A Contrarian View on John Wooden
Not everyone loved the Wizard of Westwood.
Our man Dave Zirin did a nice column right after John Wooden passed away that was in line with much of what has been written about the Coach, who was an unparalleled winner as well as an amazing influence on his player’s. That said, people are entitled to differing opinions on the man, who was laid to rest last Friday. Professor Peter A. Coclanis, who wrote a couple Julius Peppers pieces for us in March and is the Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, is one of those people. Here’s his take on Wooden:
by Peter A. Coclanis
Ever since his death on June 4, treacly tributes have been pouring in for former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, the so-called Wizard of Westwood. To be sure, such panegyrics are not altogether surprising, for Wooden—a poor sport, hypocrite, and cheater—has been getting a free pass for decades by most members of the basketball community and by much of the media.
Wooden may have had his good qualities, and he certainly won a lot of championships, but in my view he has always been a poseur, whose self-effacing, aw -shucks mannerisms owed less to Midwestern virtue than to California conceit. This “religious man,” whose strongest exclamation, according to the New York Times—was “Goodness gracious sakes alive!”—was a merciless baiter of officials and opposing players. Wooden ran what was arguably the most corrupt basketball program in the country in the ‘60s and ‘70s, allowing a Bruins’ booster—the sleazy, Los Angeles money-launderer Sam Gilbert—complete freedom to pay players, provide them with free cars, apartments, and clothes (as well as abortions for their girlfriends).
The Wizard later attributed his lack of program oversight to “tunnel vision” and his belief that “Sam meant well.” And, according to Bill Walton’s first wife Susie Walton among others, Wooden, supposedly a great disciplinarian, allowed his star center, but not other lesser players, to smoke pot throughout his college career. Can anyone here spell Elmer Gantry?
Say what you will about Jerry Tarkanian, another great basketball coach, who was essentially railroaded out of the game because he cheated in ways inconsistent with the NCAA’s certified standards of corruption. Before making his exit, however, Tarkanian made one of the all-time great “speaking truth to power” quotes in sports history: “The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky they put Cleveland State on two more years’ probation.”
And Kentucky didn’t have anything on John Wooden’s UCLA.