Tavis: Despite the struggles of John Wooden’s early life on a family farm in Indiana, the iconic coach never lost a sense of optimism and decency. Among the lessons his father stressed even during the height of the Depression were hard work, honesty and the value of education.
In 2005 the man known as the Wizard of Westwood, a moniker he told me he never liked, joined us for a conversation on this stage about his most enduring life lessons and the importance of leadership.
I began our conversation by asking him to recount a story from 1946 when Coach Wooden, then at Indiana State, refused an invitation to take his team to a post-season tournament because African-American players were not allowed to compete.
[Begin video clip of 2005 John Wooden interview.]
Tavis: Tell me what you remember about this story back in 1946 in Indiana.
John Wooden: Well, I had an African-American, if you want me to say that. There’s nothing much difference.
Wooden: Clarence Walker was on my team, and, well, he wasn’t one of the ones that got to play very much. They wouldn’t let him come, so I wouldn’t go to the tournament. The next year we had a little better year, went 29 and 5, I believe it was, and we were invited again and I refused, but the NAACP and his parents and some others thought it would be a good thing and talked with him, and they let me bring him.
He couldn’t stay in the hotel. He could have his meals in the hotel with us, provided we were in a private room. He stayed with a minister and his wife and we had no problems whatsoever in any way. We had troubles driving from Terre Haute to Kansas City, various places, when they wouldn’t let him come to eat, so none of us would eat. But a few years later, an all-colored team won the championship. I’m kind of proud of the fact that I think we opened the door a little bit.
Tavis: Well, you should be proud of that, and particularly for a player – this is no Lew Alcindor, by your own admission. Here’s a guy that wasn’t even starting.
Wooden: No, he played very little in the games there. We lost in the championship game to University of Louisville, a very fine team, and I was very proud of our youngsters.
Tavis: Yeah. When you were growing up, your father gave you a card – I’m talking to Coach Wooden like he doesn’t know this – when Coach Wooden grew up in Indiana, his father gave him a little card, and the card was his own personal seven-point creed.
So his dad gives him a card with seven creeds on it that he wants little John to live his life by when he graduated from elementary school, which contained practical advice. His dad gave this to him, rather, when he graduated from elementary school, and there were seven points, as I mentioned, on the card.
I want to run through them right quick if I might, Coach, if that’s okay with you, and you can tell me a brief word about it. The first one on your dad’s card that he gave to you was to be true to yourself.
Wooden: Well, if you’re true to yourself you’re going to be true to everyone else. Polonius speaking to Laertes’ son in one of Shakespeare’s immortal tragedies, when Laertes is leaving home, Polonius said, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be, for borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry. This above all – to thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day thou canst not then be false to any man,” and I believe that’s true.
Tavis: Hmm. “To thine own self be true.” Be true to yourself. Second thing on your dad’s card: Make each day your masterpiece.
Wooden: We’re all equal in that respect. We may not have the same facilities, we may not have the same abilities, but we all have an equal chance to make the most of what we have. That became more or less my philosophy in teaching, whether I was teaching English classes, which I did always until I came to UCLA, or teaching athletics. Just do the best you can. No one can do more than that.
Tavis: Help others.
Wooden: Well, your greatest joy definitely comes from doing something for another, especially when it was done with no thought of something in return.
Tavis: Drink deeply – I love this – drink deeply from good books, including the Good Book.
Wooden: Yes, especially the Good Book. All your answers are in there. You’ll find them somewhere if you’ll just look and try to understand. You don’t have to necessarily understand completely, but you can get help there for anything, any problem.
Tavis: Make friendship a fine art.
Wooden: Don’t take it for granted. Too often we do. Friendship is two-sided. It isn’t a friend just because someone’s doing something nice for you. That’s a nice person. There’s friendship when you do for each other. It’s like marriage – it’s two-sided.
Tavis: Build shelter against a rainy day.
Wooden: Well, he wasn’t thinking of an earthly shelter, he was thinking of the life you lead where there are hopes of an eternal shelter. When Socrates was unjustly imprisoned, facing imminent death, his jailers couldn’t understand the serenity.
They asked him why he wasn’t preparing for death, and he said, “I’ve been preparing for death all my life with the life I’ve led.” I believe that’s what Dad meant.
Tavis: Pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day.
Wooden: Too often, we just ask for help instead of really giving thanks for the many things that we’ve had and are so helpful to us that we did nothing to deserve, so we should give thanks each and every day and pray for guidance in helping us along the proper path.
Tavis: These things that your dad gave you on this card, Coach, are not just admirable, they are obviously instructive. But I wonder whether or not – and obviously your record speaks for itself – but at any point in your career, in your life, did your friends or your players think you were just Coach is a little corny, Coach is a little Okie, he’s just too on the straight and narrow. Did they ever laugh at you?
