Indiana State University Newsroom

Standing tall - Indiana State remembers John Wooden

June 7, 2010

Well-known for his magic in southern California, John Wooden's roots were always firmly grounded in Indiana and its Midwestern values. In fact, his first college basketball coaching job was at Indiana State Teachers College (now Indiana State University).

Wooden, an Indiana favorite son, passed away June 4 - just three months short of celebrating his 100th birthday. The legacy he left behind encompasses faith, family and character.

"Coach Wooden's legacy extends far beyond his tremendous success on the basketball court," said Indiana State president Dan Bradley. "While at Indiana State, he helped break down racial barriers in national post-season basketball tournaments. Throughout his entire life, he instilled in his players and others the principles needed to succeed in all aspects of their lives."

For Wooden, there was more to life than basketball. There were deeper lessons to be learned from all his practicing as a youngster in Morgan County. At the heart of this was the desire to honor the simple lessons of hard work, integrity, perseverance, determination and learning from others that his father, Joshua, had taught him.

He always carried a piece of paper - The Seven Point Creed, given to him by his father:

"Be true to yourself. Make each day a masterpiece. Help others. Drink deeply from good books. Make friendship a fine art. Build a shelter against a rainy day. Pray for guidance and counsel and give thanks to your blessings each day."

"He tried to live his life by that Seven Point Creed," daughter Nancy Wooden said in a 2008 interview. "That is what he was about."

"Family and family values are what's important," she said. "Those are the things that stay with you."

Ultimately Wooden's application of those values to his own life -- and his ability to teach them to others -- was what separated him from all the boys shooting in those other barns and led him to unparalleled success as an athlete, as a coach and as a man.

Those values were to take him to an All-American playing career at Purdue University and coaching stints at high schools in Dayton, Ky and South Bend. Following that he began an unmatched career as a college coach at Indiana State and UCLA.

Wooden came to Terre Haute in 1946 to take over the reins of Indiana State's athletic program from his former coach and mentor at Martinsville High School, Glenn Curtis.

"When he [Curtis] decided to leave Indiana State to take a professional job in 1946, he recommended me to Ralph Tirey, who was the college president. He [Tirey] called me and offered me the job right over the phone," Wooden recalled during a 2005 interview.

Wooden, then in his mid30's, served many roles at Indiana State. He was the school's athletic director, basketball coach and baseball coach. He taught coaching courses in basketball and baseball and worked toward a master's degree in education. Still, he managed to make time for his wife, Nell and their two children, Nancy and Jim.

His first season at ISU in 1946, he posted a record of 18-8 with a team made up of players such as Lenny Rzeszewski, Duane Klueh, and Bobby Royer. But that success came with a price. Forced to play in the NAIA tournament in Kansas City without one of his players, Wooden declined the tourney bid.

"They wouldn't permit a colored boy to play in the tournament and I had one on my team -- Clarence Walker out of East Chicago," he recalled. "While he wasn't one that got to play very much at all, he still was a member of my team and I wouldn't take the team without him."

The next season, after finishing 27-7, the team was invited to the tournament again. Wooden refused the invitation. The NAIA relented and allowed Walker to come, but he couldn't stay in the hotel with the team. That concession didn't sit well with the coach either.

"Due to persuasion from the NAACP, Dr. Tirey and others who felt it would be a good thing to go, I said okay," Wooden said.

The team made the trip to Kansas City, where Walker stayed with an African-American minister and the team ate meals in a private dining room.

Duane Klueh, who played point guard for the Sycamores and later coached basketball and tennis, remembers the team's reaction to the treatment surrounding Walker.

"We had a hard time understanding what was going on. Clarence was just a part of the team, an important part of the team. It was not right." Klueh, a member of the NAIA Hall of Fame, said.

Walker, who went on to serve as a guidance counselor and coach at East Chicago Washington High School, took a place in history as the first African-American player to play in a national college basketball tournament. Wooden's stance laid the foundation for others, something he is proud of years later.

"I'm happy that I was able to be a small part of that," Wooden said.

Coach John Wooden meant a lot to the Walker family in that he was a God fearing man; a man of his word; and was color blind to racism and discrimination,” said Kevin Walker, son of Clarence Walker. “He stood for something that was not popular when he did it, but his stance along with my father’s willingness to stand with him opened the way for today’s athletes and most of them really do not realize it.”

