Manufacturing Success - John Wooden’s Way
By Zulfiqar Ashraf Chaudhry
Roseville, CA

Once upon a time, the best squash players were coming from Pakistan.  Remember Jahangir Khan, Jansher Khan, Hashim Khan?  The best tennis players were coming from Russia.  Remember Anna Kournikova, Marat Safin, Dmitry Tursunov? The best soccer players were coming from Brazil.  Remember Pele, Romario, Ronaldo? And the best basketball players were coming from UCLA.   Remember Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Reggie Miller, Jamal Wilkies?  The question is why?

Why was there such concentration of talent in one place and time?  What made success so common in these places during a particular period of time?  Was there a secret formula that these places and coaches were using that made success so abundant in their locales?  Surely, it was not a coincidence.  Surely, success was being manufactured in these places.  The question is how?



Aspiring for the Pleiades, How simple it all seems!
But let there first be hearts like theirs, To justify such dreams.

- Iqbal


One such “Kalab-e-Saleem” throbbed in the chest of John Wooden– the coach of UCLA Bruins.  He was the embodiment of excellence—both on and off the court.  He preserved his dignity in poverty, loved his wife and family dearly, excelled in sports, taught his players how to excel beyond basketball, led UCLA to ten NCAA championships over 12 years, with 7 consecutive championships—an impressive feat that has not been matched since and arguably will never be matched again.  Indeed, he showed how success can be manufactured.

John Wooden (JW) was born to a poor farming parents on October 14, 1910.  He had to work on the farm, until his dad lost the farm during the great depression. He met his future wife, Nellie, who came with some other friends in a car to see him, but he was too dirty and sweaty from the farm work that he was embarrassed to come over to say “hello” to his future wife.  

Everyone was laughing at his awkwardness and dirty clothes, except Nellie.  Eventually, he started dating Nellie and finally got married.  She was the only woman he ever dated and later married during this life.  After Nellie died from emphesema, as she was a chain cigarette smoker, a reporter, Rick Reilly, wanted to interview him on the subject of marriage and love.  At first, the Coach agreed, but when Reilly arrived at his apartment, Coach “came out with tears streaming down his face.  He said, ‘It’s too soon.  I can’t do it.  It’s just too soon.’” (Bisheff, John Wooden, 2004, p. 62). It had been seventeen years since his beloved Nellie had died.   

Unlike other coaches, he would take his wife to all the basketball games.  They were inseparable.  She was the outspoken one, while he was the quiet one.  She was not afraid to speak her mind.  Before the start of every game, he will nod to her, as if to acknowledge her contribution in his success.  After she died, he was very famous and could easily afford another house, but he never left the small apartment in Encino, CA, saying, “I won’t ever leave, because I see her everywhere.  I see her as much today as I ever have.  It never gets easier.” (Bisheff, 2004, p. 62).   After her death, he continued to write letters to her every month and signed all the birthday cards with her name on it. 

 During college years at Purdue University, JW was an All-American and the National Player of the year in 1932.  However, he had to work off the court, selling football programs at nearby hotels and restaurants; he also sold sandwiches, candy, cigarettes on train routes to pay for his education and send money home to his parents and siblings.  In fact, he had to change his major from Civil Engineering (CE) –his first career choice, to Liberal Arts, because majoring in CE required working as an unpaid intern, which he simply could not afford.  He said, “I had to work every summer because my family needed that money.  As much as I wanted to (major in Civil Engineering), I couldn’t do it.” (Bisheff, 2004, p. 42).

He endured poverty with grace.  His beloved Coach at Purdue, Ward “Peggie” Lambert, frequently saw him shivering in the freezing cold, without a topcoat, so he loaned him some money to buy a jacket.  Another time, a physician, impressed with his superb game but distressed by his extreme poverty, offered to financially support him.  But Coach Wooden, out of self-respect, declined. 



The way of the hermit, not fortune, is mine;
Sell not your soul! In a Faqir’s rags shine. - Iqbal

Coach Wooden made a name for himself, even in poverty. He remained financially poor all his life, even after winning twelve championships for UCLA. He never compromised his values and self-respect.  During the first part of his career, circumstance inflicted poverty on him.  However, after retirement, when he could afford to live well, he chose to live humbly.  It’s unbelievable that UCLA would make millions off of his coaching, while giving him only a $32,500 per year in salary.  This low salary was a pittance even in 1975. Assistants made more than that at major universities.  To add insult to injury, UCLA was not paying into any retirement fund for the first 12 years of his service.  “Had I known that, I never would have come to UCLA.  But I took the job, so I wanted to honor my contract,” Coach later said.  (Bisheff, 2004, p. 120)

However, after he retired, one would expect him to cash-out on his immense success and live large, but he did not.  He stayed in the same tiny apartment in Encino, ate the same breakfast at a same small coffee shop, and drove the same old car.  His players were so embarrassed by his car that they pooled money together and bought him a Mercedes 450 SL, but his wife hated the car, so he exchanged it for Ford Taurus. 

Because of his own experiences with poverty, he was very sensitive to the needs of humble people.  For example, he always gave large tips to waiters and waitresses; he did not tolerate any bad behavior from any his players towards waitresses or janitors.   After each game, he would go around picking up garbage and towels from the floor; when his players saw their coach picking up trash, they would start doing the same.  It was known that wherever UCLA team played, they left their host’s gym cleaner than before.





