Legendary Big Ten coach offered words of inspiration

Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

It’s tough being a Michigan fan, particularly in football when the opponent is “THE” Ohio State University.

The punishment the Buckeyes have meted out to the Wolverines over the past 15 years has been of the “capital” variety, where not even last-minute appeals to the Supreme Court of Common Decency could spare U-M from yet another gridiron bloodbath.

In basketball, the treacherous villain does not wear the scarlet and gray, but rather is wrapped in the powder blue and gold of UCLA, a school that for the better part of six decades has bedeviled U-M with a series of NCAA Tournament setbacks.

The latest, of course, was played out recenlty in Indianapolis in the Elite Eight, where the Bruins withstood a late U-M charge to deprive the Wolverines of a much-coveted Final Four berth.

It was the proverbial tough pill to swallow, as a normally sweet-shooting Michigan team couldn’t throw it in the ocean that night, inexplicably missing its last eight shots en route to a heart-breaking two-point loss.

The disappointment, of course, was felt most profoundly by U-M players and Coach Juwan Howard, who can take some solace in the fact that they defied the pre-season prognosticators by winning an outright Big Ten championship with a sparkling regular season record.

Ironically, their accomplishments – fueled by a combination of teamwork and toughness – would have made a late and legendary Big Ten alum especially proud.

That man gained fame as an All-American player at Purdue during the Great Depression, later becoming known as the “Wizard of Westwood,” a nametag he acquired while patrolling the sidelines in Pauley Pavilion on the beautiful Westwood campus of UCLA.

His teams mercilessly broke many a basketball heart, winning 10 national championships over a 12-year span. His title-winning team in 1965 stuck a dagger in local hearts when the Bruins destroyed a star-studded Michigan squad led by Wolverine legend Cazzie Russell. His final championship squad, in 1975, also spoiled a U-M tournament party, edging the Wolverines in overtime.

From 1967 to 1973, he guided UCLA to seven straight NCAA titles, a championship feat that such modern-day coaching marvels as Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Bill Self, and Tom Izzo can only dream about. He was the architect of an 88-game winning streak that still boggles the basketball mind, while his squads enjoyed a 38-game victory string in NCAA Tournament games.

While John Wooden will forever be known as the finest basketball coach of all time, he made his mark in retirement as an author and public speaker, treating readers and audiences to his secrets of success before passing away in 2010 at age 99.
His book, “Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court,” is a quick read, 201 pages in length, that should be required reading for those who value teamwork as a means for self-improvement.

One of his favorite stories is about one of his greatest players, free-spirited center Bill Walton, a three-time All-American. Coach Wooden had a rule, archaic as it may sound nowadays, against facial hair for players on his team. One day Walton showed up for practice sporting a beard.

“Bill, have you forgotten something?” Coach Wooden asked his star center.

Walton replied, “Coach, if you mean the beard, I think I should be allowed to wear it. It’s my right.”

Coach Wooden asked, “Do you believe in that strongly?”

Walton answered, “Yes, I do, coach. Very much.”

Coach then looked at All-American player and said politely, “Bill, I have a great respect for individuals who stand up for those things in which they believe. I really do. And the team is going to miss you.”

Of course, the Bruins only missed him while he made his way to the locker room to shave off his beard.

“There were no hard feelings,” Coach Wooden recalled. “I wasn’t angry and he wasn’t mad. He understood the choice was between his own desires and the good of the team, and Bill was a team player.”

The book ends with the author’s “My Favorite Maxims.” Among his choice sayings:

• Happiness begins where selfishness ends.

• Discipline yourself and others won’t need to.

• If I am through learning, I am through.

• The smallest good deed is better than the best intention.

• The man who is afraid to risk failure seldom has to face success.

• Nothing can give you greater joy than doing something for another.

• Being average means you are as close to the bottom as you are to the top.

• Make each day your masterpiece.

• Do not mistake activity for achievement.

• What is right is more important than who is right.

The 10 maxims, and their underlying meaning, offer interesting food for thought, even for U-M fans starved for that seemingly ever-elusive second NCAA basketball title.

Next season, for sure.

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