John Wooden: The GOAT
John Wooden is arguably the greatest college basketball coach of all time. His ten national championships in a twelve year period will never be repeated. Winning aside, one of Wooden's greatest qualities was his ability to impart simple wisdom on the young men that he coached. He spoke simply but calculated. Years later, the way his players talk about him with such reverence has to be the ultimate satisfaction for a coach.
John Wooden was born on October 14, 1910, in Hall, Indiana, Wooden excelled in basketball during high school and earned a scholarship to Purdue University, where he began his college career in 1929.
As a player there, he was a three-time All-American playing for coach, Ward "Piggy" Lambert. Lambert himself played three sports at Purdue (basketball, baseball, and football) before becoming the head men's basketball coach in 1916, a position he would hold for 36 years. Purdue was recognized as the 1932 national champion at a time when the NCAA Tournament didn't exist.
After his college career, he played professionally for a short time, while also coaching high school basketball. Wooden is claimed to have made 134 consecutive free throws during a 46-game stretch during the 1935-36 season. He would spend two years at Dayton High School in Dayton, Kentucky, and then 9 years at South Bend Central High School in Indiana.
In 1946, he took over at Indian State University, where he would coach through the 1948 season before heading west to UCLA.
Wooden's first year would be a good one, as the Bruins went 22-7, with Wooden's year one salary netting him $6,000. The Bruins would win the conference title in 1950 and quickly establish themselves as a program to be reckoned with. Wooden would go on to lead UCLA to ten national championships (including an astounding seven consecutive titles from 1967 to 1973) before retiring in 1975.
What Made Him Unique?
Wooden's teams were known for their precision and execution, and he was a master at developing talent and maximizing his players' potential. He mentored numerous future basketball stars, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (known as Lew Alcindor during his UCLA years) and Bill Walton.
Beyond his coaching achievements, Wooden was also known for his wisdom and inspirational quotes, often referred to as "Woodenisms." He emphasized the importance of values, character, and personal growth over winning or losing. His teachings extended beyond the basketball court, and he was widely respected as a mentor and role model.
The short video below is worth a watch, as Bill Walton recalls what made Wooden so special.
John Wooden Quotes
"Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming."
"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."
"It's the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen."
"The most important thing in the world is family and love."
"It's not so important who starts the game but who finishes it."
"Ability may get you to the top, but it takes character to keep you there."
"It's what you learn after you know it all that counts."
John Wooden Books
Several books have been written about Wooden. For our money, we love these 2:
The Wisdom of Wooden is included in our list of Best Basketball Books here.
Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court was highlighted in our list of Best College Basketball books here and is a tremendous biography.
Both do a fantastic job at getting deeper into's Wooden's life and his philosophies regarding rules to live by. They also both feature his pyramid of success.
If you're looking for a leadership book specifically that's more applicable outside of basketball, this is also a really good one.
So many coaches talk about "winning the right way." We all probably have a slightly different definition as to what that means, but if anyone could personify the phrase, it would have probably been John Wooden.
We know John Wooden because he was a highly successful basketball coach, but I'm willing to bet that several of you have people in your own life that are highly principled, disciplined, and generally care about the well being of others. Embrace those people; tell them you appreciate them and think about the ways in which you can learn from them.
For more basketball book recommendations, check out our list here.
We also have recommendations for several other sports here.
John Willkom is the author of Amazon best-selling basketball books: Walk-On Warrior and No Fear In The Arena. John is an avid reader, sports fan, and father to two incredible little girls.
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