First, his constant thirst for knowledge. He was an insatiable reader, constantly underlining passages to share with others. He always searched out success people to generate conversation. He was a great questioner -- always know what to ask of the person he was speaking with. And the most important thing, he never stopped. Long after leading LSU to Final Fours and SEC titles, he is the poster child for a "continual learner."
Below is an email he shared with me last week on his relationship with Coach Wooden. It details his visits -- which became annual events. I loved how each year he would go visit Coach, we would have his questions already written out -- he had a game plan and goals to meet each visit.
I appreciate Coach Brown for sharing the following with me and wanted to share it with you:
The moment I was hired at LSU in 1972, I knew that I needed to reach out to the very best people I could in all walks of life and ask them if I could visit them and ask questions about how they became successful and, more importantly, how they maintained their success. I didn’t want to just talk to people in sports. I decided to ask the very best from the worlds of entertainment, public speaking, positive thinking and, of course, basketball.
Several people were on each list, but when it came to picking the first person I’d send a request to I wanted people that had the greatest longevity in what they did. In entertainment it was Lawrence Welk, and when I called Lawrence at his office in California he immediately said come on out. So I went out and had a marvelous experience asking him how a man from a tiny and isolated town in North Dakota rose to the top of his profession. We became close friends. Then in the speaking business I had studied Bob Richards for years and years, watching him on old 16 mm Wheaties films and he was the best I had ever heard. I called him, and he said come on. I went to his ranch in Gordon, Texas and looked through his library and asked tons of questions. We became soul mates almost instantly.
As a motivator and positive thinker there was none better than Norman Vincent Peale, the father of positive thinking. Another mentor who became a life-long friend.
In basketball, there was no list. If I wanted to learn, I needed to visit John Wooden the greatest coach of all time.
I called him and he immediately invited me to visit. I spent 5 days with him. So in preparation, I decided to take the alphabet and put a letter on each page of a notepad and ask questions about words that began with that letter. So with that in mind let me give you a few examples:
A—Achievement. What does he consider achievement? The first thing he told me is “Don’t ever mistake activity for achievement.” I talked to him about attitude—attitude of players, coaches, his attitude towards pressure of winning and problems that occurred with players off-the-court.
B—Box and one defense…did he like it? What problems did it create for him when he saw it, and when he did see it, how did he attack it? Bulletin boards, did he have them to motivate or instruct?
C—Coaches that he admired and why. Correspondence, did he answer all of it or did he have someone to do this?
D—Defensive drills. What did he think were the best defensive drills and how long should you run them? Did he practice defensive drills more than offensive drills and did he do them every day? Diamond and one defense…did he like it and how often did he use it? What was his favorite delay game?
E—Education. Did he have study periods for the team and how did he encourage them to secure a college degree? What penalties did he implement for them missing or being late to class?
F—Full court man to man press. Did he run and jump, double team, or did he stay man to man? Fundamentals…how many minutes a day? What were the fundamental drills he used?
H—Half court zone press. Why didn’t he use it as much as full court and three quarter court zone press? Half time organization – what were his thoughts on half time organization. Did he and his assistants meet first? For how long? Once he addresses his team, what did he go into first?
M—Man to man defense. Did he switch, fight over the top of the screens or jump the dribbler? Motivation, how much did he do? I knew he was low key but how did he feel about motivational tactics?
O—Offensive drills. What were his favorite offensive drills? Why did he use them? How did he use them? When did he use them? How did he intermingle them into the rest of his practice? I talked to him about officials. Did he believe in getting up and staring them down? Did he believe you can intimidate officials? How did he work officials?
The first day we started at 8 AM and about 6 PM I felt that I was imposing on him after about 10 hours so I said, “Coach I have taken enough of your time today and I’m sure you are tired. I will see you tomorrow.” He immediately responded by saying, “No I’m not tired, sit down and we will continue.” He never seemed to tire and when I left at 10 PM I thought, wow he is a human dynamo.
P—Passing drills. Were they stationary, with movement, with defense, and what type of passes? I showed him our pressure release offense and asked him to critique it.
R—Recruiting. Was it true that he seldom ever went into a recruit’s home? Where did they do most of their recruiting? Would you hire a coach to do just recruiting? What was the first thing he looked for in a potential player?
S—Scouting. I remember reading and hearing that he never really scouted any opponent. Why didn’t you scout anybody? He said he felt if he taught his team properly and prepared them for all potential situations they might face in a game it is not necessary. He said they obviously told players about individual characters of opponents. We then talked about scheduling…how important did he think scheduling was? Did he do his own scheduling? Does he schedule easy games early in the year, or does he schedule tough games to get his team ready for the conference?
T—Time outs. What was his philosophy on time outs? Did he present just one offensive thought and one defensive thought? Did he talk to his associates before he went into the huddle to talk to the players, did he let assistant coaches talk at time out? Tournament preparation…how did he prepare teams for tournaments? Did he prepare them differently? What was the longest he ever practiced? What was the average practice time?
W—Weight training. Did he believe in it? Did he hire a strength coach or have his assistants do it? When did they lift, how long, and what type of program did they use?
Z—Zone defenses. Seldom did he ever use zone defenses. Why did he not use zone defenses? Zone offenses. Did he have a combination of zone offenses depending on the structure of the defense?
