The following comes from my book, "The Art of Being An Assistant Coach" and speaks to the privilege I had of spending an afternoon with Coach John Wooden:
It was one of the most educational times in my coaching life as well as one of the most thrilling. The date was October 15, 1993, and I was in a rental car heading down the Los Angeles freeway system to spend an afternoon with Coach John Wooden.
To some degree it was somewhat of a pilgrimage; having the opportunity to fly cross country to speak with no just an outstanding basketball coach, but very much a wise man in a great number of areas, especially life. The trip is annual in some form for the LSU basketball staff. Annually Coach Dale Brown makes the trip and from time to time he takes a member of his staff.
During the early days of October, Coach Brown had me over to his house one evening to watch a video tape he had on Coach Wooden speaking at a clinic and talking about his basic coaching philosophy. When I casually mentioned what a thrill it would be to meet Coach Wooden and actually sit down and talk some basketball, Coach Brown got up, went to his office, wrote down Coach Wooden’s phone number on a piece of paper and handed it to me.
“We don’t start practice this year until November 1,” explained Coach Brown. “Why don’t you call John up and make a date before the season.”
I was almost in disbelief. Why would Coach Wooden agree to spend an afternoon with me? After my phone call, I soon found out that Coach Wooden was a gracious as he was wise, and I was soon bound for California.
I spend almost two entire days studying for my trip. I glanced through Coach Wooden’s book Practical Modern Basketball. I sat down and wrote out all the questions in advance that I thought would be the best to get his answers. I then loaded up a tape recorder and some cassettes and I was ready to go. During the session I asked him his opinion on several things from the following areas: philosophy, strategy then and now, practice organization, conditioning, offensive philosophies and fundamentals, the UCLA pressing system, academic philosophy, discipline, avoiding complacency, leadership and captains, scouting, tournament preparation, and how to keep the saw sharpened.
I also found out very quickly that LSU was not the only program that went out to gather information from this coaching legend. The day before I had arrived, he had spent the entire day with Jim Harrick’s staff on the UCLA campus. The day before that he had been with George Raveling at the University of Southern California.
Above all, I was highly interested in what he thought were important qualities for a top notch assistant coach. After all, he had accomplished things in college basketball as a coach that had never been done before and will never again be done. He also had some tremendous assistants pass through under him naming Denny Crum and Gary Cunningham as a near perfect staff. His players also went on to outstanding coaching careers including Crum, Cunningham, Jerry Norman, Larry Farmer, and Walt Hazzard.
It was fascinating that on the survey that I sent to Coach Wooden that he did not rank them in any order. He simply wrote, “They are all extremely important. But we should remember that it is more important to have character than to be a character.”
Very early in our conversation I asked, “What is it that you would look for in an assistant coach if you were building a staff today?” The following is his answer:
“Let me remind you that I’ve been out of coaching for 18 years but if I were building a staff today there would be a little difference in what I would look for if I was still coaching today.”
“I would really want to have assistants that knew me and my system of play. I would want assistants that got along well on and off the court. I’d like to have assistants that I know are pretty sharp. I can study this in two ways – their IQ’s and by studying them on the practice floor. Once I had been coaching, I wanted assistants who had played for me.”
“There are so many qualities that you say you’d like to have in an assistant. Certainly you’d have to have loyalty and hard workers. You don’t want “yes” men – they can’t be afraid to make suggestions.”
“Denny was never afraid to make suggestions and Gary was always a little hesitant but that was just the nature of their personalities. I would sometimes have to encourage Gary to make suggestions. Now the longer Gary was with me, the more comfortable he became, and the more easily he volunteered suggestions.”
“Denny is the only player I ever had during all my years of coaching that I made this statement ‘he’s born to coach’/ Now I made this statement while he was playing for me and not after all his years of success as a coach. Denny Crum was the most inquisitive player I ever coached. And he questioned you the right way. He wanted to know why we were doing what we were doing. “Why are we doing this, why are doing that?’ He sincerely wanted to know why. I said from the beginning that he was born to coach. I kept him on as a graduate assistant to get his secondary education degree so he could teach. But I knew as soon as I could, as soon as they’d permit me, I’m going to hire him to my staff.”
“For the longest time I had only one full-time assistant. I wasn’t until I was able to hire Denny that I had two. Gary, he had a doctorate and was upstanding within the faculty at UCLA. He handled our academics within our basketball team. Together we planned the academic schedule of your players. We didn’t allow our players to schedule their own classes. Gary was in charge of arranging all of our tutoring and he did an excellent job of getting them tutoring before they got in trouble. When we made trips, Gary was in charge of getting slips to the players so that they could give them to the professors. Gary is coordinating all of the academics. I could go to Gary and say ‘how is so-so doing in this class’ and he could tell me.”
“Denny was in charge of all recruiting. He was to obtain any and all information on any recruit that we were interested in. When a high school player became a senior, I had a form that we sent to five coaches that the young man had played against, requesting them to fill it out and return it to us. We also sent one to his own coach and from those six we would make a composite. Denny would get a copy of his transcript so we would know his grades. So I am depending completely on Denny for any information I want to know about a recruit.”
“Now this doesn’t mean they (the two assistants) don’t help each other. Denny would assist Gary with the academics and Gary would assist Denny with the recruiting.”
Coach Wooden was also a believer in the ultimate success not coming from someone’s coaching record. As he said in Practical Modern Basketball, “True success can be attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing that you did everything within the limits of your ability to become the very best that you are capable of becoming. Therefore, in the final analysis only the individual himself can correctly determine his success.”