This past weekend a great mentor, former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, passed away. The following is an article published in 2008 about his life as a mentor first and a basketball coach second.
…Almost every day of the week, Wooden makes his way through those doors…and almost every day, someone is waiting for him. To the people who come to see him, Wooden is more than a coach- he is a mentor and a teacher to some of the greatest basketball players who ever lived. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Gail Goodrich have squeezed their oversized frames into these booths. On this day, Wooden is meeting with the great All-American Bill Walton and Andy Hill, a seldom-used guard who went on to become an influential television executive.
“Mentoring is your true legacy,” Wooden tells SUCCESS magazine, explaining why he still schedules meetings like this one at VIP’s Family Restaurant. “It is the greatest inheritance you can give to others. And it should never end. It is why you should get up every day- to teach and be taught.”
Widely regarded as the greatest college coach in basketball history, garnering 10 NCAA National Championship titles during his coaching career at UCLA, John Wooden is responsible for the success of some of the most talented teams in collegiate history.
|However, few coaches have managed to transcend the world of sports to become the sort of life-changing mentor Wooden has proven himself to be. Perhaps it is because he never saw himself as a coach- at least, not primarily. For almost a century, John Robert Wooden has seen himself first and foremost as a teacher. And at 97, he still has a calendar full of handwritten appointments with people with whom he has agreed to meet and talk.
It is this daily mentoring, he insists, that will get him to 98. He made his living as a coach but lives his life to be a mentor. This, he believes, is his real calling.
“Many people look at mentoring as somewhat of an assignment, something you sign up to do at a local school.” Wooden says. “And while that type of mentoring is important, that is only one form of mentoring. I think if you truly understand the meaning of mentoring, you understand it is as important as parenting; in fact it is just like parenting.”
Aside from parenting, the relationship between coach and athlete can be one of the most influential in a young person’s life, and this is certainly true for Wooden and Walton. Together, these two men led UCLA to an 88 game winning streak and a record that will likely never be broken. The lessons from those days have carried over into the real world, into the lives of everyday people- where the world is their team and making it a better place is the goal. There are some coaches who never hand up their know-how.
Wooden laughs when he remembers how he began the first practice of every season. “I’d walk in and there would be these young men who were wonderful players in high school and my first words to them would be, ‘Today we’re going to learn how to put on our socks and shoes. It is important that you pull your socks on just so. Any wrinkle in the sock will cause rubbing that will cause blisters. Blisters keep you from practicing, which keeps you from getting better.’” Not the inspiring words many of the athletes were expecting, perhaps, but words of wisdom nonetheless.
The lesson the coach was teaching his players was championships are built by paying attention to small details. “And what did I do when my sons were growing up as young basketball players?” Bill Walton asks. “I took each of them to Coach Wooden… and had him teach them how to put their socks on!”
Andy Hill was one of the few athletes who ever played for Wooden who didn’t leave school loving the man. Although he played for Wooden at UCLA, in Hill’s opinion, he should have played a lot more. He was so angry at feeling underutilized that after he graduated, he didn’t talk to Wooden for almost 25 years. This all changed, however, when Hill’s son made him realize the extent of Wooden’s influence.
A talented oboe player, Hill’s son was competing in Europe as part of a very prestigious contest. When he called home to tell his parents how his audition went, he gushed over what a wonderful job he’d done and how thrilled he was with his own performance. Hill was excited: “So you got the spot?” he asked.
“No,” his son explained. “But I did the best I could possibly do.”
Hill was amazed. “My son’s version of success is what Coach Wooden taught me.” He had unwittingly passed on those lessons to his son- he had been mentored in spite of himself-and it was that moment that moved him to pick up the phone and call his old coach.
But even as Wooden has been a tremendous mentor to countless people, he also stresses the other side of the relationship. “An individual needs to be open to being mentored,” he insists. “It is our responsibility to be willing to allow our lives and our minds to be touched, molded and strengthened by the people who surround us- both men and women who history remembers as people of great character, and those who are not so famous.”
There are numerous individuals who have touched Wooden’s life directly, including his father, his former coaches and his wife. But he points to two other people who influenced him greatly: Mother Theresa and Abraham Lincoln, people whose examples and experiences provided lessons Wooden applied in his own life. And that, Wooden explains, is the real secret of mentoring: It’s not about sitting down for a formal talk on life lessons or giving a speech at a school assembly about how to achieve. Mentoring, by Wooden’s definition, is the simple act of living a life worth following.
“It’s something all of us can do- recognizing our responsibility to those around us to model the actions, decisions and behaviors we know to be right,” Wooden says. “It can, but certainly doesn’t have to, be anything more formal than that.”
In the den of Wooden’s Encino home, the bookshelves are stacked two deep with nearly every book every published about Mother Theresa and Abraham Lincoln. Throughout the difficulties he faced in his life, including the death of his wife Nellie almost 25 years ago, Wooden found himself looking to Mother Theresa as a beacon of strength. “When you think of the patience she had in dealing with the great challenges, the suffering, the way she served others,” Wooden says. “How can you not want to make her your role model? Hers was not artificial but true love for others.”
Wooden’s interest in Abraham Lincoln dates back to his days as an undergraduate at Purdue University. He admired the former president’s cool-headed leadership during a difficult era and was inspired by Lincoln’s insistence on living simply and honestly. As he studied more, Wooden focused on this statement from Lincoln: “’With malice toward none.’ What that illustrates is how much he truly cared for people beyond himself. I think getting your mind off yourself and on others is right.”
Because he was receptive to lessons from Lincoln’s life, “I was able to be mentored by a president!” Wooden says with a broad smile.
Wooden makes it clear that you don’t have to be a Mother Theresa or Abraham Lincoln to be a worthy mentor. “They are extraordinary examples.” Wooden says. “But they should also be a reminder to us that anyone can look to anyone else and learn a lesson from them- even if it’s a basketball coach looking to a nun and a statesman.
“We should always hold ourselves up for examination as we seek to teach the people around us, no matter what our job might be,” Wooden says. “And we need to observe the people around us to make sure they’ve learned the lessons we’ve tried to teach. As I like to say, ‘If they haven’t learned, you haven’t taught.’”
Those who played for him point to Wooden’s conduct on the sidelines during games as a great example of how seriously he took teaching. Wooden was legendary for remaining calm rather than pacing, waving wildly or making some other display of apprehension. “I think you’re showing these players that you’re not confident; you’re showing insecurity to your players,” he says. “Sit on the bench. Be secure. You’ve been teaching them; now let them do the job. I say, ‘Now young man, I’ve done my job this week. It’s up to you to see whether I did a good job or not.’”
He insists that mentoring can be any action that inspires another. Every time we watch someone and make a mental note about that individual’s character or conduct, that’s mentoring.
“Every time you greet the grocery store checker with a smile or pick up a piece of litter or pat someone on the back, you very well might be mentoring someone who is watching you,” Wooden says. “It’s really about the choices we make- decisions about how we will observe the world and decisions we make about the way we will act in it. Mentoring can happen at any time or place. It is both something we receive and something we give. This is not a job you turn on and off!”
Just months shy of his 98th birthday, John Wooden never takes a day off.
“When you are through learning, you are through,” a spry Wooden says during an early May interview with SUCCESS. After suffering a broken collarbone and wrist in a fall three months earlier, the first time that Wooden could leave his home and head to breakfast at VIP’s, he was out the door. “I get as much from those conversations today as any I had while I was teaching,” he says. “I wake up wondering who I will see today!”
SUCCESS Magazine August/September 2008