Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Legendary UCLA Coach John Wooden Dies

John Wooden sits with his wife, Nell, in 1948. The UCLA coach known as the Wizard of Westwood has died.
John Wooden sits with his wife, Nell, in 1948. The UCLA coach known as the Wizard of Westwood has died.

John Wooden, the greatest college basketball coach in history, died Friday. He was 99.

Wooden led the UCLA Bruins from 1948 to 1975. In those 27 years, they won a record 10 NCAA titles, including seven in a row -- another record.

The university said Wooden died at 6:45 p.m. at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, where he had been hospitalized since May 26.

Those who played for Wooden say how he coached is as much a part of his legacy as all the titles and trophies.

His nickname was the Wizard of Westwood, and he hated it; didn't like "genius" either, or "best coach ever" -- though it's hard to argue with all those championships, the four undefeated seasons and a mind-boggling 88-game winning streak.

'Coaching Is Teaching'

If you had to call John Wooden anything, he was most comfortable with "teacher."

"Coaching is teaching," Wooden told NPR in 2000. "Really, that's all it is. ... Whether it's teaching English or sports, you have to follow laws of learning, and you have to have a bit of psychology and so on to go along with it, but it's the same."

Wooden's classroom was the practice session. Later in life, after all the basketball triumphs, he said what he missed most was practice. It was the place where the Zen philosophy instilled by his father -- today is the only day that matters; make each day your masterpiece -- mixed with his Indiana no-nonsense -- tuck in your shirts, pull up your socks, be on time -- to create the richest, most relentless learning environment Andy Hill had ever experienced.

"We went from drill to drill very quickly; there was a focus on detail," Hill said. "There wasn't a lot of chatter, including from him."

Hill was a guard on three UCLA championship teams, from 1970 to 1972.

"He taught in very quick sentences that started with him saying your name really fast. ... And then what would follow was a very short lesson. 'I told you to put that pass to the outside hand!' And he'd say it over and over again. He used repetition a great deal as a teacher."

'Cool Hand Luke'

Games were the end of the teaching process, and Wooden believed they'd turn out well if his players had followed one of his favorite maxims: Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Usually they were prepared, and it showed in Wooden's demeanor during games.

Wooden (right) hugs his former player Bill Walton after UCLA defeated Texas A&M at the John R. Wooden Classic college basketball game in Anaheim, Calif., in 2006.
Kevork Djansezian
Wooden (right) hugs his former player Bill Walton after UCLA defeated Texas A&M at the John R. Wooden Classic college basketball game in Anaheim, Calif., in 2006.

"Coach Wooden basically was Cool Hand Luke," said Fred Slaughter, a starting center on UCLA's 1964 championship team. "He gave us our offense and defense, and then game time, it was as though all he had to do was sit there and roll up his program and cross his legs or whatever and watch us go to 'em."

The 1964 championship was Wooden's first. Unlike the other nine titles over the next 11 years, fueled by star centers like Bill Walton and Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1964 was unexpected. The tallest starting players were only 6-foot-5. Slaughter was one of them.

The year 1964 also was significant for what it revealed about Wooden. He'd been skeptical about using a type of defense called the zone press. His assistant, Jerry Norman, believed it would work well with the mix of players UCLA had. Norman pushed; Wooden resisted. Norman ended up being right. The Bruins used the zone press as a key weapon on their way to 30 wins, no losses and an NCAA title.

"I think Coach Wooden, being an intelligent man, said, 'Hey, this is something that makes sense, so go forward with it,' " Slaughter said.

Wooden later admitted he should have used the zone press earlier at UCLA. For the man of many maxims, it gave extra meaning to this one: When you're through learning, you're through.

Bond With Players

Wooden's connection to his former players grew stronger in the years after his beloved wife, Nell, died.

Bill Walton, Andy Hill and several other players celebrated Wooden's 95th birthday at a favorite restaurant.

Players would regularly visit Wooden at his small condo in Encino, Calif., and marvel at how their old coach had lived such a full and principled life. When Wooden was a boy, his dad gave him a seven-point creed. He always carried a copy of it in his wallet. One of the points was to make friendship a fine art. Andy Hill thought of that every time he left after a visit -- and looked back to see Wooden waving goodbye.

"It's a very powerful picture for me, and I'm sure every guy who's ever been over there to his apartment and spent time with him," he said, "that picture of coach waving up in the window is really burnt into my mind and something I know I'll always carry with me."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit

What questions do you have about the Statewide General Election coming up on Nov. 8? Submit your questions here, and we'll try to answer them in our reporting.