Saturday, June 5, 2010

On the death of Coach John Wooden

At the moment every UCLA Bruin is a bit shaken up. Coach John Wooden, the emblem and identity of our Alma Mater has died at the age of 99. This is not news. ESPN has been going wall-to-wall with this for some 18 hours now. It is well, they should. Even with the NBA finals in progress, there is no bigger story than this at the moment.

Not since Bear Bryant died has a university lost an icon like this... but even the great Bear was not like this. I say that with all due respect to a coaching legend in my favorite sport.

If you listen to some of the praise they are heaping on Coach Wooden, it would seem impossible to believe, if you didn't know or understand what he accomplished. They call him the George Washington and Abraham Lincoln of NCAA Basketball. They call him the greatest coach ever, regardless of sport. They call him the figure that towers above all other coaches in basketball history. They are unwilling to place Red Auerbach and/or Phil Jackson in John Wooden's class.

One coach referred to him as the Rain God, sitting on a cloud above the rest of the coaches in Basketball sprinkling little bits of wisdom over them all. No?!?! Yes, I heard the man speaking on ESPN. Seems outrageous? Maybe... Maybe not.

I know Coach Wooden as the man who built UCLA... quite literally. If you look at landscape photos of UCLA in the year 1960 and then look at very similar photos from similar angles in year 1980 you will see an astounding difference. UCLA went from an interesting collection of buildings on 411 acres of dirt to a metropolis/metroplex.

The level of construction that occurred during those 20 years was amazing. Believe me, that burst of construction was not financed by the State of California or the City of Los Angeles. Maybe they contributed a bit to the pot, but that money came from Coach John Wooden's basketball program. The TV revenues and the product licenses brought tens of millions of dollars into our university, and that money built the UCLA we know today.

The 13 libraries we have, the medical school which is renown throughout the world, the gymnasium which bear Coach Wooden's name, the giant student union we enjoyed... All of that came from Coach Wooden's basketball program.

The thing we love about Wooden is that he did it the right way. He was a Gentleman's Gentleman. He was of the highest moral fiber. He embodied the best of old-fashioned saintly values. He did that in a city we frequently call Sin City. He always won the right way. He never won the dirty way. He was an astounding guy.

One of the things I loved about Dick Vermeil is that he seemed to be a little chip off the old block. He seemed more than a little bit like football John Wooden. This was probably due to the fact that Coach Vermeil was a UCLA coach and during the peak of Coach Wooden's run. I am willing to bet that some of Coach Wooden rubbed off on Coach Vermeil during that time. When he (we) won the Super Bowl in 1999, we did it the right way, with a band of excellent men. I like to believe our 1999 team was a little twig off the Wooden tree.

Los Angeles has lost of two of its greatest sports figures this year. Ram defensive tackle Merin Olsen was the first. Now Coach Wooden. These guys were two of our greatest; arguably the greatest. We still have some great ones. Kareem, Magic and Worthy still live. David Deacon Jones and Jack Youngblood still live. We still have Steve Garvey and Mike Socia. Of course, Kobe has many decades ahead, we all hope.

Still... this has been a rough year.