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Profiles in Badassery: John Wooden

Today we have a very special Profile in Badassery to mark what would have been (on next Thursday) the 100th birthday of one of Purdue's greatest alumni. Sadly, we lost him four months ago at the age of 99, but he has long been a personal hero of mine for more than his basketball roots. Yes, I have a severe addiction to basketball. That alone would make me a big fan of this man. I am more honored to call myself a fellow Purdue alumnus with John Wooden because of his character. To me, that makes him a true badass because he stuck to his convictions and cared more about developing a man's character rather than his basketball skills. The fact that he is probably the greatest coach of all-time was merely a side benefit.

One thing about John Wooden is that you really can't say a bad word about him. As GBI profiled him shortly before his death, he was still teaching those who visited him. His mind was always sharp and you couldn't help but respect him for his values. When he died in June, the honors and respect from the sports community was overwhelming. Even then, Wooden's biggest character trait, humility, overcame with his simple funeral and memorial service. Indeed, Wooden always bought into one of the biggest lessons that Jesus taught: we should always be humble before God.

Humble Beginnings:

Wooden was born on October 10th, 1910 in the small town of Hall, Indiana near Martinsville. He was a fan of basketball from an early age, idolizing the Franklin Wonder Five that accomplished what has only been done three times in the 100 year history of the Indiana High School basketball tournament. The Wonder Five won three straight State Championships from 1920-22. This feat was only equaled by the evil Marion Giants from 1985-87 and the Greg Oden and Mike Conley led Lawrence North squads from 2004-06. While my Kokomo Wildkat loving heart was led to believe that anything associated with the Marion Giants is evil and the Oden/Conley teams won under the dark shroud of class basketball, Wooden's shaping under the goodness of the Franklin Wonder Five would be the foundation for his famous basketball career.

Wooden moved to Martinsville at age 14, where he would be a three-time All-State selection for Martinsville High School. He led the Artesians to the 1927 State Championship before deciding to attend Purdue. He also met his beloved Nell in 1926, the only girl he ever dated. They would date during his time at Purdue and marry in 1932.

Career at Purdue:

Even today, 80 years later, Wooden is considered to be one of the great collegiate basketball players of all-time. He was a three-time All-American for the Boilermakers, leading them to their only Men's Basketball National Championship in 1932. Indiana fans consider this to not be a real National title, since it came before the NCAA Tournament and it was conferred by a voting panel and the Helms Foundation, but how is this different from the way we determine a football National Championship even today? Therefore, IU fans can suck it and can clean up with their five banners. Our 2011 Championship will be our second title.

Wooden had a number of firsts during his playing career. He was the first ever three-time consensus All-American. Naturally, he was an all-Big Ten and all-Midwestern selection. He also learned the coaching ropes under the legendary Piggy Lambert. He was a member of Beta Theta Pi fraternity and an honorary member of Alphi Phi Omega. He earned the nickname "The Indiana Rubber Man" for his hard-nosed style of play. He would routinely dive all over the court after loose balls, setting the tone of tenacity hat Purdue basketball is still known for. The immortal Chris Kramer is merely the latest in that lineage started by Wooden.

Wooden was also named as the National Player of the Year (an award now named after him) in 1932, but he would tell you that his education and degree in English was his finest accomplishment. This was in the era before scholarships. He earned his degree and played basketball all while working in the West Lafayette area in order to help pay for school.


Wooden played professional basketball for several teams after graduating in 1932. He also taught English and coached high school basketball. During one 46-game stretch of his professional playing career he made 134 consecutive free throws.

Further cementing his hero status, Wooden joined the Navy in 1942 during World War II and served as lieutenant for three years. Once the war was over, he turned a successful high school coaching career at Dayton High in Kentucky and South Bend Central into the head coaching position at Indiana State. He was 218-42 as a high school coach before taking over for the Sycamores. He also served as their baseball coach and athletic director.

At ISU his character was also paramount. In 1947 he led the Trees to the Indiana Intercollegiate Title, earning them a berth in the National Intercollegiate Tournament. Wooden declined the bid, however, because one of his players, Clarence Walker, would be ineligible to play in the tournament. Walker was an African American, and the NAIB banned black players. The NAIB reversed its policy the next year and ISU made the finals before losing to Louisville.

Wooden nearly became Purdue's coach after the 1947 season. The University invited him to become an assistant to Mel Taube, with the caveat that he would become head coach when Taube's contract ended. Wooden declined, not wanting to make Taube a lame-duck coach, and Purdue missed out on having the greatest coach ever come home. Wooden became coach at UCLA after the 1948 season, after bad weather prevented Minnesota, his first choice, from calling in time.

I could go on and on about Wooden's achievement at UCLA, but he simply had a run of dominance that will likely never be achieved in college basketball again. The Bruins won 10 National Championships in 12 years, including an amazing seven in a row. Basically, everyone else was playing for second place in the final 12 years of his coaching career. In 1969 He even defeated his alma mater for the National title, marking Purdue's best performance ever in the NCAA tournament with Rick Mount. In reality, this too should count as a title since UCLA was in a class by itself and Purdue was merely the best of everyone not named UCLA in college basketball.

Wooden retired from coaching after winning the 1975 National title, winning 620 games in 27 seasons. His 88-game winning streak still stands as college basketball best and is only being threatened by UConn's current streak in women's basketball. He was a National Coach of the Year, was 1972 Sportsman of the Year according to Sports Illustrated, and finished with an overall collegiate record of 664-162. Four of his championship teams were undefeated. Only Pat Summit is even close to his 10 national titles.

Post-coaching career

Wooden has received basically any basketball honor possible. He is one of a select few people that has been elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. He has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, has the court at UCLA's Pauley Pavillion and Indiana State's Hulman Center named after him, and the undying respect of his former players.

See, this is what truly makes Wooden a badass. Yes, you can be a badass for feats of skill or strength, but Wooden's was really a man because of his character. His Seven Point Creed, given to him by his father, was a model for his life and he imparted that to his players.

  • Be true to yourself.
  • Make each day your masterpiece.
  • Help others.
  • Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible.
  • Make friendship a fine art.
  • Build a shelter against a rainy day.
  • Pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day.

His Pyramid of Success was another major element of his coaching. Despite his honors, he maintained his humility throughout his life. He not only taught sound values, he led by example through the way he lived his life. His faith was always first in his life, with his devotion to his wife second. He famously visited his wife's grave every month on the 21st after her 1985 death from cancer. He also wrote letters to her and placed them upon her pillow until failing eyesight in the last few months of his life prevented this.

Once again, I think humility stands out the most to me. He had a great sense of humor, famously telling Bill Walton the team would miss him even if he stood by his conviction to now shave. In this day and age if a coach wins 1 National title he expects a raise, millions of dollars, a Nike contract, etc. Wooden won 10, yet never made more than $35,000 per year and never asked for a raise. He longed to teach. That's it. If he was good at teaching basketball, so be it.

I am honored to have John Wooden associated with me as a Purdue alumnus. As I wrote about his death on June 4th of this year, the world lost John Wooden. To me, he was more than a great basketball coach. he was a great man, and that's more important. He was a personal hero whose death felt like the loss of a close relative even though I never met the man. The world would be a brighter, better place if we could all follow Wooden's values. He is a true badass because of his character. All the accomplishments and honors are merely icing.

Thank you, John, for being a Boilermaker. It is an honor to be associated with you through Purdue University.