The Low-Key Man Who Gave Us March Madness

“March Madness” has begun. This is America’s annual ritual celebrating college basketball. Some economists believe that the value of lost productivity as a result of workers’ time devoted to March madness will approach a billion dollars in 2006. It cost over $750 million in 2005.

Yet there was a time when there was no March Madness. I have written about this before. I can remember watching the 1962 NCAA basketball final, which was broadcast by a non-network local TV station in Los Angeles, which was a huge market. The station did not want to broadcast the game, but it had to. In order to broadcast the semifinal game between local favorite UCLA and the University of Cincinnati, the station had to agree to broadcast the final game, even if UCLA lost the semifinal game, which it did, by two points.

In 1962, it was a replay of the two Ohio teams that had battled for the NCAA championship the year before, Cincinnati vs. Ohio State. Cincinnati had won the 1961 game in overtime. But no one in Los Angeles saw that game. It was not broadcast. There was no interest. Yet Ohio State had defeated Cal in 1960 for the NCAA championship, had lost to Cincinnati the next year, and was appearing for the third time in a row. It had the nation’s best center, Jerry Lucas. It had the forward who would become the greatest sixth man in NBA history, John Havlicek. Why, it even had Bobby Knight on the team! But Bobby did not throw chairs across the court in those days, so nobody paid much attention to him in those days. In 1962, Cincinnati won again.

In 1962, college basketball fans were not considered a large enough segment of the national audience to warrant even the final NCAA game. By 1975, the mania was obvious to every network.

Consider the following facts.

A syndication, Sports Network, was involved in the first six live national telecasts of the NCAA Tournament from 1963 through 1968 for rights totaling $140,000.

You may wondering where the missing four zeroes are. They were not there. There was no madness in March, 1963. But, by 1968, that $140,000 proved to be a very good investment.

What got the event over the hump was the 1968 (national semifinals) rematch between Houston and UCLA in Los Angeles after the Bruins had their long (47-game) winning streak snapped by the Cougars earlier in the season at the Astrodome. We had 253 stations pick up the semifinals and final that year (compared to an 11-station network in 1957).

In 1957, 64 newspaper writers attended the NCAA final game. There will be over 1,000 media representatives this year.

What had made the difference? One man. A coach. John Wooden of UCLA, the “Wizard of Westwood.” In 1962, UCLA did not have a basketball court large enough to let all of the fans on campus attend a home game. UCLA had rented other local arenas for its home games ever since Coach Wooden arrived in 1948. He had been promised a large arena within three years. He got it in 1965-66. It is called Pauley Pavilion, named after oil man Edwin Pauley, who put up one million 1965 dollars to help build it. But in 1965, everyone knew it would soon be Alcindor Arena. Big Lew had just enrolled as a freshman.


There are few agreed-upon dynasties in college sports. John Wooden’s is the best-known one. Between 1964 and 1975, his teams won ten NCAA championships, and lost a shot at what probably would have been the eleventh in a double overtime semifinal game in 1974. His teams won 88 in a row, eclipsing the 60-game record that the University of San Francisco had set with Bill Russell and K. C. Jones. He was named coach of the year six times.

Yet Wooden labored in obscurity for almost two decades before his 1964 team won the NCAA title with a 30-0 season. In 1948, his Indiana State team made it to the NAIA finals, but the NAIA is for smaller schools. Outside of Indiana, few fans noticed.

Two athletic directors noticed: one at the University of Minnesota and one at UCLA. Wooden wanted the Minnesota position as head coach, but he told both schools of his deadline. UCLA called. Minnesota didn’t. He accepted the offer from UCLA. The next day, Minnesota called. There had been a storm, and the phone lines had gone down. Too late. Wooden stuck to his word. He went to UCLA in the fall of 1948.

He had a great team in 1955—56, but USF had a greater team. USF beat UCLA at the regional, and went on to win the NCAA championship.

Then, without warning, came his 1961—62 team, which made it to the NCAA semifinals. It had started out erratically, but had jelled in conference play. The senior guard, John Green, made the Helms All American list (3rd team), and its sophomore guard, Walt Hazard, led the 1963-64 team to the title as a senior.

In 1963, the NCAA final game was broadcast in Los Angeles. Nobody made the station broadcast that game. Loyola of Chicago beat Cincinnati in overtime. The next year, UCLA won its first NCAA basketball title. The year after that, UCLA did it again, setting the all-time scoring record: 400 points in the final four games.

Then came the hiatus. In 1966, the title was won by Texas Western, an obscure commuter school located north of El Paso. The final game offered a unique scene: an all-[negro, black, African-American — take your pick] starting line-up against an all-white team, Kentucky, coached by the then-legendary Adolph Rupp, “the Baron,” who held the record of four NCAA championship teams. He was seeking his fifth. He did not get it. The recent movie, Glory Road, is loosely based on this season.

The long-forgotten fact is that almost nobody believed at the time that Texas Western was the best team in the country. The best team was clearly UCLA’s. Unfortunately for Coach Wooden that year, it was not UCLA’s varsity. It was the freshman squad, coached by Gary Cunningham, who had been on the 1961—62 team. That squad had four All-American high school players, including Alcindor. Beginning in 1966, every NCAA Division I basketball coach except Wooden was looking forward to three years of runner-up status, at best.

