I was a student at UGA — a physical education major — and was just beginning to realize that I didn’t know everything. Such a realization can be a real eye-opener for a 21-year-old. I wanted to be a basketball coach and a teacher, quite frankly, in that order. I outgrew that, too.
Somewhere along the line I had heard one of my professors suggest that to be the best you needed to learn from the best, and I got the bright idea that I would write letters to the best coaches in the land, asking them to share their secrets for success with me.
I must have sent out about a dozen letters to the Adolph Rupps, Dean Smiths and Frank McGuires of the world. I got one response. Just one. It was postmarked Los Angeles, Calif., and contained a one-page, handwritten letter thanking me for taking time to write.
John Wooden — the Wizard of Westwood, the man who was in the midst of a run that would bring 10 NCAA championships to UCLA during a 12-year stretch, an accomplishment that had never been approached before and never will be again — took time to answer my letter and actually thanked me for writing him.
I don’t remember what words of wisdom the great man had for me, but I remember the thrill of opening that envelope and seeing his name at the bottom of the page.
I did what one would do upon receiving a letter from any pen pal. I wrote him back. A few weeks later I received another handwritten letter. Coach Wooden and I probably exchanged four or five such missives. I was astute enough to know that I shouldn’t bombard him too often with questions or inane comments about my dreams and hopes and aspirations, but I couldn’t refrain, totally, from continuing the correspondence.
And then, in the spring of 1975, I was able to write the great John Wooden a letter informing him that I had been named head basketball coach of the Cousins Middle School Rams, in Covington. A few weeks later, I received not a letter but a package in the mail with a familiar California return address. It was a copy of a small hardback book, titled “They Call Me Coach.” Inscribed inside the front cover — right on top of the “Pyramid of Success” — was an inscription: “Best wishes, Darrell, for your entrance into a great profession and in all other ways as well. I hope you enjoy this story about another coach.” It was signed “John Wooden.”
Friday night, while watching the college softball World Series with my daughter Jamie, breaking news came across the screen that sent me scurrying through the many treasures on the various book shelves throughout our home. According to ESPN, John Wooden was in the UCLA Medical Center and his condition was grave. This was not a shock, necessarily, because Coach Wooden, after all, had turned 99 in October and no one can be expected to live forever. Nonetheless, the news surprised and saddened me, and I wanted to hold the book he had given me in my hands, show the inscription to my daughter and try to explain to her what a great person — not coach, but person — we were in danger of losing.
Make no mistake about it, as great a coach as John Wooden was — 664-162 lifetime record with 10 national titles and 12 Final Four appearances — his greatest legacy will be in the type person he was.
John Wooden is a gentleman. He was a fierce competitor but he was always low key and never, ever, ever called attention to himself. He was a Christian — once when I heard him speak at a coaching clinic on a Sunday morning, he read a Bible lesson before he talked about X’s and O’s and insisted that we really all should be in church — and the strongest oath he ever uttered in public was “goodness gracious sakes alive!”
He was much different from the prima donnas who stalk the sidelines today — the Patinos, the Caliparis and even the Roy Williamses and the Coach K’s. He was a cut above, in every sense of the word. Perhaps it was his Midwestern upbringing that has kept him so well grounded. He was born in the small town of Hall, Ind., and raised on a farm in Centerton. Perhaps it was the love of his life, Nell, his wife and companion of almost 60 years. Perhaps it was his faith. He once remarked, “If I am ever accused of being a Christian I hope I am tried and convicted.”
Perhaps he was just created to be the person he would become.
At any rate, John Wooden is one of a kind. He is the class of all his contemporaries and has no peers.
I would coach basketball at the middle school and high school levels for 25 years. Obviously, I never became another John Wooden, but I also never forgot his definition of success and throughout my career as an educator I have tried to live up to it and to pass it along to my students.
He said that “success is peace of mind which is a direct result of knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.”
John Wooden was quite a success. Thanks, Coach — for everything.
Darrell Huckaby is an author and teacher in Rockdale County. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.