50 Interesting Facts About John Wooden

John Robert Wooden was an American basketball player and head coach at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). He was born on October 14, 1910 and died June 4, 2010, at the age of 99 years. He was dubbed the nickname “Wizard of Westwood,” and won ten National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) national championships as head coach at UCLA, in a 12-year period. This included a seven in a row win record. This is a feat that has never been accomplished by any team in basketball in Division 1 college men’s or women’s games. Below are 50 interesting facts about John Wooden:

The Early Years

1. The birthplace of this legend is Hall, Indiana and his parents were Roxie and Joshua Wooden. He had 3 brothers and 2 sisters and both his sisters died early in life.

2. When he was 14 years old, the Wooden family moved to Martinsville and in 1927 and he piloted his high school squad to a state tournament title. He was selected as an All-State champion three times.

Basketball in a court
Basketball in a court.

Early Achievements

3. During his collegiate years, he studied at Purdue University. Additionally, as a player, he earned a Helms national championship for 1931 to 1932 that was determined by a poll, for 11 national titles.

4. As a guard standing at 5 feet, 10 inches, Wooden was the very first basketball player to be appointed All-American on three different occasion.

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame - Springfield, MA. facts about John Wooden
Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame – Springfield, Massachusetts. Image credit – Massachusetts Office Of Travel & Tourism

5. As a player, he was inaugurated into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1960 and was given that same honor as a coach in 1973. He was the first individual ever to be enshrined in the two categories.

6. Wooden was quite cherished by his former players and was one of the most esteemed coaches in the history of sports.

Family Life

7. He was married to Nellie Riley in the city of Indianapolis. Their union lasted from 1932 until she died in 1985 and during this period, the couple had two children. It is interesting to note here that John Wooden on the 21st day of every month, after visiting her grave at Forest Lawn, wrote a letter to her, saying how much he missed her and couldn’t wait to see her again. He then folded it once, slide it into a little envelop and put it on the stack of love letters sitting there on her pillow. The stack had more than 180 letters. It was also revealed by a sportswriter that John “In her memory, he sleeps only on his half of the bed, only on his pillow, only on top of the sheets, never between, with just the old bedspread they shared to keep him warm.”

Illustrious Coaching Career

8. His coaching career lasted 29 years and he gained tremendously positive critical acclaim that has produced a legacy of remarkable interest. Not only was this interest in sports, but also in business, organizational leadership and personal success.

John Wooden's Pyramid of Success
John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success. Image credit – Kevin

9. His “Pyramid of Success” is among the simple inspirational messages he would give to his players. These messages typically had to do with directing his players and others on how to be successful in basketball and in life.

10. Wooden was the basketball coach for a period two years at the Dayton High School. In the 1932–33 season, his first year coaching at Dayton, he had a losing record of 6–11; this is the only this happened in his career.

11. He also took on the role of basketball coach at South Bend Central High School and remained in that role for a period of 9 years.

12. After World War II, following his near two-year stint with the armed forces as a lieutenant, Wooden took on the role of coaching at Indiana State Teachers College, which later became Indiana State University from 1946 to 1948. He took over this position from Glenn M. Curtis, who coached him in high school.

13. In addition to his role as basketball coach, Wooden was coaching baseball and serving as athletic director as well. He did this all while teaching and finishing up his master’s degree in education.

14. Wooden’s basketball team was victorious in securing the Indiana Intercollegiate Conference title in 1947. Following this, the team was invited to Kansas City for the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball (NAIB) Tournament.

Jim Harrick, head coach of Georgia Bulldongs, and John R. Wooden.
Jim Harrick, head coach of Georgia Bulldongs, and John R. Wooden. Image credit – Bradley Park

15. The invitation was refused by Wooden because of a policy instituted by the NAIB that banned black players. Clarence Walker, one of Wooden’s players, was a black man who hailed from East Chicago in Indiana.

16. Later in 1947, Purdue University, his alma mater, invited Wooden to come back to the campus to serve in the role of an assistant to Mel Taube, who was head coach at that time, until the expiration of Taube’s contract.

17. After the contract expired, Wooden would then take over the program. However, Wooden declined the offer, citing loyalty to Taube because accepting the offer would have effectively rendered Taube a lame-duck leader.

