UCLA took the floor in Kansas City, as the only undefeated team in the country on March 21, 1964. Despite their 29-0 record, many coaches and experts didn’t expect the Bruins to beat the Duke team in the National Championship game. John Wooden had been the head coach at UCLA for 16 seasons. He had turned UCLA into a good team, but they hadn’t won a collegiate championship in all those years.
From the beginning of that season, UCLA wasn’t expected to be a good team. Their tallest player was center Fred Slaughter, who was only 6’5″ – an undersized center on most teams. Duke had two 6’10” players on their team. Wooden knew they would have a hard time winning the traditional way, so what could they do to overcome their size deficiency?
Assistant Coach, Jerry Norman came up with the idea to change their defense. They would play full court defense, putting a lot of pressure on the other teams’ players and creating dozens of turnovers. It would require a lot of effort and focus from each player to play suffocating defense throughout the entire game. Wooden always made sure his teams were well conditioned, and their stamina would be tested this season.
The effectiveness of this defense was on display early in the Championship game. With less than 8 minutes to go in the first half, UCLA was behind by three points. Then over the next 2.5 minutes, UCLA stole passes, hurried opposing players, and scored 16 points, while Duke couldn’t score any points. They led comfortably the rest of the game and won Wooden’s first national title as a coach, as well as finishing the season undefeated. He would later lead his teams to 10 national championships in 12 years.
Wooden would coach some big names at UCLA, but he didn’t always have the most talented players. He was able to get teams to play together. He did it by building character first and athletes second. He forbade his teams from criticizing each other, swearing, and lying. He also required that they be on time, clean and do their best. He didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about the score.
” I never mentioned winning,” Wooden said in a Ted talk in 2001. “My idea is you can lose when you outscore somebody in a game. And you can win, when you are outscored. I wanted them to be able to hold their head up after a game [no matter the score].”
Interestingly, one of the most winningest coaches of all time was not obsessed with wins and losses. He measured success by the effort and dedication they put in during the week and in the game. Wooden was most concerned about the athletes and how they would develop into men.
Wooden had made this crystal clear at the end of the 1947 season while coaching Indiana State. After his team won their conference, Wooden received an invitation to participate in the national tournament. Wooden declined to take his team because the tournament wouldn’t allow black athletes to participate. Rather than just leave one player home, his whole team forfeited their place in the tournament.
The following year, after a few other teams complained, the ban on African-American players was rescinded. Wooden’s team finished second in the 1948 tournament with Clarence Walker becoming the first black basketball player to play in a postseason intercollegiate basketball tourney.
Countless coaches in all levels of sports have stressed, obsessed and chased after wins. For Wooden, his team was more important than the wins and losses they accumulated. He wanted them to be successful long after they hung up their jerseys, so he wanted to give them tools that transcended the hardwood. Wooden would eventually develop a pyramid of success. Foundations in that pyramid were hard work, friendship, loyalty, cooperation and enthusiasm. (Here is a link to his pyramid.)
Wooden advocated that by building good character and working hard, you will eventually get the success you deserve. As a coach, who can’t play in the actual game, he had to instill these virtues in his teams.
As you look at those you teach, coach or associate with, are you inspiring them to greater character? Are you quick to criticize or do your encourage them to give their best? Are you loyal to your teammates and the goal you are all working towards?
“Most people, the overwhelming majority of us, wish to be in an organization or part of a team whose leadership cares about them, provides fairness and respect, dignity and consideration.” Wooden said in his book, Wooden on Leadership.
Make your team more than winning and losing. Make your team stronger through high character and eventually your will see the success you are supposed to have.