When I was a UCLA student, I looked up to John Wooden. When I became an adult and a parent, I came to appreciate him even more. I liked his approach to coaching and mentoring, and I admired how he used sports to build character. As he said, “What you are as a person is far more important that what you are as a basketball player.” In the tributes his players gave him before and after he died, it’s clear that he was more than a coach to them. He was a mentor and a father figure. He produced winning teams by turning his players into winners.
I’m now dealing with situations in my league that make me wonder if his lessons are lost on this generation of coaches and players. Strangely enough, the incidents started on the day he died. The incidents all stem from placing winning above everything else.
John Wooden looked at winning differently. One of his star players, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said about him in the New York Times, “Coach Wooden enjoyed winning, but he did not put winning above everything. He was more concerned that we became successful as human beings, that we earned our degrees, that we learned to make the right choices as adults and as parents. In essence he was preparing us for life.” Wooden himself defined success as “peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you’re capable. I believe that’s true. If you make the effort to to the best of which you’re capable, try and improve the situation that exists for you, I think that’s success.” It wasn’t the goal that was important. The steps that you took to reach it are. There are no shortcuts.
He also spoke about the importance of character. “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation,” he said, “Because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” He was clearly a man of faith, which put his role as a coach in a much larger view. “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.”
To me, John Wooden is a model of what a coach should be. He’s not measured in the number of championships he won, but in the lives he molded for the better. I hope that, in his passing, more coaches would aspire to be like him.