The first year I was assigned by Sports Illustrated to cover the NCAA Final Four also resulted in my first ever cover for the magazine. And it was John Wooden’s first national championship at UCLA.
Though I certainly never thought at the time it would be the start of a friendship with the coach, much less he would go on to win ten national championships with the Bruins, it was one of the more notable — and enjoyable points in my career. And as the years passed, Coach and I crossed paths many times and we had many good visits, the most recent of which was just a couple of years ago. In recent years, he continued to live in the modest house he and his beloved wife, Nell, occupied all the years he coached. And had the same telephone number. You could call him and he would answer the phone — although for much of the time in recent years, he would listen to the answering machine, first to see who was calling and then would answer. If it was someone he knew, or on many occasions I think, he just answered anyway. As always, John Wooden was the most considerate midwesterner whose Indiana roots permeated his life.
Through those years in the 60s and 70s when he presided over the dominate basketball team in the nation, he was still just as down to earth as he was when coaching a high school team in his hometown of Martinsville, Indiana.
As a photographer, photographing UCLA games for Sports Illustrated all of those years, you could go almost anywhere — although few photographers in those years went beyond action pictures from the games. Many times, I seated myself on the floor almost in front of Coach during the games and it was fine with him. Today, it would be unheard of to be sitting right in front of a head coach in a national championship game.
But sitting there, it was a different picture from those taken from afar — of this almost cherubic figure, the game program rolled up in his left hand. As I sat there I could hear what he was saying and how he was working the officials with as much intensity as a Bob Knight. Only with not a single curse word. Coach was into every element of the game every minute of the game, and he missed nothing. And added much to what the UCLA players were doing on the court.
And the minute the game ended, it was time for the ultimate courtesy once again. Not that he was discourteous to the refs — he was there every moment.
Many have asked me if h would have been a great coach without the Lew Alcindors and Bill Waltons, much the result of recruiting by his assistants and then UCLA-athletic director J. D. Morgan. ( who buried all the bodies) I would tell them, look at the first two national championships, team with good players but no superstars — and those had to be totally a John Wooden result. What was unique in the era of superstars coming to UCLA was Coach never deviated from his grassroots ways and philosophy. They still had to learn just how to pull on their socks . . .
This was the charm of Coach for in all those years and throughout his golden years of retirement, he was always teaching in just his way. The Sinatra-like “My Way” was the way of Coach.
Which brings me to how people close to him have addressed him all these years. As Coach. (Just as Hank Iba was ALWAYS referred to as “Mr. Iba”) Which was the way he wanted for the term coach to Wooden was one of implied respect and also implied leadership. He passed out reproductions of his Pyramid of Success (I have a signed copy) for years and the accompanying talk was always about values and how to embrace them. In these more skeptical times, I watched him on many speaking occasions take the audience of a different era into his philosophies in such ways as to always win them over.
The first and only book he really wrote was with Jack Tobin, the longtime Los Angeles publicist at the Sports Arena and the Sports Illustrated correspondent in Los Angeles as well. Jack was of a time when many publicity agents were gregarious and enjoyable individuals of great talent and the book by Coach with Tobin, a good partnership, was entitled, “They Call Me Coach.” Jack called me for the picture Wooden wanted for the cover and it had always been one of my favorite pictures though I didn’t realize the significance until later.
It was towards the end of the 1971 championship game when the outcome was secure and Coach begin taking the players out one at a time for the crowd in Houston’s Astrodome to acknowledge each individually. When Sidney Wickes left the game, he want over to Coach and in a very long moment (I think I have something like 14 frames of it) to thank him. “Coach, you’re something else,” was part of that moment. It made a good picture, but Sports Illustrated never used it at the time.
The back story was that Wickes had a tumultuous and difficult time with Coach, often complaining mostly about not enough playing time. But many other things as well. That game in Houston was his last for UCLA.
It was when the book was being done, that Tobin told me, it was Wooden’s favorite picture. Later — and many times over the years — Coach told me it was his favorite picture of his entire career. And every time we would see each other, he would mention it. And I have a beautifully autographed copy of it in my office today.
Coach never lost his commitment, his clear thought and dedication to principals through all of his 99 years. And his mind was every bit as sharp for all of them, even as the times and and the mores changed. The game and life never passed him by. But the game changed.
On the occasion of his receiving the NCAA’s President’s Gerald R. Ford award during the annual convention in 2006 which happened to be the 100th anniversary of the association. There was a press conference the afternoon of the banquet for Wooden and as it wound down, the last question was, “As the game has changed, is there anything you don’t like.”
He thought for a moment before saying, “Yes, these uniforms today. I don’t like those pantaloons . . .”
And I thought, how many people in this room know what pantaloons are.