John Wooden’s words of wisdom still ring true
May 11, 2014
“Before God’s footstool to confess,
A poor soul knelt and bowed his head.
I failed, he stated.
The Master said: ‘Thou did thy best, that is success.’”
I always enjoy my trips to the public library. It’s much like a child approaching a brightly lighted tree on Christmas morning and wondering what treasures are wrapped in the glistening packages beneath.
When the call comes letting me know that a book I requested is in, I rush to the library to get started on another reading adventure, hoping it will take me on a journey every bit as pleasant as all the others in the past have been.
My latest literary selection, “Wooden. A Coach’s Life,” is a page-turning biography that kept me up well beyond my bedtime on more than one evening.
John Wooden was the basketball coach at UCLA from 1948-1975. In that time period, his teams won 10 NCAA national championships and he coached a large posse of All-American players, including two of the best who ever graced the lined hardwood: Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar), and Bill Walton.
Wooden was more than a man who coached young men. He was a sports philosopher who often described himself as an English teacher first, and a basketball coach second.
John Wooden’s insistence on instilling life’s lessons into his students and players was the result of his early years growing up on a farm in depression-era Indiana. Wooden’s father, Hugh, preached to his son the value of hard work, and what he called “The Two Sets of Threes:” Never lie, never cheat, never steal. Don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses.”
In his first year of teaching in Dayton, Ky., Wooden gave an assignment to his students to write down what their own personal definition of success was. To his astonishment, most of the answers centered around victories and material gains. Achieving good marks in school was high on the list also. Wooden knew that for many of his students this wasn’t possible. For some, getting an average grade would be a great achievement as long as they were giving their best effort, and for others, a B grade would be considered a failure.
As a coach, Wooden was fully aware that teams could play great and still lose, and by the same token, play poorly and win. As an athlete and a student, Wooden preferred to be judged solely by his effort. This, he decided, would be the basis for how he would teach his own definition of success.
Wooden was a standout guard in his playing days at Purdue University. With legendary coach Piggy Lambert as his mentor, Wooden began to formulate his “ladder of success” which he would later refine as the “Pyramid of Success” while coaching at UCLA.
Wooden’s pyramid was weighted heavily toward effort and character being the measure of a man rather than personal wealth and fame. He encouraged his players and students to believe in themselves and be bold enough to take the initial step to create opportunities in life. This is evident in a poem titled “Mr. Meant To,” which Wooden would hand out to his players at the end of each season, and ask them to commit it to memory:
Mr. Meant To has a comrade
And his name is Didn’t Do
Have you ever chance to meet them?
Did they ever call on you?
These two fellows lived together
In the house of Never Win
I am told that it is haunted
By the ghost of Might Have Been
All of us should commit this one to memory.
You don’t have to be a sports fan to enjoy this book. John Wooden was a teacher in every sense of the word, and his lessons on life carry as much wisdom and guidance today as they did when he was coaching his boys at UCLA.
— Mike Vidakovich is a freelance writer from Glenwood Springs. His column appears monthly in the Post Independent.