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A Tribute to John Wooden

On Friday, June 4th, UCLA's, College Basketball's--and possibly athletic's--greatest coach, John Wooden, passed away. Not just Southern California, but America felt his passing.

Why do I feel compelled to write about him at On Violence (aside from the fact that I went to UCLA)?

Any Bruin alum can tell you the impact of Wooden's legacy. The line to get his autograph was always full, either at the bookstore signing books or before college Basketball games. His picture adorns program, buildings and memorabilia. He built the athletic tradition at UCLA. Even though I never really met him, I still feel his loss like the entire community of Bruins.

More than anything, Wooden was a leader. I think every sports commentator has said this: on and off the court he embodied character. It doesn't make it less true.

He won 10 national championships, seven in a row. He won 88 straight games. Despite retiring thirty five years ago, John Wooden kept working. He published books on leadership and basketball. Wooden on Leadership has better stuff in two pages than the entire Army FM on leadership. His "Pyramid of Success" adorns classrooms, boardrooms and bedrooms around America, inspiring new generations.

And he was also by every single account a man of character. No one speaks ill of him, no one.

And I bring all this up because despite all the accolades we in America give our servicemembers, I don't think any General or Admiral of the contemporary age comes even close to this. In the World War II generation we had several generals who earned respect on a John Wooden level: Marshall, Bradley, perhaps Patton. General Petraeus is our most famous general, but will he stand out in thirty years the John Wooden has? Our Army loves "values," be they the Warrior Ethos or the Army values. Wooden created leadership through character, do our current Generals and Admirals have that character?

Maybe a comparison between the Army and Men's college basketball is unfair, but leadership is leadership, and sports is probably the closest field to war short of combat. Wooden is important to me because he was first and foremost a leader. A leader we should all emulate.

Post Script: Oh and he was also immensely quotable, so check these quotes out (they are all correctly sourced to John Wooden). And check out his website, pretty good design quality and a wealth of information.

four comments

I’m actually not sure agree with the end thesis of this, that Generals deserve/need/should have the same fame/respect/admiration as John Wooden. But then again, I’m not sure college hoops coaches deserve that much respect.

Ike was pretty beloved, and he shared an interesting trait w/ John Wooden, that both were mid-western guys, hard-working and honest.

But also I think the military, and the rest of the world, get hung up on “mystical” leadership, viewing it as an innate skill as a opposed to a talent that can be developed. It took Wooden 16 years to learn how to be a great coach, even he says as much.

I wonder if by learning to be a good leader, it takes the magic out of leadership.

Generals don’t deserve the same respect or admiration as John Wooden unless they earn it. Our society, in my opinion, is great at using sports to sort of get away from the real world.
I would begin to put a guy like GEN Petraeus on a level that is possibly and could possibly reach that of something short of John Wooden, even possibly reaching that level. He is a captivating, intelligent leader who’s “got it”. Just reading his military BIO is the stuff of legend. Perhaps comparing him to Coach Wooden isn’t fair, but comparing him to the most revered Generals of yesteryear is not a stretch.

But, when its all said and done, RIP Coach Wooden, you will be missed and I’m sad that its taken your death in order get me to realize your greatness and importance to the world of not just sports but also leadership.

@ Rob – Yeah, I think Patraeus is the guy. The way he has reformed military thought is nothing short of amazing, but he isn’t there yet…

I would just say that Petraeus is the man, but so many other generals just are not.