As you probably know by now, legendary coach, John Wooden, departed this life last evening in California.
What Coach Wooden was able to accomplish was astonishing. He was head basketball coach at UCLA for 27 years. Between the years 1964 to 1975, he led UCLA to an astonishing 10 NCAA Championships and 88 consecutive victories. In 1973, he was the first person to ever be honored by the basketball hall of fame as both a player and coach. When I was in high school, it was almost inconceivable to think of UCLA losing a basketball game — and when they finally did, it made national headlines. One of the jokes that circulated told of a teacher asking Johnny how to spell “basketball.” “That’s easy,” Johnny said, “U-C-L-A!”
Wooden’s success was rooted in his faithfulness in little things, the details of the game, the small things of life. Each year, Coach began the first day of practice with his new recruits by saying this: “Gentleman, today we’re going to figure out how to put our shoes and socks on.” The young hotshots might have smiled, but Coach knew what he was doing. He knew that the most common injury in basketball is blisters. And the easiest way to avoid blisters is simply putting your socks on carefully and lacing up your shoes properly. So Coach would demonstrate how to roll up your socks and put them on properly and how to tighten the laces of your shoes — and made each of the players demonstrate that he could do it before continuing practice. “I wanted it done consciously, not quickly or casually. Otherwise we would not be doing everything possible to prepare in the best way.” This was simply applying one of his favorite sayings: “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.”
Coach gave sound counsel that applied far beyond playing the game of basketball: “Don’t be too concerned with regard to things over which you have no control, because that will eventually have an adverse effect on things over which you have control.”
“Sports do not build character. They reveal it.”
“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”
“If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.”
“Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”
“Material possessions, winning scores, and great reputations are meaningless in the eyes of the Lord, because He knows what we really are and that is all that matters.”
The last quote points to what Coach always considered to be the foundation of his success: his faith in Jesus Christ. The faith that started after he began dating the girl he eventually married and spent 53 of the happiest years of his life with, Nell Riley. “I was baptized with the young woman who was to be my wife later on, the only girl I ever dated, in 1927. We were juniors in high school and she was the only girl I ever went with and we had a relationship and she suggested that we join [the church] at the same time. I don’t want to say that I accepted Christ at that particular time because of the fact that I did this primarily because she wanted me to. But my acceptance came gradually as time went by.”
It was his faith in Jesus that guided, upheld, and comforted him through all his years. After Nell died in 1985, Coach was heartbroken. But he never despaired. When someone asked how he was holding up after Nell’s death, he said, “I have always tried to make it clear that basketball is not the ultimate. It is of small importance in comparison to the total life we live. There is only one kind of life that truly wins, and that is the one that places faith in the hands of the Savior. Until that is done, we are on an aimless course that runs in circles and goes nowhere.”
Coach Wooden will be honored (deservedly so) for all his amazing accomplishments, but he only desired to be remembered as a Christian. He never sought the limelight (though he could have easily kept the spotlight upon himself) and quietly led others by integrity, honesty, and a faithfulness that cannot be fabricated. He loved the Scriptures and read them daily and faithfully attended the First Christian Church every Lord’s Day. When a reporter once asked him what he wanted God to say to him upon his passing, John Wooden simply replied, “Well done.”
And yesterday, at the age of 99, he finally heard those words. No doubt Coach has spent the last few hours rejoicing in the presence of his Savior and in being reunited with his beloved Nell, along with thousands of others that he was privileged to guide and influence during his long and fruitful life — a life well-lived because it was lived for His Lord and for others.
Coach, we’ll miss you. We thank God for you and look forward to meeting you soon.