So good was the freshman squad that Cunningham had proposed a frosh-varsity pre-season game. This, despite the fact that in the earliest pre-season poll, UCLA was picked number-one by the college coaches. Wooden did not think this game would be a good idea, but he relented. The game was broadcast by a local TV station. The frosh beat the varsity 80—65. The varsity was simply never in the game. The next week another pre-season poll was released. The UCLA varsity was still ranked number-one. The coaches knew what was going to happen in 1966—67. It did. It happened again in 1967—68 and 1968—69. For three years, NCAA meant “no chance against Alcindor.”

Then Alcindor graduated. College basketball coaches breathed a sigh of relief. “Let the competition begin!” It did. UCLA won the next four championships. Before this run, no other team had ever won more than two in a row. His teams had four undefeated seasons. No other coach ever had more than one, and only four could claim this. His teams racked up 38 consecutive NCAA tournament wins. The runner-up had 13. His home court advantage was considerable: 149 to 2.

There was an upset in 1974, when UCLA lost in double overtime in the semifinals to North Carolina State, which won the final game. Then, once again, UCLA won in 1975. Just before that final game, Coach Wooden told his team it would be his last game as coach. They had not been expected to defeat Kentucky that night. They did, 92—85.

The dynasty ended that night. UCLA won two decades later, but that was just another good team.


Wooden had been an All-American three years in a row as a player at Purdue. He had been a high school coach and English teacher. He always considered himself a teacher.

He was methodical in everything he did. His practices were highly structured and limited to two hours. His relationship with his players was that of a kind of distant uncle: caring but not intimate.

He never stood on the sidelines of the court during a game. He sat on the bench, program rolled up, occasionally yelling something into that program that no one not seated next to him or in front of him could hear. He hated to call a time out, especially the first time out of the game. He believed that the training and physical conditioning of his players were sufficient. In over 80% of the games he ever coached, they were.

Wooden began the same way with all his new players. He taught them how to put on their socks. Everything else in his program was similarly detailed and structured. He ran practices with a stack of 3×5 note cards.

As evidence of his patience, in 1963—64, he introduced a new defensive pattern that other coaches called a 2-2-1 zone press. He had devised it years earlier, but he did not have a team with the quickness to execute it until 1963. His defensive guard would pick up the opposing guard with the ball before he crossed the half-court line. Often, the man was double-teamed: two guards on him. He would throw the ball to another player, and a UCLA forward would intercept it and score or pass the ball to a now-offensive guard. Wooden liked quick players above all. “Be quick, but don’t hurry” was his motto. The intercepted pass would produce a series of mental lapses for the opponents, in which UCLA would score ten or more points in two minutes. Sports writers called it the two-minute explosion.

The other coaches revered him. He did not deliberately run up large scores on them when his starting line-up could do this. He let the bench players onto the court. They were usually about as good as the opposing team’s first string, so they kept the lead that the first team had run up. Sometimes they would add a few points to show that they could have started on most other teams.

He never personally recruited players. He let former players do that. His assistant coaches also unofficially got into the act. He would not get on a plane to visit a player or initiate the first phone call. A player had to contact him first.

Over his career, he developed what he called the pyramid of success. It applies to everything a person does in his work.

This diagram and its explanation have become famous. His former players testify to its practicality. Andy Hill, a bench player, later became a highly successful television producer. He has written a book about its applicability, Be Quick but Don’t Hurry. Jay Carty, who played against Wooden’s teams in the early 1960s and who was hired by Wooden to help train Alcindor, has written a book, Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success. PBS did an entire show on it: John Wooden — Values, Victory, and Peace of Mind. You can still see it locally during the fund-raiser weeks, when PBS re-runs its most popular shows. Here is Wooden, age 90 (he is now 95), lecturing to a bunch of young people, who were probably not born when he retired.

The best college basketball player in the nation each year receives the John R. Wooden award from the Los Angeles Athletic Club. It was created after he retired to serve as basketball’s equivalent of the Heisman trophy. UCLA’s Marques Johnson was the first winner in 1977.

The mythical coach in Blue Chips is the antithesis of Wooden. (Marques Johnson plays a quiet assistant coach to Nick Nolte’s head coach.)

Wooden became the first person to be inducted twice into the Basketball Hall of Fame: as a player and as a coach. Only Lenny Wilkens and Bill Sharman have also achieved this recognition.


Wooden’s dynasty created the first widespread national interest in college basketball. Wooden represented the sport when color television was gaining a foothold in American living rooms. The combination of Wooden and Alcindor, the short (normal) man and the giant, from the fall of 1966 through the NCAA finals in 1969, was visually irresistible to the media. It wasn’t David. vs. Goliath; it was David coaching Goliath. It was tough act to follow, but Wooden’s later acts followed it. And so did tens of millions of viewers.

In 2000, the NCAA awarded him the Coach of the Century award.

So, enjoy March Madness. I may even tune in on the final night. But, for me, the sport has never reached the pinnacle it reached under Coach Wooden. For that matter, I don’t think there is a team out there today that could beat the UCLA frosh of 1965—66.

March 18, 2006

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 17-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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