Remembering the Wizard of Mentors: John Wooden (1910-2010)

Mentorlogo(Virtually anyone can benefit from having a mentor. And most well-known, accomplished and successful people can identify people in their lives who acted as mentors. The mentor pairings that are described at Famous Mentor Pairings were identified from a variety of sources including autobiographies, biographies, newspaper articles, personal interviews, and diligent historical research. In addition to the list of mentor pairs from the world of entertainment, business, creative arts, sports, politics, history, and science available in the Peer Resources listings, a few historical facts or humorous references to the term mentor are also included.)

A frequently discussed topic in the professional literature is “What’s the difference between a mentor, personal coach, sports coach and teacher?” While many have tackled this question, a realistic answer is much more difficult when all these roles are superbly combined in one person. And no one combined them with more skill, elegance, and success than American Basketball Hall of Fame player and coach John Wooden, who died at age 99 on June 4, 2010 in Los Angeles California.

One of the advantages of attending the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s was going to their basketball games in the Men’s Gym and watching the team set records for the most consecutive games won (88) and the number of NCAA championship seasons.

When I graduated from UCLA in 1964, the team won every game they played, including the NCAA championship (and nine more NCAA championships after that). And while the Shah of Iran was the controversial commencement speaker at my graduation ceremony, the most well-known and revered person on campus was John Wooden (1910-2010), the coach of the UCLA basketball team, known to everyone on the Westwood (Los Angeles) campus of UCLA as “The Wizard of Westwood.”

John_WoodenCoach Wooden, known simply as “Coach,” was not just a hero to students, he was loved and revered by all his players and was a mentor to virtually every player he coached during the 27 years he was at UCLA.

Jamaal Wilkes described Coach as “one in a billion as a coach, mentor and friend. As a friend, whenever you reached out to him he always reached back unconditionally.”

The reciprocity or mutuality we often mention as part of a relationship-based mentoring connection was demonstrated when Coach Wooden was asked to describe his ideal player, he told the New York Post in 1985: “I would have the player be a good student, polite, courteous, a good team player, a good defensive player and rebounder, a good inside player and outside shooter. “Why not just take Jamaal Wilkes and let it go at that.”
Kareem Abdul-Jabaar (known as Lew Alcindor when he played during my student days), the all-time leading point scorer in the National Basketball Association, said, “Many people have asked me if Coach Wooden was for real. They wanted to know if he really didn’t use foul language or really didn’t tell his teams they had to win a specific game. Coach’s value system was from another era, it was developed in an America that has passed on. The one thing that impressed me about coach was that he never stopped being curious, understanding he hadn’t learned everything that was possible to know.”

“Coach Wooden’s legacy transcends athletics, what he did was produce leaders,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said in a statement released by the school. “Through his work and his life, he imparted his phenomenal understanding of leadership and his unwavering sense of integrity to so many people.”

Former University of Louisville basketball coach Denny Crum, who was an assistant coach to John Wooden for 10 years at UCLA, said that Coach was “a ‘life coach’ before such a thing existed. Coach walked the talk; doing the right thing and living like basketball was incidental to his family and life.”

Another one of the players he coached, Bill Walton, who went on to an outstanding career in the National Basketball Association, recognized Coach as his most cherished mentor, saying that his own family’s home is “a shrine to John Wooden.”

“Coach Wooden never talked about winning and losing, basketball Hall of Fame player Walton, recalled in a statement released after Coach’s passing, “but rather about the effort to win. He rarely talked about basketball, but generally about life. He never talked about strategy, statistics or plays, but rather about people and character. Coach Wooden never tired of telling us that once you become a good person, then you have a chance of becoming a good basketball player.”

When Coach wanted to renew his driver’s license at age 95, one of his former players, Michael Warren, drove him to the licensing office. He recalled the event saying, “It’s like walking around with Jesus or Mother Teresa. It may sound outlandish, but in all sincerity, when you think about the things he accomplished and how humble he remained, he’s one of those figures who transcends everything – ethnicity, gender, and race.”

I was fortunate to meet Coach when I was dating a coed who was a UCLA cheerleader, and we often attended events to support the basketball team. She introduced me to Coach, and despite his fame, reputation, and commitment and engagement with his players, he wanted to know what I was studying, what sports I enjoyed, and what I was planning on doing when I graduated.

When he learned that I was a psychology major he wanted to know if I’d be interested in his Pyramid of Success. What impressed me most about this is that he didn’t say I should really know about this, but here was one of the most revered people in sports asking me if I would be interested in a copy. Of course, at the time there was no website to refer to, just actual paper documents. His offer to provide me with a copy and be interested in my future stayed with me for many years.

His Pyramid of Success is used by athletes, coaches, and business leaders around the world, and he is known not only as a great athlete (he was himself a three-time All-American basketball player at Purdue), but as a mentor who believed that learning and practicing the fundamentals of a successful life was the major contributor to being a successful athlete. Coach summed it this way, “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.”

Coach Wooden is probably the most quoted athlete/coach of all time, and what he has had to say in his many inspirational speeches and talks is widely circulated on the Internet (close to 500,000 websites include his quotes) and catalogued in his many books. An inspiring sample of his ideas about success, their origins, and finding the best in each of us is illustrated in his 2001 TED talk.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but most of the short conversations we had during the time I was at UCLA were filled with things he would say that were inspiring, quotable, and personable. Despite his busy schedule he took the time to be friendly and warm, and when he talked he seemed genuinely interested in what I (as well as my cheerleader girlfriend, Barbara) had to say.

He was the first person I talked with who expressed the view that adversity was a great teacher and a way to get to know yourself. His viewpoint acted as a catalyst to help me make some key changes in how I was coping with my own lack of success in my athletic career. One of his quotes was “Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out,”

I think that he was a mentor, friend, and teacher to almost everyone he came into contact with. Coach said, “You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.” I’m sure that anyone who had a conversation with him realized that the differences between a coach, mentor, or teacher were no where near as relevant as the spectacular way Coach combined them all.

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