I remember one day we were on our way to his office before basketball season started, and some UCLA players were on the floor playing full court in Pauley Pavilion. As we walked up the sidelines towards his office, I believe it was Larry Farmer who went in for a lay up and just laid the ball up over the rim. Coach Wooden instantly came to a screeching halt. Calmly he said, “Larry, lay the ball up on the back board as you were taught.” That was all he said, that was all that needed to be said. “Yes sir,” Farmer said. Another example of his attention to detail.
Then the last day I was there, I went to his house and thanked him for being so gracious. I was about to get in the car and leave when Coach said to me, “Well Dale, I’m really glad that you came out, and it’s been a delightful time. However, really it wouldn’t have been necessary for you to waste your time and money and all those pages of notes you took because if you do the following three things, you will be successful in major college basketball. If you don’t do the following three things, it will be most difficult." Now remember he didn’t say it would be impossible, typical of John Wooden, he said it would be most difficult.
I was scrambling for my pen when he said, “Those three things are fairly simple: Number one, make certain, you always have better players than anybody you play. Now with that locked up, make sure you always get the better players to put the team above themselves, and number three, this is very important, don’t try to be some coaching genius, or coaching guru, or give the guys too much information, or too much stuff…he said always practice simplicity with constant repetition.”
I made sure that was not the last visit I made to learn from Coach. In fact, I stayed in touch with him for 38 years. I loved going out to sit and listen to him tell stories, recite poetry, you name it; and he remained so very sharp and giving of his time to help others till he passed away at 99.
Coach Wooden and I were asked to speak at a convention in Mexico. My wife said to Coach Wooden at breakfast one morning, “Has anybody asked you as many questions as Dale? Every time Dale’s on the phone with you, he’s taking notes. I see him writing you letters, he’s coming out to see you. Has anyone asked you more questions in your lifetime than Dale?”
Coach smiled and he said, “Let’s just say this, Dale has a lot of interesting questions and I always wonder where he gets them.” Vonnie laughed and asked her follow-up” “Well Coach, has he picked your mind more than anybody else? He said, “Well, I suspect he has.”
“So with all he’s gotten from you,” Vonnie asked,” when you watch his teams play, do you ever sit there and think did he learn anything from me ?" Coach Wooden laughed in a way that I will never forget but was polite enough not to give my wife an answer.
I understood instantly that John Wooden would be among my life’s most significant mentors. I think John Wooden could have been just as happy teaching in a small school in Indiana and never coaching but just teaching.
He was a teacher. He was a mentor. I can remember many, many times sitting in his house and the phone would ring…it would be someone who had always wanted to meet him and he’d invite them over. One day, it was the national basketball coach of Spain. He’d say, “No, I don’t mind. Come on over.” His phone number was listed in the phone book and you did not have to be a celebrity to enter his house.
He wasn’t the kind of person who was trying to display his knowledge. People from all walks of life and from around the world were seeking him out for his knowledge, simplicity, and sincerity.
Every time I left his presence there is something new I had learned. Outside of Bill Walton, I believe I’ve heard more of his quotations and phrases than just about anyone, but I am constantly amazed by his memory and knowledge on a variety of subjects.
Unfortunately, many of the things I’ve learned from him I haven’t even remotely been able to do nearly as well as he did. I told him one day when just the two of us were together that after 44 years of coaching I then clearly recognized my limitations, mistakes, and distance from the ideal. Again vintage John Wooden, he said, “Did you try to do your best and if you did then you are a success and that is the most important thing.”
The greatest lesson I learned from him was to love what you are doing every day and love people. I can remember many times when someone was refilling his water glass for him in a restaurant, and everyone else at the table just keeps talking, Coach Wooden would stop and say “thank you.” He is loaded with love. He seldom brings up religion or spiritual things…He lives it. He’s teaching by example.
Edgar Guest explained John Wooden’s mentorship method best. Guest wrote:
“I’d rather see a lessonThan to hear one any day.
I’d rather you’d walk with me
Than to merely show the way.
The eye is a better teacher
And more willing than the ear.
And counsel is confusing,
But examples always clear.
The best of all the teachers
Are the ones who live the creed.
To see good put into action
Is what everybody needs.
I soon can learn to do it
If you let me see it done.
But your tongue too fast may run.
And the counsel you are giving
May be very fine and true,
But I’d rather get my lesson
By observing what you do.”
John Wooden was truly an American treasure. He was kind, caring, highly intelligent, vibrant, strong-willed, principled, humble, and one of the most fascinating men of this or any generation.
Why, is the greatest coach that every lived like this and not egotistical, selfish, arrogant, and greedy like so many that reach the pinnacle of what the world often defines as success? It is because he firmly believed in what the first dictionary ever printed in 1806 described success as fortunate, happy, kind and prosperous. However, the dictionaries of today define success as attainment of wealth, fame and rank.
Coach Wooden’s definition of success parallels that of 1806, he said that, “Fame, fortune, and power are not success. Success is peace of mind, which is the direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”
I have also heard him mention on several occasions that the four things mankind craves the most are freedom, happiness, peace and love. He say’s none of these can be obtained without first giving them to someone else and oh, how he gave to so many for so many years.
Every time I left him I felt so much better about mankind and had a quest to strive to be a better human being. Perhaps, a better way to define Coach is what Einstein said about Gandhi: “Generations to come, will scarce believe that such one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon the earth.”
He is indeed a legend in basketball but more importantly he is a legend in serving mankind as a master teacher and mentor to so many of us.
I am eternally grateful to have had him in my life.