we take the time to reflect on what he taught us. After all, he was a teacher first.

Here is a compilation of pieces I have written with references to John Wooden:

  • Sermon/message given on 22 November 1998 – “Who Shall Lead us?” – speaking about the attitude of the players in 1974 (posted 5 June 2010)
  • Sermon given on 30 July 2000 – It’s The Little Things – in which I spoke of why Coach Wooden taught his players how to put on their socks and shoes (posted 12 July 2009)
  • Sermon given on 15 January 2006 – “Hearing God’s Call”– about a player who wasn’t a good practice player but was a fine basketball player
  • Sermon given on 24 August 2008 – “Building On the Rocks” – about the Pyramid of Success
  • 10 December 2008 – “Is It The Water?” – “Drink deeply from the good books”
  • 10 May 2009 – Two Things To Think About – John Wooden’s definition of success
  • 9 October 2009 – John Wooden – A review of “A Game Plan for Life – the power of mentoring” by John Wooden and Don Yaeger
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