A Coach Whose Record May Never Be Surpassed

One of my heroes celebrated his 99th birthday last month. I’m not going to tell you his name just yet because it will spoil the story for some of you.    In his honor, I’m posting an excerpt from my book Fired Up or Burned Out that describes why he is such a great leader and admirable individual. There is much to learn about leadership, employee engagement and productivity from his example.

Connection and the Legend

So often in life, good things bloom from the seeds of hardship. The personal character of a young teenager who went on to become a great leader was immeasurably shaped during the Depression when his family lost their farm in Indiana.  His father’s reaction to the loss was unusual. He wasn’t bitter about it. Instead, his dad focused on the future and told his children that everything would be all right. And it was.

During those impressionable years in this leader’s life, he learned that, like the Depression, some things in life are not in our control. His father taught him that he should always strive to do his best at anything he chose to do and not worry about the outcome. He would later spread that philosophy to countless other.

Another perspective he gained during those formative years was to value people. By watching his mom and dad and hearing the stories of faith they taught him, he learned the joy that came from making people and relationships his focus in life.

The young boy grew up to be an outstanding high school and college basketball player in a state that was rabid about the game. After college he married Nell, the love of his life and the only woman he had ever dated. He taught high school English and coached basketball until 1943 when he enlisted to serve in the Navy during World War II. When he returned from the war to the high school in South Bend, Indiana, where he previously taught, he was offered his old job. Other returning GIs were not, however, and so he refused the offer because he felt it was wrong for the school to deny veterans the jobs they had left to serve their country. Instead, he accepted an offer to become athletic director and head basketball coach at Indiana State Teachers College.

A Caring Coach

For the 1946-47 season Indiana State received a post-season invitation to the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball (NAIB) national play-offs. After the coach learned that a young African-American, second-string guard on his team, Clarence Walker, would not be allowed to participate in the tournament because of the color of his skin, he declined the offer. The following season NAIB officials invited Indiana State again, and this time decided they would allow Clarence to play, provided he didn’t stay at the hotel with his teammates and wouldn’t be seen publicly with them. Once again the coach declined. He and Nell thought of all the young men on the team as extended members of their family whom they loved, and the coach wasn’t about to allow Clarence to be humiliated. But Clarence and his family saw it in a different light. They were excited about the opportunity for him to become the first African-American player in history to participate in the prestigious tournament. So they, along with officials from the NAACP, approached the coach to persuade him that attending the tournament would help, not hurt, Clarence and other African-American players. The coach decided to accept the NAIB’s offer, and the team packed up to head to the play-offs in Kansas City.

On their way to the tournament, the team bus stopped for meals. If a restaurant wouldn’t serve Clarence, the coach would make the team get back on the bus.  Often the team had to pick up food at grocery stores along the way and eat on the bus.

When Clarence finally walked onto the basketball court to warm up, he appeared to be nearly paralyzed with fear. Many people in the crowd spotted the courageous young man, and they began to applaud. Clarence Walker became the first African-American player to participate in the NAIB play-offs, and Indiana State made it to the finals, where they lost to Louisville. Because of Clarence’s courage and his coach’s resolve to stand up for what he believed in, the NAIB tournament was finally opened to African-American student-athletes. The following season three teams brought African-American players with them to the tournament.

John Robert Wooden went on to become head basketball coach of the UCLA Bruins from 1948-75. His fired up teams won more than 80 percent of their games and ten national championships, and had four perfect seasons. Coach Wooden was the first person in history to be inducted twice into the Basketball Hall of Fame.  In 1961, he was honored for his achievements as a player at Purdue University where he was All-American, college player of the year, and a leader of the Boilermakers’ 1932 National Championship Team. In 1973, he was honored for his achievements as a coach.

In the summer of 2003, the ninety-two year-old Wooden traveled to the White House, where he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.  In December, with many of the players Wooden coached surrounding him at the ceremony, UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion was renamed the “Nell and John Wooden Court.”

The Secret of His Success

What was it about Wooden that produced such extraordinary success as a student-athlete and then as a coach? Bill Walton, the Hall of Fame basketball player and television sportscaster who played for the great coach on two national championship teams, identified the essence of Wooden’s success when he stated, “[Coach Wooden] created an environment that people wanted to be a part of…”

To begin with, the environment included vision.  Wooden instilled a tremendous sense of pride in his players about being a part of the UCLA basketball team. He taught them, as Bill Walton wrote, “if you lived up to your responsibilities as a student and a human being, then you earned the privilege of becoming a member of the UCLA basketball team. Integral to meeting his standards was achieving the character values reflected in what he called “the Pyramid of Success.” The character values, or blocks of the pyramid, were: industriousness, enthusiasm, friendship, loyalty, cooperation, self-control, alertness, initiative, intentness, condition, skill, and team spirit. Wooden taught his players that believing and behaving in a way consistent with these character values produced poise and confidence that resulted in competitive greatness (that is, the desire to continuously challenge oneself in life). Patience and faith make up the mortar that holds all of the blocks together. When the pyramid was built, the person met the standards that John Wooden believed made him a success and earned the right to be called a member of the UCLA basketball team.

