Between the time I completed my work with the Oakland Raiders and before I opened Qoxhi Picks in 1981, I worked two years in the marketing department of Home Savings and Loan. In 1980, one of our company spokespeople was legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. Home Savings was a major sponsor that year for the Daryle Lamonica Gold Tournament and my assignment was to accompany Coach Wooden for the two days he visited the event.
Two days with Wooden is akin to a four-year education at a top university. In my youth, I often found myself in the presence of people that just a couple years earlier were bigger than life in the sports world. Time spent with Johnny Unitas stands out, meeting Joe Namath and Jimmy Snyder while working for Al Davis was memorable, but nothing compared to my two days with Coach Wooden.
I would pick him up at the Marriott Hotel in the morning, be at his service all day, and drive him back to his hotel at the end of the day. During the two days I became more comfortable asking him about his historic run with the UCLA Basketball team and his philosophies in building the greatest dynasty in college sports history.
On a drive from the golf course to his hotel on our second day together we had developed a relationship where I felt permission to prod him while revealing that I had always had an interest in the handicapping side of sports. In that regard, I mentioned that his teams always seemed to overcome spots on their schedule where others would likely stumble. I mentioned a couple examples where they would win a huge game over Houston or North Carolina and while most teams would then be flat in their next game, particularly if it was against an overmatched opponent, his teams wouldn’t.
They could go from beating North Carolina to crushing Oregon State while seemingly not governed by the highs and lows of almost every other team.
Wooden smiled, and said, “That’s because I never had my boys focused on their opponents, but rather on themselves. If we played a tough game and lost, but my boys knew they had given their very best, I wanted them to sleep well that night. But, even if we won decisively, but one of my players knew he hadn’t given his all, I wanted him to wrestle with how he could allow that to happen, and even lose sleep over it.”
In other words, Wooden’s teams were not judging themselves on how they played their opponents, but rather how they stacked up to giving all they had to reach the team goal.
Simple, yet amazing.
How did your guys always play with such poise down the stretch in close games, seemingly always winning even when the final score was close?
Wooden replied, “Have you ever watched teams play down the stretch in close games, how often they check the scoreboard to see how they are doing? I didn’t have my boys looking at the scoreboard because that is only a reflection of what is happening on the court. Their attention needs to be on the play on the court and the scoreboard will take care of itself.”
Simple, yet amazing.
This week, the school he guided to the most dominant mastery of college basketball is looking to add another glorious chapter to their legacy. The UCLA Bruins have become only the second team in history to open play requiring a play-in game to advance to the field of 64 and survive into the Final Four. Virginia Commonwealth University did it in 2011 before losing to Butler in this very round.
On Saturday, UCLA will meet Gonzaga, the team nearly everyone anointed the best team in the country even before the tournament began. The Bulldogs are looking to make their own historical run, winning their initial National Championship and becoming the first team since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers to complete a perfect season.
The problem Wooden’s old team runs into here, is that Gonzaga might just be winning the way the Wizard of Westwood guided his success; judging themselves against their own highest standards.