LOS ANGELES – John Wooden coached his final game on March 31, 1975. It was a victory of course, UCLA 92-85 over Kentucky to give the Bruins their 10th NCAA championship in a dozen years.
Wooden's coaching accomplishments are unfathomable by any reasonable standard, an impossible to duplicate championship run paced by four perfect seasons.
Yet his most profound impact came in the ensuing 35 years, when the man became a greater legend in retirement than as a coach. In his time away from the game, outside the daily spotlight he became an even more profound and respected role model.
Wooden passed away Friday at age 99 and you needn't be a UCLA fan in particular, or a college basketball fan in general, to mourn the loss.
This was an American legend, even more away from the sideline than on it.
He represented a simpler time in sports, when coaches comported themselves with calm and class. He never swore. During games he rarely left his seat. He found his joy in preparation and practice. He still considered himself a teacher first, and it wasn't just a marketing line.
"If you've done your job as a coach, you shouldn't have to jump up and down and work for all that attention," Wooden said in April. "If you're the teacher, the game is the test, and you never see teachers running around the classroom during the test. They shouldn't have to."
He was a simple man from the small, southern Indiana town of Martinsville. He grew up in the country, often hitching a train for rides into town. A star player at Purdue (he was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame as a player and as a coach), he found his greatest success as the oldest-school kind of a coach.
His style and system were hopelessly out of date even in the 1950s and '60s. He'd first teach his players how to put on their socks before they were allowed to practice. He believed in personal betterment, his Pyramid of Success and the idea that doing the right thing, every day, was the only way.
Somehow he managed to connect with his players in the turbulent '60s and '70s, even in liberal Westwood, rather than some conservative, cornfield college town.
"He established a goal that is unreachable in college sports," said Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson at the NBA Finals on Thursday. "And he held it to such a standard that we all appreciate his teachings and mentoring of his college students.
"I think it's a day gone past for what we see now out of college players. But at the time, it was inspirational and his coaching has been an inspiration to all us coaches."
You can quibble with the fine points of Wooden's philosophies and coaching style but not the general principles behind it.
Thirty-five years later he remained a teacher, penning a book just this year on mentorship. He was kind and forever generous with his time. He did endless charity work. His focus remained on his faith and his family; until recently he still visited his late wife's grave monthly and penned weekly letters to her.
He did the things no one does. He was a constant in the swirling tides of change, a reminder of another way of living, a simpler way of conducting one's business. He coached to coach, not for big contracts or endless fame.
His ability to live that life is what has endeared him to generations of Americans.
No one younger than 40 can even remember when he was an actual coach, yet Wooden's name, his values, his teachings still ring true.
Until his health began to fade in recent years, he would travel to the Final Four and find adoring crowds who would cheer him like a rock star. He spoke just months ago about the pride he felt in watching Butler and its Indiana-born coach Brad Stevens streak to the Final Four with a style of play he could appreciate.
All these years later, even as those remarkable 10 titles became faded, the streak of success so remarkable it hardly seems real, that was John Wooden. He still was representing a way of life, still trying to teach everyone by example.
Thirty-five years after winning his final game, John Wooden was bigger than ever at the end of his oversized life as an American hero.
- John Wooden