Wooden taught and lived out the character values he wanted his players to adopt.  They had a vision to strive for as individuals and together as a team. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of the greatest basketball players in history who played his entire college career with Wooden, would later write, “Coach Wooden had a profound influence on me as an athlete, but even greater influence on me as a human being. He is responsible, in part, for the person I am today.”   Bill Walton astutely observed that, “we have become John Wooden ourselves.” And in a sense they did by accepting Wooden’s beliefs, his character values, as their own. As Wooden worked to reproduce people who shared the values reflected in the pyramid, the UCLA basketball team became more connected to their coach and to each other.

Wooden infused the UCLA basketball team environment with value. It began with respect for everyone, regardless of a person’s status on the team or in society. The way Wooden stood up for the returning GIs and Clarence Walker showed that he modeled respect for others. For much of his career Wooden worked alongside the student managers as they swept or mopped the basketball court before practices to set an example that no position was unimportant. He required even the best players to clean up after themselves in the locker room and not to expect the student managers to do it.  All of his players were to be respectful toward flight attendants, waitresses and waiters, and hotel workers they encountered while traveling with the team. He always said, “You’re as good as anybody, but you’re no better than anybody.”

Integral to Coach Wooden’s view of valuing people was the notion of helping them reach their potential as basketball players and as people. Bill Walton described it this way: “You were competing against an ideal, an abstract standard of excellence defined by John Wooden. The actual opponents mattered little. It was the ideal that mattered most.” Wooden pushed his players to be the best they were capable of becoming, running long and demanding practices.  According to Walton, before and after practice, the coach was calm, but during practice sessions Wooden “prowled the sidelines like a caged tiger…He never stopped moving, never stopped chattering away. Up and down the court he would pace, always barking out his pet little phrases…failing to prepare is preparing to fail…never mistake activity for achievement.” He liked to say, “Make the effort. Do your best. The score cannot make you a loser when you do that; it cannot make you a winner if you do less.” If his players didn’t work hard enough during practice, as hard as he did preparing for it, he ordered them off the court, then had the student managers collect the balls, turn off the lights, and lock the doors.

Coach Wooden operated a meritocracy that treated every player fairly. He didn’t believe in the star system and told his players, “The star of the team is the team.”  Wooden benched Sidney Wicks, one of the nations best players, for a season because he wasn’t passing to his open teammates.  (The following year, a more selfless Wicks was awarded All-American honors and helped UCLA win a national championship.) No one’s position was safe if Wooden felt another player had proven he could perform better for the team’s sake. At the same time, however, he recognized that the non-starters didn’t receive the praise that starters did. So, he encouraged and affirmed them in practice, and, as he said in an interview in 1996, “I became a little closer with some of my players [who] didn’t get to play very much.”

Another element in the environment created by Wooden was voice. He encouraged everyone to adopt an attitude of openness to ideas and opinions. One of his favorite sayings was “when everybody thinks alike, nobody thinks.” Wooden typically shared his opinions and encouraged others to share theirs before he made most decisions, unless time was of the essence, say, in the midst of a game. If asked for advice, Wooden would reply, “I don’t give advice, I give opinions.

Wooden’s tolerance for others’ views was tested when Bill Walton wrote a protest letter about the Vietnam War on the UCLA basketball team stationery, had his teammates sign it, and asked Wooden if he would sign it too. Although the coach declined to sign, he allowed Walton to mail the letter to then President Richard Nixon.

Review, Reflection, and Application

• John Wooden, the coach with arguably the best record in any sport, created a culture, in the UCLA basketball team that included the elements of vision, value, and voice.

• Over the course of your life consider who connected with and engaged, or even inspired, you the most.  You should consider your parents, coaches, teachers, instructors, and the other leaders you have come in contact with as well as your friends, teammates, and colleagues at work. Why did they have that effect on you? Were their words or deeds that affected you aspects of vision, value, or voice?

• So what? Arguably the greatest coach ever in any sport created a connection culture. John Wooden was a role model who embodied vision, value, and voice. If you are a leader, how do you compare to John Wooden? How do the leaders in your organization compare to him, and how can they improve?

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