18. Wooden guided Indiana State to another conference title in 1948. By then, the ban on African-American players had been reversed by the NAIB. Wooden led his team to the finals of the NAIB National Tournament, where they lost to Louisville.

19. This loss was the only championship game loss for a Wooden-led team. That year, Clarence Walker was the very first black man to play in any basketball tournament in the post-season intercollegiate league.

UCLA Sunset
UCLA Sunset. Image credit – jojolae

20. Wooden was appointed as the basketball coach of UCLA during the 1948 to 1949 season. In the first year, he signed a $6,000 three-year contract.

21. Before taking up the position with UCLA, Wooden was being pursued for the position of head coach at the University of Minnesota. Both he and his wife wanted to stay in the Midwest.

22. The phone call with the offer from the University of Minnesota was not received because of telephone disruptions due to inclement weather. Wooden thought the school had lost interest and accepted the offer from UCLA.

23. Right after he accepted the UCLA offer, he was contacted by officials from the University of Minnesota. However, he declined as he had accepted the UCLA offer already.

24. He was immediately successful at UCLA and this was largely due to his distinctive offensive system. He was convinced that his system was ideally suited to neutralize all the modern defenses he had been seeing at that time.

Kids playing basketball. facts about John Wooden
Kids playing basketball. Image credit – Seattle Parks and Recreation

25. During his first season, Wooden used his impressive coaching skills to take UCLA from a team which, in the previous year, only managed a 12–13 record and transformed them into Southern Division champions of the Pacific Coast Conference.

26. The university ended that season with a 22–7 record, which was their most wins in a single season since the school began their basketball in 1919.

27. In the following season, the 22-7 record was surpassed with a 24-7 record, a divisional title and a conference title. He added two more titles in the first four years he was with the university.

28. Despite his remarkable successes with UCLA, Wooden seemingly did not enjoy being at the university. Additionally, his wife preferred not to live in Los Angeles.

29. Mel Taube ended his coaching stint with Purdue in 1950 and Wooden was inclined was to go back to West Lafayette and work as head coach.

30. Ultimately, he was dissuaded for doing this when he was reminded by UCLA officials that during the negotiations in 1948, he was the one who insisted on a three-year contract.

31. With that reminder, Wooden thought that quitting his job at UCLA before the expiration of the contract would be synonymous with breaking his word. He stuck with that decision, although he was offered more money, housing and a car by Purdue University.

32. At UCLA, Wooden had instituted a record of continued success by the 1955-56 season. During that season, he led the team to its first unbeaten PCC conference title and also achieved a winning streak of 17 games.

A basketball court
A basketball court. Image credit – Ron Cogswell

33. This winning streak only ended when UCLA was defeated by the team from the University of San Francisco which ultimately won the NCAA Tournament in 1956.

34. Over the immediate seasons that follow, UCLA was incapable of advancing from this level as they find themselves unable to get to the NCAA Tournament.

35. Part of the problem stemmed from a probation that was enforced on all sports teams at UCLA. This probation was imposed following a scandal involving illegal payments that were made to members of the football team.

36. The probation was lifted by the 1961-62 season and Wooden was able to take the team back to the top of the conference and beyond. The team unleashed a run of supremacy unmatched in college basketball history. For the first time in the history of the school, UCLA got to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament.

37. In a 1962 semi-final game against the Ed Jucker-led Cincinnati team. UCLA narrowly lost the game largely due to a contentious foul call. After that game, Wooden was convinced that his team was ready to compete for the national championships.

38. In 1964, two seasons later, assistant coach, Jerry Norman convinced Wooden that the fast-paced offense and small-sized players on team would be perfected by adopting a zone press defense. This was possible as it would increase the likelihood of turnovers by the opposing team. With this suggestion, the final piece of the puzzle fell into place.

39. This resulted in a dramatic rise in scoring, which gave UCLA a dynamo team with a 30–0 record on its way to the first basketball national championship of the school and its first unbeaten season. In the final, UCLA beat the Duke team 98–83.

40. The 1964-1965 season started off ominously for the defending NCAA champions when UCLA suffered a 27-point loss at the hands of Illinois in the opening game. However, after that it was all uphill as the team won national champions again. In the finals, the Bruins won against the Michigan team 91–80.

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