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Purdue ICONS #2: John Wooden

When I came up with the idea for this running series I knew that the top five would be pretty easy to pick. I knew Big Dog, Rick Mount, Bob Griese, John Wooden, and a certain quarterback we all know and love would all slot somewhere into that top 5. I was hoping Wooden would finish #1 because he is such an idol of mine. Here is someone that was the best at what he did for much of his life, yet he was incredibly humble. If a coach like Rick Pitino had 10 NCAA championships we would never hear the end of it.

Maybe it is because Wooden came from a different era without the 24/7 boasting of credentials and arguing over who the best is. Maybe it's because when he was doing his thing, either on the court or as a coach, there was no argument he was the best. As a coach he established a record (10 championships) that I doubt will ever be broken (though, Matt Painter, you are free to try). More importantly, he knew that his role was to teach about life, not basketball. When he passed away last summer I mourned deeply because I felt the world lost a truly great man.

I don't have many heroes, but John Wooden is my hero. With 689 votes, including 14 first place votes (and my own first place vote) John Wooden is our #2 Purdue ICON. Most of what follows is copied from his Profile In Badassery I wrote back in October, but that is because I can't think of a more fitting tribute to him. Amazingly, one person out of the 32 voters left him off of their ballot entirely.

Early Life:

Wooden was born on October 14th, 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.

Purdue Years:

Statistically, Wooden doesn't stand out much anymore because the nature of the game was so different back then. He only scored 475 points and averaged 9.9 per game during his three-year career. When most games are in the 30's, however, those numbers stand out a little more. Purdue was 42-8 in the 50 games that Wooden played.

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. He played in an era where few teams ran up and down the court. Coach Lambert was one of the innovators of the modern fast break, and he has Wooden to thank for it with his playing ability. He literally changed the way basketball is played now.

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 achievements 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.

One of his famous wins at Purdue was the opening game in Mackey Arena history that I referenced in Mount's profile. It was like a who's who of Purdue basketball history with Mount's first game coinciding with the first game at Mackey. UCLA won 73-71 on a last second shot, escaping with their #1 ranking intact.

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 topped by UConn's women's team 90-game streak that ended last year. 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.


According to Rick Reilly, Wooden never made more than $35,000 per year at UCLA and never asked for a raise. The Laker wanted him to coach at a salary 10 times as much, but he turned it down in order to enjoy retirement.

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. Part of the new Mackey renovation will have a panel personally signed by him a few months before his death, and the street by Mackey Arena is now named John R. Wooden Drive.

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 his 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 not 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 last 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 him. 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.