By Chad Bonham
In 2007, I had the rare opportunity to interview a living legend—Coach John Wooden. The conversation was on the phone and it was brief, but it was easily one of the highlights of my writing career.
In 27 years as the head men’s basketball coach at UCLA, his teams won 10 national championships (including seven consecutive) and at one point boasted a staggering 88-game winning streak. Coach Wooden was named NCAA “Coach of the Century” and in 2003 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But more importantly, his teachings about leadership and life have left an even greater impression from the sports world to the business world and beyond.
Three years after our conversation, Coach Wooden passed away just four months shy of his 100th birthday. And although he’s gone, his legacy of wisdom still remains and doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. With that in mind, here’s a look back at my interview with Coach Wooden:
Chad Bonham: What about college basketball has changed the most since your coaching days at UCLA?
Coach John Wooden: It has become more about the age of commercialism and it’s brought on far more showmanship. The athletes today and their athleticism are just remarkable. But as it has improved, in my opinion, I don’t think teamwork has progressed at all. I don’t think it’s deteriorated, but I just believe the individuals have become so superior that the tendency is to let them go on their own and do more. The fans do love the showmanship that we see so much of, which I don’t like. I don’t like to see a fellow score a basket and point at himself and strut around. Maybe its just me, but I don’t like showmanship and showing off. I think just the play itself brings recognition and satisfaction and that should be enough.
Bonham; How were you able to assemble such great talent year after year at UCLA?
Coach Wooden: Success breeds success. I’ve always thought it was more difficult to get to the top than to stay at the top. You learn so much along the way and as you do better, the better players will want to come to you. The big job is after you get them there and what you do with them.
Bonham: Who was the best player that you ever coached?
Coach Wooden: Obviously I would not say who was the best player I ever coached. No, I couldn’t say that at all. I could say that I never had a more valuable player than Lewis Alcindor or perhaps Bill Walton. I could say I never had a smarter player than Mike Warren. I could say I never had a more aggressive player than Gail Goodrich or Keith Erickson. I could go on and on saying things of that sort but I would never attempt to say the best player I ever had.
Bonham: What was the initial inspiration for your Pyramid of Success concept?
Coach Wooden: When I was teaching high school, I became a little bit disappointed at the way people judged success. I wanted to come up with my own definition of success. I didn’t want it to be about the accumulation of material possessions or the attainment position of power and prestige. So I coined my own definition in 1934: “peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you’re capable.” But that didn’t seem to be working and I finally decided that I needed something that a youngster could see. I came up with the idea of a pyramid and I placed my definition of success at the apex of the pyramid and then I worked for 14 years selecting blocks for the foundation.
Bonham: How has your personal faith guided you throughout your life?
Coach Wooden: It has given me certain peace and tranquility that has enabled me to accept the ups and downs of life. It has kept me from permitting the mountains to become too high or the valleys to become too deep. It gives you the serenity that you need.