John Wooden, R.I.P.

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John Wooden, voted “Greatest Coach of the 20th Century” by ESPN in 1999, died on June 4. He was 99. The story was #3 on Google News, 35 years after he retired. This was unique.

Coach Wooden once said hello to me. I still remember it.

I attended UCLA for one semester as an undergrad in the spring of 1962. I was sitting in the UCLA athletic office. I had to have some paperwork filled in.

Coach Wooden walked by. He said hello. I said, “Hello, coach.” There was no stumping me for an answer! I was quick on the uptake.

My cousin’s boyfriend — later, husband — was his star player that year. The team went to the final four of the NCAA, the first time UCLA had reached that lofty position. The team lost to Cincinnati by two points in the last 25 seconds. Cincy won the NCAA that year, defeating Ohio State — Havlicek and Lucas — for the second year in a row.

College Basketball was not a big deal im 1962. The final four was covered by a local TV station in Los Angeles. No network broadcast the NCAA finals back then. There was no March madness. I have written about this before.

I have also written about Wooden before.

More than anyone else, he made March Madness. His teams built the audience.

In this obituary, I want to focus on something that the other obituaries missed.


I define calling as follows: “The most important thing you can do in which you would be most difficult to replace.”

I define occupation conventionally: the work you perform that supports you financially.

Your calling should be your legacy. Your job probably won’t be.

A few occupations lend themselves toward callings. Teaching is one. Preaching is another. Writing, too. Being a star anything is a calling. But stars are mostly shooting stars. Fame fades.

It didn’t for Coach Wooden. This was because of his calling.

He was very good at his job because he was very good at his calling. He taught young men the fundamentals of basketball, as no man ever has. He taught them by way of three principles: fundamentals, conditioning, and teamwork.

The incarnation of this teamwork was Swen Nater [Sven NAYter]. He was the back-up center for Bill Walton. He never started in a UCLA game. He remains the only first-round collegian draft pick in NBA history who never started a game in a 4-year college. He sat on the bench for two years at UCLA. A reporter once asked Walton who was the best college center he ever played against. Answer: “Swen Nater.” He was not exaggerating.

To these three principles Wooden added his famous pyramid of success. It was a hierarchical stack of 15 principles. This was in the tradition of Benjamin Franklin’s program of self-improvement. They were all good, but people can’t remember that many principles.

The seven he kept in his wallet, which his father taught him, are more memorable.

Be true to yourself.Make each day your masterpiece.Help others.Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible.Make friendship a fine art.Build a shelter against a rainy day.Pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day.

Nevertheless, search Google for “Wooden” and “pyramid of success,” and you find 29,000 links. This is 35 years after he retired.

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June 8, 2010

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

Copyright © 2010 Gary North