Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search results

Wooden, John, 1910-2010



  • Existence: 1910 - 2010

Biographical Information

John Robert Wooden was born Oct. 14, 1910, in Hall, Ind., and settled with his family in the small town of Martinsville, Ind. His introduction to basketball came when his father, a farmer, nailed a bushel basket to the side of the barn.

He had an austere early life, with no electricity or indoor plumbing, but his father read the Bible and poetry to his four sons each night and instilled a deep sense of moral rectitude. All his life, Mr. Wooden carried in his wallet a set of principles drawn up by his father: "Be true to yourself, help others, make friendship a fine art, drink deeply from good books, make each day your masterpiece, build a shelter against a rainy day by the life you live, and give thanks for your blessings and pray for guidance very day."

In the 1920s, John Wooden led his high school basketball team to one state championship and two second-place finishes. He became known as the "Indiana Rubber Man" for his headlong style of play and was a three-time all-American at Purdue. He graduated from Purdue in 1932 with a degree in English.

Mr. Wooden played professional basketball in the Midwest for several years while working as a high school English teacher and coach in Kentucky and Indiana. During World War II, he was a physical education instructor with the Navy and once underwent an emergency appendectomy, which kept him from reporting for duty on an aircraft carrier. The officer who took his place was killed in a Japanese kamikaze attack.

After the war, Mr. Wooden became the basketball coach at Indiana State University, where he acquired a master's degree in education. He refused to go to a tournament in Kansas City, Mo., when he learned that a black player on his squad would not be allowed to take part.

Mr. Wooden went to UCLA in 1948, inheriting the worst team in the Pacific Coast Conference. In his inaugural season, he led the Bruins to the first of his 19 conference championships. Until a new arena was built in 1965, his teams practiced for 17 years at the "B.O. Barn," an antiquated gymnasium shared with the wrestling and gymnastics teams. Mr. Wooden mopped the floor before practice every day.

At the beginning of the 1963-64 season, little was expected of his undersized team, which had finished 20-9 the previous year. But with Gail Goodrich, Walt Hazzard and Keith Erickson leading a lightning-strike attack, Mr. Wooden's Bruins wore down one opponent after another, despite having no starter taller than 6-feet-5. In the national championship game, UCLA ran away from the Duke Blue Devils, easily winning its first NCAA title, 98-83.

'Coach Wooden's words were always the same,' Goodrich, a star player on UCLA's 1964 and 1965 championship teams, once said. 'Do not panic, keep your poise, the other guy will break.' They did, too.

After a second national championship in 1965, Mr. Wooden recruited the top high school player in the country, the 7-foot-2 Alcindor, who led UCLA to three straight championships from 1967 through 1969. UCLA won four more titles in the early 1970s, including two with the 6-foot-11 Walton at center.

In 1975, immediately after UCLA recorded a one-point victory in the NCAA Final Four semifinals over Louisville, Mr. Wooden told his players that the next game -- the national championship-- would be his last as coach. UCLA defeated Kentucky, 92-85, to give Mr. Wooden his 10th NCAA title.

He was named national coach of the year six times, and his 12 appearances in the Final Four are an NCAA record. His teams reached the national championship game 10 times and never lost.

'I do not permit myself to be elated or depressed,' he said of his remarkable record of success. 'All I ask is that the players give their best effort, and win or lose, they hold their heads up after the game.'

Besides winning 88 consecutive games from 1971 to 1974, Mr. Wooden's teams also reeled off streaks of 47 and 41 straight victories. His career record was 885-203, and in his final 12 seasons at UCLA his team was 335-22.

'John was a better coach at 55 than he was at 50,' Hall of Fame basketball coach Pete Newell said in 1989. 'He was a better coach at 60 than at 55. He's a true example of a man who learned from day one to day last.'

Mr. Wooden once turned down a lucrative offer to coach the Los Angeles Lakers of the National Basketball Association and, according to Abdul-Jabbar, was offered the job of manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team in the 1960s.

He remained devoted to UCLA, where his highest salary was a modest $32,500. He wrote several books about basketball and often denounced the dunk shot, flashy play and overzealous coaching, which he believed were damaging his sport.

He read widely, sprinkling his conversation with quotations from Shakespeare, Martin Luther King Jr., Socrates and Gandhi, and was especially knowledgeable about the life and works of Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa.

Mr. Wooden lived in a condominium in Encino, Calif., with his wife, Nell Riley Wooden, who died of cancer in 1985 after 53 years of marriage. He kept her robe on her side of the bed, and each month on the anniversary of her death wrote her a love letter, which he placed on her pillow.

Survivors include two children, seven grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren.

He led a summer basketball camp for years after his retirement in 1975 and said there was only one thing he missed about coaching. 'I don't miss the tournament at all,' he said in 1988. 'And I don't miss the games. What I do miss is the daily practice, the preparation. Cervantes once said, 'The road is better than the end.' That's how I feel about basketball.


Schundel, Matt. Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, winner of 10 national titles, dies at 99, Washington Post, Friday, June 4, 2010. Retrieved August 30, 2010 from:

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Athletics pamphlet Featuring John Wooden and Others

 Unprocessed — Box: Communal Accessions 51
Identifier: 2022-103
Dates: Majority of material found within circa 1935-36