Wooden’s lessons were learned by the younger Walker, who also played basketball.

“The impact Coach John Wooden had on me stems from discipline, dedication, determination, faith and patience,” he said. “Many of the key components of his Pyramid of Success, along with my father’s and family’s guidance, helped me become a successful person.”

In addition to racking up the highest winning percentage of any Sycamore coach, Wooden completed work on his famous Pyramid of Success in 1948, a listing of the building block values he prized the most in his life. The pyramid bore a striking resemblance to many of the lessons his father had taught him as a boy.

In 1948 after going 44-15 in two seasons and earning his master's degree in education, Wooden left Indiana State and headed west to UCLA.

Klueh remembers Wooden called them together to break the news.

"We were extremely excited for him," Klueh said. "I think we were very, very fortunate to be in his path because he was going to be a successful coach and man regardless of where he went," he added.

Wooden remained close to many of his former players after he retired from the coaching profession. Those who were fortunate to have played for his at Indiana State have fond memories.

"He's the epitome of a gentleman and scholar," said Bob Brock, who played for both Wooden and Curtis.

"We were in awe of what a great athlete he was," Brock continued, adding Wooden stressed excellence.

"Play your best. If you play your best and give it your all, that's all you can do. "

Klueh said the team enjoyed being around Wooden, who was known to scrimmage with the team.

"He was a stickler for conditioning, which meant that practice went from 3 to 6 p.m. A good portion of that time we were running up and down the floor and scrimmaging. He felt the team that was in better shape would do better at the end of the ballgame," Klueh recalled.

"He made practices and games enjoyable," he said.

Jim Powers, who played for Wooden at South Bend Central before following him to Indiana State, said faith and family were most important to Wooden.

"He was a true gentleman. He treated you with respect and expected the same in return," Powers remembered. "As a coach, he was a disciplinarian and a firm believer in fundamentals. He taught you to be the best person you could be."

Jerry Kunkel, who was a forward for Wooden's ISU squad, also recalled the emphasis on fundamentals, which were taught in a series of fast break drills during practice.

"He always said you couldn't succeed unless your fundamentals were sound," Kunkel said.

But Wooden taught more than fundamentals. Kunkel said the coach encouraged his players to be gentlemen and show leadership.

"We were a team," Kunkel said. "We had to be leaders."

How Wooden conducted himself left a lasting impression on Kunkel, who went on to coach high school basketball.

"He never lost his cool," Kunkel remembered.

For Max Woolsey, a guard for the Sycamores, playing for Wooden was "very entertaining and educational."

"I learned a lot of basketball," Woolsey said. "I also played football and I didn't come to practice until football was over."

"He was big on conditioning and skills," Woolsey recalled. "You did it until you got it right."

Like the others, he learned how to be a better person and how to work as a team.

"I learned to respect others and to respect myself," he said. "Coach taught us to work hard and stay with things. Everything doesn't come easy."

Woolsey, who roomed with Walker, said it was all about being a team.

"He taught us we were all equal and we were in this together. It was all about team. He didn't put anyone up or down," Woolsey said.

Wooden's legacy depends on who you talk to. Sportscasters remember him for his impressive record -- 10 national championships, an 88-game winning streak and four undefeated seasons. Wooden himself wanted to be remembered as a good person and an educator.

Brad Balch, dean of Indiana State's Bayh College of Education, thinks Wooden‘s success as an educator outshines his record.

"John Wooden was the perfect combination of gentleman, scholar and educator," Balch said. "Over the years, he taught English and coaching in the classroom. But his greatest accomplishment was his role as a teacher on the basketball court - teaching lessons about character, values and life in addition to basketball fundamentals. Those men came to him as athletes, but left better men because of him. Through his books he has taught us all lessons in leadership and life."

Posting NCAA records that may never be broken and receiving numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the NCAA Ford Award, Wooden is often called a legend -- a moniker he isn't comfortable with.

"I don't like to be referred to as a legend. I'd rather they be proud of the person I am rather than what my basketball teams were able to do," he said. "I'd like to be thought of just as a common person who was considerate of his fellow man."

Watch his 2005 interview

Additional resources:
ISU Athletics News release

Contact and writer: Paula Meyer, ISU Communications & Marketing, 812-237-3783 or