Wooden: Well, I’m sure some of them did, and no question about that. When Lewis came to Los Angeles when he was interviewed and asked what he thought of Coach Wooden, he said, “I thought he was one of the corniest people I’d ever met. (Laughter) He reminded me of the old farmer in the Pepperidge Farm commercial.”
A reporter said, “What do you think of that?” and I said, “Well, that’s nice. I’m from the farm.” “Well, do you think he was commending you?” and I said, “Well, I’m taking it that way. It doesn’t make any difference.” But I’m sure that’s true, but it doesn’t bother me.
Tavis: With regard to leadership, you have argued for some time, for years, that emotion can be your enemy. Extrapolate for me.
Wooden: Well, when emotion takes over reason flies out the window, in a sense. You can’t make good decisions that are going to be meaningful, productive, when you lose control, and you have to maintain mental control, emotional control and to be able to perform physically up to your own particular level of competency; you have to keep your emotions under control.
Tavis: Mm-hmm. I wonder how much of what you have guarded over the years with regard to leadership in the sports arena is applicable elsewhere?
Wooden: I think it’s applicable in the most important place in the world, and that’s in the home. Parenting is the most important profession in the world, and I think that’s where it starts and should be. I think it’s applicable in business professions and in almost every life.
I think it would be – I think if heads of state throughout this troubled world followed it a little more, I believe we’d have less problems. We’d always have problems, but I don’t believe they’d be as unmanageable if heads of state just followed along, primarily, and be more considerate of others, and think (unintelligible) that person first.
Tavis: I hear the answer you just offered now about being more considerate. I was about to ask you and I still want to ask you anyway – and this is a massive question that may be unfair to ask – but when you critique leadership in the world today, and I know this is not a one size fits all, but since the book is about leadership, when you critique leadership today or leaders today, what most troubles you about the way that we devalue what leadership is supposed to be?
Wooden: Well, I think many drive instead of lead, and I don’t like that particular method, but I think that’s -
Tavis: Let me stop you right quick. What’s the difference between driving and leading?
Wooden: Well, driving is forceful, being more physical, in a sense, and a leader – well, the driver will stay behind with a whip, saying, “Get going.” A leader will be out in front with a banner and say, “Follow me.” I don’t know how to -
Tavis: (Laughs) That was pretty good. To not know how to explain it, that was pretty good. So the way we approach leadership today is the wrong approach?
Wooden: For many. Not for everybody, of course. The true leader isn’t really looking for leadership. He’s trying to set an example and be in the proper way to get the most productive results and don’t realize it. When the followers get something done, if the leader has been what he should, they’ll feel like they did it, not him. That’s the way it should be.
Tavis: I wonder what you make of the fact that today more than ever, I think, and maybe it’s been – you’ve been living a lot longer than I have – but my sense is that a lot of people today denigrate leaders, they denigrate individuals who are leaders, but everybody I know still, whether they denigrate leaders or leadership or not, still crave leadership. We are a people that need to be led, are we not?
Wooden: Oh, I think unquestionably. Not everyone is equipped to be a leader, but in a sense, everyone is a leader to someone, even though you’re not equipped.
I think parents, they’re a leader to youngsters, teacher are leaders, coaches are leaders, businessmen are leaders. I think everyone is a leader to someone, and everyone should realize that they are and conduct themselves in such a manner to be conducive to the welfare of the younger people coming up because they’re our future.
Tavis: Two exit questions. I usually ask one, I’ve got to two because you’re a legend in your own time. I’ve said many times some folk are legends in their own mind; you’re a legend in your own time.
That said, two exit questions. One, I joked at the top of the conversation you forbade me from saying “the Wizard of Westwood” because apparently you don’t like that, but who coined that phrase and why do you not like it?
Wooden: Well, I think the fellows that wrote the book “The Wizard of Westwood” was Dwight Chapin and Jeff Prugh. They were at the “Los Angeles Times” at that time. I didn’t like it then and they knew I didn’t like it at all. It connotes some wizardry that perhaps we did well, but because of being a wizard.
Oh, no, it was because I had fine youngsters and that’s what did it. The youngsters, those people under your supervision, you’d like to feel that you helped, but they’re the ones that really do it.
Tavis: To my final question, there’s a lot of conversation, particularly as you continue to advance in age, going strong at 94, 95, but still conversation every day when your name comes up about what your legacy really is.
What does John Wooden want his legacy to be? Is it those championships or something different?
Wooden: I’d just like to be thought of as a person that was considerate of others, and I think that I’ve spoken in one of my books. The important things to me are your faith, your family and your friends. If you have that, you have everything.
[End video clip of 2005 John Wooden interview.]
Tavis: And so, faith, family and friendship were all key components of John Wooden’s famous pyramid of success, a model for life that will always be part of his legacy.
When asked to name his favorite Wooden phrase last night, Kareem Abdul Jabbar quoted this: “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” Good words to live by from a man who led an extraordinary American life.
John Wooden passed away Friday night here in Los Angeles at the age of 99.
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