Book Review: Wooden: A Coach's Life

Wooden: A Coach’s life is written by sportswriter Seth Davis. Davis is a well respected sports reporter who specializes in college basketball. He currently works for the Atlantic as well as CBS Sports (which carries the NCAA Tournament).

Davis also wrote When March Went Mad. This book looks at the NCAA tournament that pitted Magic Johnson against Larry Bird and birthed a new fanaticism in the sport.

In this biography he takes on the biggest name in college basketball, John Wooden.

In the book he describes his first meetings with Wooden. He started off just wanting to meet the legendary coach who won 10 National Championships in twelve years. The coach of such greats as Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton and Gail Goodrich. He originally pitched a piece to Sports Illustrated of getting John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, together with the (at the time) current UCLA coach, Ben Holland. Wooden had cast a very, very, very long shadow over UCLA basketball and no one had been able to step up or out of the expectations. Ben Holland was the 8th coach since Wooden retirement 28 years prior.

Most of Holland’s predecessors would have had admirable careers and would not have lost their jobs or jumped ship after a great season. But in UCLA, after John Wooden, everything was different.

These initial interviews with the 93 year old Wooden were just Wooden and Holland. The caster of the shadow and the one living in it. But as so many other people who meet John Wooden, Seth Davis wanted more. And so launched this wonderful biography of perhaps the greatest teacher and the greatest coach of all time.

Wooden has written many books himself, and the view of Wooden is already pretty determined. You either admire and hero worship the man or your think he is a cheater (I’m looking at Indiana fans and Knight idol-worshipers). Writing a biography on such a subject is complicated. Davis did it deftly.

What I really appreciated, as the child and grandchild of life-long UCLA and thus Wooden fans, was his research on Wooden as a player. Wooden played for Purdue in the early years of collegiate sports. Though his era is long forgotten, he was the best player in the country his senior year. I always knew he was inducted into the Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. But Davis brought home how great of a basketball player he was. He also played at the dawning of the sport in the land that most embraced the game, Indiana.

When he first made the move to Westwood, California to coach at UCLA, he was dismayed to see that the high school basketball teams in Indiana had better facilities than he had. Basketball was wildly popular in the Midwest and barely played in sunny California. Wooden attributed that to the year round good weather in California that didn’t force athletes to find an indoor sport in the winter like the mid-west. But through his and other California college teams winning, the sport grew and grew. The initial thoughts of most basketball fans was that it would never take off in California.

The most important relationship in John Wooden’s life was his wife Nell. And Seth Davis does a beautiful job of telling their love story. A story that starts all the way back in high school.

“She was also everything he wasn’t. He was of Scottish and Dutch descent, cool and composed. She was red-blooded Irish. He was shy. She was outgoing. He avoided confrontation. She sought it out. She loved to socialize and go out on dates and was the life of the party. He hated parties. If he went at all, he’d mostly stand in the corner. She was hot-tempered, effusive, affectionate, feisty, and fun. If you crossed her- worse, if you disrespected him- she would let you know and wouldn’t forget.”

His telling of this very real relationship was a touching tribute to true love in real life. Oddly, Davis talked only sparingly about their two children.

There is a lot of great basketball stories in this book. Stories that range from the early days of basketball to the hay-day of UCLA dominance. Seth Davis brings to life Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton. He takes Gail Goodrich’s teams off of the forgotten shelf of basketball greats and allows the reader to re-live their runs.

The amazing thing about Wooden that is displayed in this book as well, is how beloved he was by his players. How a hurting, race-sensitive man like Lew Alcindor can only heap praises on the man. How child of the 60s Bill Walton only speaks in reverence of him. Even players who left his program out of frustration with playing time, almost all reconciled in Wooden’s twilight years and speaking glowingly of their coach. He was a man universally beloved by those that knew him. In his quiet, unassuming way he had a major impact on his players despite the fact that he had a strict policy of never involving himself in their personal life.

So why are there pockets of the country that have such disdain for Wooden and his legacy? While his players adored him by the end, his fellow coaches not so much. He was generally disliked by his peers. Much of that comes, according to Davis, from the natural shyness of Wooden and his devotion to his wife. While most coaches would gather to drink and make merry. Wooden would bring his wife and stay in his hotel room. There was a resentment at the nickname of St. John that Wooden attained by the press (though never encouraged by himself). Because saint he was not.

The most humorous parts of the book were learning about Wooden’s bench antics. John Wooden may have been shy and reserved, but put him in the heat of the moment and he was unrelenting on the referees and opposing players. Though, as he pointed out, he never threw a chair.

Bob Knight, another one of the great coaches in college basketball, did not like Wooden. And the feeling was mutual. Seth Davis discusses the row between these two greats and traces it back to Knights mentor, Pete Newell. Newell coached at the University of California Berkeley during the early years of Wooden. He had Wooden’s number and the Bruins were unable to get past the Bears until the retirement of Newell. Newell would take Knight under his wing and the rumors of malfeasance in Wooden’s program was perpetuated by Knight to taint Wooden’s coaching legacy.

Sam Gilbert is that man that will forever taint UCLA during it’s hay-day. Gilbert was a larger than life character that scared most of the people who should have scared him. He took an interest in UCLA basketball and began a mentor/father relationship with the players. This relationship evolved over the course of his life but mainly existed as a place for players to feel at home. His home, which was a mansion, was always open for the players. He would host barbecues and brunches there. But that was not all he offered the players. He would take their home tickets and sell them for more than face value and let the players keep the profits. He would purchase clothes and sometimes cars for the players or getting them ridiculous discounts. Accusations went so far as him paying for abortions for the players girlfriends.

Almost all of Wooden’s former players talk glowingly of Gilbert. Calling him a father figure and a mentor in business as they moved on from their playing careers. He even acted as an agent for a couple of UCLA players.

With today’s rules, of course this is all illegal. But this wasn’t happening in the 2020s. This was happening in the early 1950s. The NCAA was not what it was today. The rules, the enforcement, none of it existed as we know it today. Though almost every player interviewed looked back and thought rules had been broken.

The question is, how much is Wooden to blame. Seth Davis, again, handles this very well, though a bit harsher than I. Wooden knew things were happening and it made him uneasy. Multiple times he brought it up with his athletes to stay away from Gilbert. But Wooden also had a strict policy during his coaching days, he didn’t get involved with his players personal lives. He cared about what happened on the court and little of what was going on outside. Davis places this mentality as the doormat for allowing a character like Gilbert to thrive. But there were multiple accounts of Wooden warning his players against association with Gilbert. He also took the issue to his boss, the Athletic Director at UCLA who promised to take care of it multiple times over the course of their careers. He never did.

I would highly recommend this book to all. It is a great read for sports fans, college basketball fans and any wanting to improve their coaching. It is over 500 pages long, but the guy lived to be almost 100, would you expect anything different? Seth Davis organizes the book beautifully and writes the story in a readable, enjoyable fashion.

We ranked all of the greatest individual basketball teams in a post here, all of these UCLA teams are discussed in the book and brought to life. Lew Alcindor became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar after college. We reviewed his recent book, Becoming Kareem.

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