Indiana State University Newsroom

March Madness Flashback: John Wooden

March 30, 2006

Coaching legend began his college career at Indiana State

Like a lot of boys who grew up in rual Indiana during the early 20th century, John R. Wooden shot hoops on a makeshift goal nailed to the hayloft.

For Wooden, there was more to life than basketball. There were deeper lessons to be learned from all his practicing. 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.

Ultimately his 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 Teachers College (now Indiana State University) in Terre Haute and UCLA.

When his 43-year-long coaching career ended at UCLA in 1975, his teams had ammassed records that may never be broken.

During his years as a coach, he also perfected his fabled Pyramid of Success, a listing of the building block values he prized the most in his life. Not surprisingly they bore a striking resemblance to many of the lessons his father had taught him as a boy.

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 said.

Taking over the Sycamore athletic department from a mentor is a tall order, taking the reins from a mentor who was an Indiana basketball legend in his own right is quite another. But filling Curtis' shoes didn't faze the newly-discharged Navy lieutenant.

"I never really worried about that," Wooden said, adding he was prepared to give it his best.

Wooden, then in his mid-30'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.

He credits his knack for organization and planning for his successful balancing act.

"That helped me since I had so many hats to wear," he said.

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.

"We had no problems," he recalled, "We had more problems driving from Terre Haute to Kansas City where the tournament was played because we stopped at some places that wouldn't let him [Walker] come in, so I wouldn't let anybody go in."

Klueh 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. Thankfully it didn't last too many years after that," 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 58 years later.

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

In addition to racking up the highest winning percentage of any Sycamore coach, Wooden completed work on his famous Pyramid of Success in 1948. Students in his class remember learning about the pyramid.

"Many of us took 472 -- the coaching of basketball. It wasn't as highly developed as it is today, but he definitely had the pyramid, the base and the building blocks," said Klueh.

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.

"I hated to leave the young men that I left at Terre Haute because they were all sophomores and I would've had two more years with them. Many of them had played for me in high school," he recalled.

Klueh remembers Wooden called them together to break the news.

"We were extremely excited for him," Klueh said, "We didn't feel like he let us down."

"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.

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.

Klueh, who was named Helms Foundation Player of the Year and All-American while playing under Wooden, followed a very similar path to his mentor -- coaching basketball and tennis at ISU from 1955-80 and teaching in the physical education department.

The Sycamore Hall of Famer recalls a phone call he received while coaching basketball -- on the other end of the line was Wooden.

"He was calling to see if I would like to have UCLA play a game in Terre Haute. I said of course, I'd love that," Klueh said.

"They had a great team -- they were coming off an undefeated season where they won a national championship. We enjoyed having a team of that caliber here. Didn't enjoy the final score, but enjoyed the occasion," he said.

Wooden retired from coaching in 1975, but his legacy is still alive on the Indiana State campus.

Sycamore athletes learn about his values and history in a class taught by Henry Villegas, who decided to use the book "Wooden" after watching a public television special on the Hoosier native four years ago.

"He takes the Midwestern core values such as honesty, hard work, discipline, personal responsibility and respect that he gained from his father and used them to develop athletes into good successful people. It was more than about winning, but about giving it your all and truly enjoying the experience - winning just happened to be a product of the effort," Villegas said.

Villegas said teaching Wooden's values have benefited him.

"Coach Wooden helps to keep me focused on what it is really all about- using the field of athletics as a classroom- teaching the class important life lessons," Villegas added.

Jay Tunnell, a freshman basketball player from Topeka, Kan., said reading "Wooden" has made him more aware of his actions on and off the court.

"You think about it a little more. It makes you think about what you're doing instead of what others are doing," he said.

Tunnell, who was named Kansas' 2004 Mr. Basketball, said the former Sycamore's wisdom is still applicable to sports today.

"He's one of the best coaches ever," Tunnell said. "The core of his message will last forever."

For Starla Gary, a freshman on ISU's track team, reading the book made her re-examine her athletic and educational goals.

"Reading his book has really made me look at my values and goals. It?s also made me look at the things I do," the Indianapolis student said.

According to Gary, Wooden's wisdom and values have a place in college athletics today -- as a vehicle of change.

"If everyone went back to the basic things that he did -- his core values -- it would change college athletics," she said.

Larry Maxwell, a Martinsville resident who has maintained a friendship with the Hoosier native since 1989, agrees.

"People need to take a hold of the teachings he has left to teach the younger generations about life," Maxwell, a retired IHSAA referee, said.

Maxwell, who retired after a 39-year tenure with the IHSAA, relied on one of Wooden's sayings, "Be Quick but Don't Hurry" when he was officiating ballgames.

"When going over pre-game duties in the locker room, I always reminded my partners to 'Be quick but don't hurry.' You've got to be quick, you've got to be able to react but don't hurry because that's when mistakes happen," he recalled.

Wooden's legacy depends on who you talk to. Sportcasters will remember him for his impressive record -- 10 national championships, an 88-game winning streak and four undefeated seasons. Others, like Maxwell, have a different take on things.

"Those people who played for coach and call coach friend, they're going to remember him as a basketball coach, but they're going to remember him as one of the finest individuals they've ever known -- someone who helped them, guided them, gave them leadership and taught them," he said.

According to Maxwell, Wooden has a definite idea on what that legacy should include.

"More than anything else, he wants to be remembered as an educator," Maxwell said.

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."


Contact and Writer: Paula Meyer, ISU Communications & Marketing, (812) 237-3783 or