In college basketball, UCLA coach John Wooden marks the standard for postseason success. His record 10 NCAA titles in 12 years will never be broken.
From his retirement in 1975 until his death four years ago at age 99, his image grew from basketball coach to revered, almost mythological figure spouting wisdom.
In Wooden: A Coach’s Life, CBS and Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis has written a more complete portrait of the man. He talked with the Sun-Times about the book and previewed this year’s NCAA tournament.
CST: Was it difficult to write about such a beloved figure whom so much has been written about?
SD: There has been a lot written about him, but all of those books were by Wooden, with Wooden or for Wooden. So this is the first one in 40 years that’s from the perspective of a journalist. And someone who would write about his third dimension — his flaws, his mistakes — that whole aspect of his life had gone missing.
CST: Wooden preached integrity and was a control freak. How was he able to turn a blind eye to booster Sam Gilbert?
He rationalized. In his mind, he did not create it, he did not orchestrate it, he did not like it. It had nothing to do with his recruiting or the way he coached. He went to his athletic director and let him know what happened. He warned his players against it. But then, at a certain point, he felt it was enough and that it wasn’t his business.
But the criticism that comes up the most is that after he retired, he spent 35 years talking about integrity and standing up for your principles no matter what.
CST: Many would be surprised that he wasn’t popular with opposing coaches while he was coaching.
SD: He wasn’t a social animal. He didn’t like to drink, or curse. They found him aloof. But he really wasn’t aloof; he was shy. Another big part of it was that everyone knew about Sam Gilbert. I think that has a lot to do with it. I think there’s a lot of envy. The No. 1 thing is that he was kicking their ass. They called him ‘‘St. John,’’ and that wasn’t a compliment. They didn’t appreciate his ‘‘holier than thou’’ images that he had.
CST: Another surprise was that he was a great trash-talker toward referees and even opposing players.
SD: I love Bill Walton’s quote that Larry Bird and John Wooden were the two greatest trash-talkers that he knew. People don’t think of Wooden like that. The man loved to win. Let’s not lose sight of that. Let’s not kid ourselves to how this man was actually wired.
CST: With no dominant team this season, how many teams can win the NCAA tournament?
SD: I think, really, eight. The seeding started in 1979. … A No. 1 or 2 seed has won 75 percent of the time. But you get a lot of surprises along the way
You can have a mid-major win it this year. I think Wichita State is absolutely legit. But that wouldn’t be a surprise because they will be a No. 1 seed.
CST: What do you look for in team that can win it all?
SD: They have to have everything. They have to be able to score, defend and play at different speeds. They have to be able to beat you 65-60 and also 85-80. When you get to the Sweet 16, every one of those teams can play defense. The differentiator becomes if can the team score.
CST: Who could be a mid-major, highly seeded team that could be poised to make an extended run?
SD: Harvard, which is now in the tournament for the third year in a row. And my other team is Stephen F. Austin, assuming they win the Southland tournament. They have not lost a game since Nov. 23, and I believe winning is a habit.