JOHN ROBERT WOODEN’S first love was baseball, but he found himself swept up in the passion for “Basket Ball,” as it was then spelled, in the nation’s heartland. Born in 1910 in Martinsville, Ind., Wooden as a young man absorbed the fundamentals of the game as conceived by Dr. James Naismith, basketball’s inventor. Naismith’s influence on college and high school coaches, especially in Indiana, is difficult to overstate.
Naismith coached Ward “Piggy” Lambert who as a coach at Purdue passed on the teachings of Naismith to Wooden when he was a student and outstanding player there.
After college Wooden himself became a coach—a one-of-kind coach. Over his 29-year career, first at Indiana State (1946-1948) and then at UCLA (1948-1975), Wooden won 664 of 826 games—more than 80 percent. In the 12 seasons from 1964 to 1975, his UCLA Bruins won 10 NCAA championships, seven straight from 1967 to 1973. Four of his championship teams were undefeated; three others lost only one game. The Bruins were unbeaten from 1971 into the 1974 season, a surreal winning streak of 88 consecutive victories.
Wooden wasn’t just a Hall of Fame coach. His astounding run of success at UCLA helped popularize the game of college basketball and turn it into a national sport. In particular, the Bruins sparked interest in the end-of-season NCAA tournament, whose annual winner is crowned the national champion. Prior to the 1950s the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) was more prestigious than the NCAA. The NIT had 12 teams and was based in New York City. The NCAA was a small tournament with eight teams, one from each of eight geographic areas. That format meant that if there were multiple top teams from within one region, some of the country’s best teams wouldn’t be included. But in the early 1950s the NCAA changed its format, expanded its tournament to 16 teams, and demanded “first choice” of teams.
That move was a boost for the NCAA, and then in the 1960s it got two more fillips. One was the emergence of UCLA as a national powerhouse, and the other was television. The “game of the century” between UCLA and Houston in 1968 was the first regular season NCAA contest to be broadcast nationally. It attracted a vast audience and proved a huge boon to the sport. The following year, NBC became the first major network to broadcast nationally the NCAA championship game, which was won by the UCLA juggernaut.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wooden’s greatest player, once said to me: “Ask yourself where the NCAA tournament was in 1963, when UCLA won the first of two straight titles. The NCAA tournament really wasn’t any bigger than, say, the NIT, but those two seasons brought everyone’s attention to the NCAAs because a super team was in it. That’s when I first seriously thought about going to UCLA.” By the time Abdul-Jabbar had completed his three title seasons with UCLA (1967-69), the game had firmly established a national audience. “Nobody talked about the NIT any more,” said Abdul-Jabbar. “They talked about the NCAAs, and when they talked about the NCAAs, they talked about John Wooden and the UCLA Bruins.”
And in subsequent years the NCAA tournament steadily grew. It expanded to 32 teams in 1975, 48 in 1980, 64 in 1985 and 68 in 2011, along the way becoming the sporting extravaganza known as March Madness, with TV ratings second only to the National Football League and delivering more than $1 billion annually in TV ad revenue.
The harshest critics of Wooden were sports- writers who felt UCLA’s hegemony hurt college basketball. Prior to the 1973 tournament, Glenn Dickey of the San Francisco Chronicle called the Bruins too dominant—a “blight” on the sport. “UCLA makes everybody play for second place. When you take the suspense out of the sport, there’s really nothing left.”
That’s not the way fans felt. Biographer Seth Davis (Wooden: A Coach’s Life) counters that the Bruins propelled the sport. In 1973 NBC convinced the NCAA to move the championship game from its traditional weekend to Monday night—the biggest TV-viewing night of the week. The previous year’s final between UCLA and Florida State had generated a rating of 16, meaning it was watched in approximately 10 million homes by 30 million people. The ratings for the 1973 Monday night game were 30 percent higher. Wrote Davis: “The NCAA tournament has never been more popular, more watched and more valuable. UCLA wasn’t the biggest reason for that. It was the only reason….UCLA was the only school in America that could garner consistent national television exposure for regular season games. Everyone in the sport benefited from its popularity.”
Wooden may not have been the saintly figure many believed him to be. It was learned that a UCLA booster named Sam Gilbert operated behind the scenes at the program during the Wooden years, distributing favors and gifts to Bruins players. An NCAA investigation found violations that resulted in penalties for the school, but they were not announced until two years after Wooden retired in 1975.
His team has also lost some of its luster: UCLA is no longer the college basketball behemoth it was during the Wooden years. The Bruins have won only one national title since Wooden left, in 1995, but then there is much more parity among teams in the sport nowadays. Still, the national champion every year is awarded the Wooden NCAA Trophy. In 2009, a year before John Wooden’s death at age 99, a Sporting News poll named him the best coach in the history of American sports. Admirers of Casey Stengel (seven World Series rings), Bear Bryant (six national titles), and Vince Lombardi (five NFL championships) may protest, but Wooden’s record is hard to dispute.