If revolution takes place in your self, 
Possibly this space and time may change. Iqbal


Success begins with the self. JW was first and foremost the best player himself.  He taught through example.  No player could outplay him.  He was better than anyone.  Anytime, a player showed attitude, he would challenge him to a free-throw shooting contest.  “You really could not argue with him.  Not really, at age 50, he’d challenge you to a free-throw shooting contest, and he’d hit nine out of ten.  He was a better shooter than any of us,” recalled one of his best players Goodrich.

 JW also did not tolerate any disobedience.  Rules were same for everyone, even for the most valuable players of his team.  One time Bill Walton, arrived to practice with his hair at shoulder length.  When the coach told him to get his hair cut short, Walton told the coach he “did not have the right to tell him how to wear his hair.”  Coach responded, “You’re right.  I don’t.  I just have the right to set rules for my team.  I want you to know I fully understand your feelings.  And we’re going to miss you, Bill.”  Walton immediately got his hair cut.  (Bisheff, 2004, p. 156). 

Another time, Sidney Wicks, who was the most valuable player on the team, and UCLA was about to play one of the most important games of the season against USC, Coach told Wicks, “You were late for the pregame meal, so you are not going to play.”  Wicks was flabbergasted, as were the fans and the managing staff.  Wicks kept pleading the coach to let him play.  Coach turned to him and said, “Sidney, you might sit there until you rot.”  In the second half, when Sidney had fully realized his mistake and was willing to do anything to please the coach, JW let him play.  “Sidney played one of his best games ever.  He just took the game over, but he was passing the ball and doing the things we wanted him to do. It was all to teach Sidney a lesson about being on time and discipline.  He could have sacrificed the game for that, but Sidney respected him for it.” (Bisheff, 2004, p 172).




Read again the lesson of truth, of justice and valour!
You will be asked to do the work of taking on responsibility for the world. Iqbal


To succeed, whether in life or on the basketball court, fundamentals are fundament. Indeed, Coach Wooden led his players to victory by stressing the fundamentals. He was confident that if his players practiced the fundamentals of basketball, they will succeed.  He did not make them work long hours, nor did he make them practice on weekends.  But his practices were precise and well planned.  Every minute of the practice was accounted for; there was not a minute to waste.  For example, his practices started precisely at 3:30pm and ended at 5:30 pm.    In between these two hours, he made his players do specific drills for precise amount of time.  He carried cards on each of his players; “he had percentages worked out.”  His assistants also kept tabs on each player’s weaknesses and strengths.  Feedback was immediate; there was very little lecturing.  “Most coaches would spend a lot of time talking about those things (i.e., fundamentals of throwing the ball, blocking, etc.).  Coach always spent no time talking and all his time doing,” said Andy Hill—JW’s player and later a coach himself.

In fact, these practices were so well organized and intense that actual games felt like “vacation”.  His players were so well conditioned and sound in their fundamentals that the opposing team would eventually tire out in the last quarter and start making mistakes.   This was one of the main reasons why so many of UCLA’s close games were won in the final minutes.  The opposing team was simply too fatigued to keep up with the precise machine-like consistency of JW’s team. 

JW left nothing to chance.  No detail was too small for him.  For example, on the first day of practice, he showed his players (who were the best of the best from all around America) how to wear their socks and tie their shoe laces.  He believed that if shoe laces became loose during the game, the player could fall; and if his socks had a wrinkle, it would cause a blister, which would compromise the player’s game, and the team's victory. 

Another example of him not leaving anything to chance was his recruitment of Karim Abdul Jabbar (KAJ), who was the number one pick out of high school.  KAJ was considered the prodigy of basketball.  Every college basketball team wanted to recruit him because having Karim on the team almost guaranteed victories.  JW flew to NY, spoke to KAJ's parents and convinced them that UCLA was the right place for him.  Karim was impressed that this little man had taken bunch of mediocre player and welded them together into such a non-stoppable team that against all odds won the National Championship.  

Also, Coach did not discriminate against any player based on the color of his skin.  One time a reporter asked Rowe "if Wooden treated black players any differently than he did white players."  Rowe replied, "You don't know our coach, do you?  He doesn't see color, he sees ball players."

Coach was always learning and improving his game.  For example, he took psychology classes at UCLA to understand human psychology and team dynamics; he was not arrogant to take the advice of his assistants and other coaches.  For example, he asked a Junior College Coach of Pasadena, Tarkanian, to come show him zone defense.  Tarkanian recalls, "Well one day, I get this phone call.  It's from Jerry Norman (Wooden's assistant coach).  He tells me Coach Wooden wants me to show him the basic concept of our 1-2-2 zone.  Well, can you imagine a JC coach getting a call like that?  Shoot, that was better than having sex."

Here's a poem, written by one of his poet players, Swen Nater, that captures a glimpse of Coach Wooden’s style.



If you wish to be successful

To be all that you can be,

Take a little piece of wisdom

That was handed down to me

“Be quick but don’t hurry”


Every task must be accomplished

Well, exact and never late

So in every deed, act quickly

Execute and never wait

“Be quick but don’t hurry”

For an act performed too slowly,

Excellent, though it may be

Will come later than it’s needed

And is valueless, you see

“Be quick but don’t hurry”


On the other hand, don’t hurry

There are errors made in haste

And the errors cause the detour,

Inefficient and waste.

“Be quick but don’t hurry”


To be quick without the hurry

Requires work, for gracious sakes.

You must practice, practice, practice

Till you’re quick, with no mistakes

“Be quick but don’t hurry”



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.