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Purdue What Ifs: What if John Wooden Came Home?

Purdue nearly had the greatest college coach of all-time... twice.

John Wooden looks on Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

This week at SB Nation (since there are no sports to write about) many sites are running a series of “What if” posts. We certainly know a lot about that topic, don’t we? The Fumble. That Night in The Barn. Cal State Fullerton. That Night in Louisville. Those are the top four What Ifs, but we have loads more across several sports (seriously, what if Kristy Curry never left?). For the first one of these I wanted to go way back though:

What if John Wooden had come home?

As we know, Coach Wooden is an absolute legend. He was the first person to be enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame twice, once as a player and once as a coach. He was a legendary player at Purdue as a three-time All-American, National Player of the Year, and led Purdue to its only recognized National Championship in Men’s Basketball. The man is such a legend in West Lafayette that Drew Brees tracked down and purchased his game-used jersey for display in Mackey Arena.

It actually took a while for Wooden to break into coaching college basketball. He graduated from Purdue in 1932. He coached for two years in Dayton, Kentucky, then for several seasons at South Bend Central, all while playing professionally as well. In 11 years as a high school coach he had an impressive 218-42 before serving two years in Navy during World War II.

This is where we near our point of divergence. After the war Wooden got the job as Indiana State’s head coach for the 1946-47 season. The Trees went 17-8 in his first season, but turned down an invitation to play in the NAIA national tournament that season. The reason: The NAIA was being a bunch of racist assholes and they were not going to allow Clarence Walker, an African American player for ISU, to play.

That was also significant because the 17-8 record meant Purdue gave him a call. Purdue’s athletic director offered him the opportunity to join the staff as assistant coach to Mel Taube, with an understanding that when Taube’s contract expired, Wooden would take over as coach in waiting. It was a Keady-to-Painter transition more than half a century early. Taube wasn’t even on the same level as Keady. At the time he was a middling 12-15 overall and he would end up going 45-46 in five seasons. Wooden famously turned it down. Taube was only in year two of a five-year contract and Wooden said he did not want to make him a lame duck coach.

The next year the NAIA changed its rules the next season to “Not so racist” and ISU thrived. They went 27-7 and were national runner-up, losing to Louisville in the championship game. That meant UCLA and Minnesota both came calling. Famously, a snowstorm prevented the scheduled call from Minnesota and he thought they lost interest. He likely would have taken the job, citing his wife’s desire to stay in the Midwest, but UCLA got a hole of him first. He would spend 27 seasons there and win 10 National Championships. The Bruins even showed incredible patience as his teams only reached the NCAA Tournament three times in his first 12 seasons, but he won 10 titles in his final 13 seasons, so that more than makes up for it.

Purdue even had a second shot at getting him once Taube’ contract ended following the 1949-50 season. After two years at UCLA he wanted to come home:

Nellie didn’t like Los Angeles. But he had a year left on his contract. “There was a lot more money and everything else,” Wooden says. “But UCLA reminded me that I was the one that insisted on a three year contract, which was true. So I talked it over (with Nell) and I said, ‘You know I gave my word.’ And I haven’t broken it yet.”

That is integrity that is unheard of by today’s coaches. Some would bolt from a school if another one offered a contract for one dollar more than their current gig. His first two teams at UCLA were good, too, going 46-14 and winning the Pacific Coast Conference twice. Purdue was offering more money, a car, and housing, but Wooden had given his word for a three-year commitment.

So what if Wooden had come home? When the Boilers didn’t get Wooden they went with Ray Eddy, who had a losing record in each of his first four seasons. He would be relatively mediocre for 15 seasons, never winning a Big Ten championship or getting so much as an NIT berth. He would finish tied for second three times in the league, but never really got over the hump. He left Purdue after the 1964-65 season with a 176-164 record.

In 1964-65 Wooden won his second National championship and was off and running.

It is hard to say what happens if you just have a straight swap. Given the patience that Purdue had with Eddy you have to think they would have had the same, if not more, for a living legend. It is not like UCLA was awful in those early seasons, either. Wooden won six conference championships and crossed the 20-win threshold (some Eddy never did) five times. He could have had even more success, too:

By the 1955–56 season, Wooden had established a record of sustained success at UCLA. That year, he guided the team to its first undefeated PCC conference title and a 17-game winning streak that came to an end only at the hands of Phil Woolpert’s University of San Francisco team (who had Bill Russell and K.C. Jones) that eventually won the 1956 NCAA Tournament. However, UCLA was unable to advance from this level over the immediately ensuing seasons, finding itself unable to return to the NCAA Tournament, as the Pete Newell-coached teams at the University of California took control of the conference and won the 1959 NCAA Tournament. Also hampering the fortunes of Wooden’s team during that time period was a probation that was imposed on all UCLA sports teams in the aftermath of a scandal that involved illegal payments made to players on the school’s football team. The probation was also extended to three additional schools: the University of Southern California, California and Stanford. The scandal resulted in the dismantling of the PCC conference.

Without those limitations at Purdue who knows what Wooden would have done. Of course, you also have the Sam Gilbert factor, who may or may not have been setting up a pipeline of top-end talent to him for years. Gilbert really came along after Wooden’s first two national championships and probably helped build that run of seven straight national titles. If Wooden comes home I think it is unlikely we automatically get Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton, two of the greatest college players of all-time, to come to West Lafayette.

It is not like we were completely devoid of talent, however. Wooden finally came home on December 2nd, 1967 as defending champion UCLA, who was 30-0 the year before, opened Mackey Arena. The Bruins had to put up with some young guy named Rick Mount and escaped with a 73-71 win. The next season Wooden would win his fifth overall title and third in a row with a 92-72 win over Purdue in the national title game. It would be the only time Purdue would make the NCAAs during Wooden’s tenure.

I don’t think if you move Wooden to West Lafayette in the early 50s you automatically get 10 national titles, but I do think Purdue’s program receives a significant boost historically. There is little question the man could coach, Sam Gilbert or not. In 1974, Wooden’s second to last season, Purdue won its only postseason tournament ever by winning the NIT in an era when only 25 teams made the NCAA Tournament.

If Wooden had come home I think he stays for about as long as he was at UCLA and he builds us into a Midwest dynasty. It may not end with 10 titles in 13 years, but there is a very good chance it means multiple championships and changes the trajectory of the program for the following decades. Twice Purdue had a real great chance to get him, but couldn’t land him because of his own integrity. While I lament that it never worked out, I respect him for having the integrity to live up to his word.