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The Wooden School of Management

2010 June 8
by Brian Goff

As a young sports fan, I came of age watching but not liking UCLA basketball in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  They were Goliath and I pulled for the variety of Davids facing them.  As I grew into a sports economist, long after John Wooden’s retirement, my respect for Wooden’s methods as a coach grew as his firm but low-key style stood miles apart from the growing hordes of  maniacal figures stomping around college sidelines.   As I researched books, interviews, and articles about a variety of successful managers and coaches for my 2005 book, From the Ballfield to the Boardroom, Wooden emerged from the pack as someone from whom important lessons for managing in almost any context could be found.  He succeeded (wildly) with a variety of personnel.  He won five championships with the dominant-center-teams of Jabbar and Walton, and also with teams without a strong post presence, such as the 1964-65 championship with no starter over 6-5 (see SI article by Alex Wolff) or the 1971 teams with Curtis Rowe, Sidney Wicks, and Henry Bibby.  He did all this while treating players and assistants with firmness but respect.   Some key managerial lessons from Wooden include:

  • Control and Creativity:  Wooden’s teams played and practiced by his standards.  He was the guy in charge — no doubt about that.  But within this general team context, or within the bounds of a particular player’s abilities, he not only permitted but promoted creative activity according to former players like Bill Walton.  He did not try to make players into robots, directing their every movement.  Walton credits this element with making UCLA a hard team to defend.
  • Discipline without Demeaning:  Wooden projected what Cesar Milan (aka “The Dog Whisperer”) terms a “calm assertive” energy.  Players conformed to his general principles or they did not play.  As a mild put down of the coach-as-screamer, Wooden noted that “the bench is a great teacher.  If a player won’t learn there, he’s probably not going to change.”
  • Technical Flexibility:  In the 1964-65 season, his willingness (reluctant at first) to take advice about a faster, pressing tempo from his assistant coaches vaulted the team.  When Jabbar came to the Bruins, Wooden sought advice and changed his fundamental defensive scheme — instead of denying the baseline, he pushed opposing players toward the baseline.
  • Personnel Flexibility:  Wooden did not subscribe to a mechanistic, people-as-parts philosophy.  While Wooden had general rules of behavior for on and off the court, he made no bones that “I treated players differently. The players understood that.”  He customized certain rules to deal with differing constraints.  As he put it, “Lewis (Alcindor) had a whole set of different demands on him that other players did not face.  Because of that, I eased certain restraints.”
  • Self-evaluation: In the early 1960s, he observed that his teams tired late in the season and reserves did not integrate well with starters, prompting him to integrate reserves more with starters in practice.
  • Knowledge v. Learning:  One Woodenism was, “It’s not what I know that matters, it’s what they do.”  He tended to be short on “chalk talk” and long on learning by doing.

Was Wooden perfect? By no means.  While he had good teams before the 1960s, none were great.  He could also sound a bit like a schoolmarm at times.  Like most coaches, he was better at getting his players to do the right things than explaining it all.  The 15 bricks in his “pyramid of success” are overlapping, a bit convoluted, and tedious.

3 Responses
  1. Dan permalink
    June 8, 2010

    The only mark against the Wooden championships is Sam Gilbert. Today a school with a booster like Gilbert would be on permanent probation. Forget 10 championships. To Wooden’s credit he won before Gilbert got involved and he never needed or encouraged the booster.

    The most amazing thing for me is that Wooden never asked for s raise and never made more than $35,000 a year. Even in his last championship year there were backup shortstops that made $35,000. Joe Paterno is the only college coach I can think of today that doesn’t measure his success by his paycheck.

  2. Jim permalink
    June 9, 2010

    “Even in his last championship year there were backup shortstops that made $35,000. ” Actually quite early in Wooden’s run of championships there were mediocre baseball players making more than that. I recall Dal Maxvill of the ’68 St. Louis Cardinals of whom his own GM was quoted, “Almost every place I go, someone will ask me how Dal Maxvill can be making $37,500.”

    Wikipedia speaks of Maxfill’s prowess as a hitter: “Maxvill does hold the National League record, through the 2006 season, for fewest hits for a batter playing in at least 150 games: 80, achieved in 1970, in 152 games, 399 at-bats, just barely over the Mendoza line at .201.”

    “His overall World Series batting record was 7-for-61, a .115 percentage. Both of those figures are record lows for a position player.”

    “Cardinals fans of that era sometimes said that when pitching ace Bob Gibson took his turn, Gibson should bat ahead of Maxvill in the lineup, since he was the better hitter. Gibson’s career average was only 11 points lower than Maxvill’s, and he was much more productive at the plate. Gibson had 24 career home runs in some 2,000 fewer at bats than Maxvill.”

  3. Greg Pinelli permalink
    June 10, 2010

    Jim..who you beamed in from Mars? I think you morphed into the wrong conversation. Also…Maxvill was a second rate shortstop that NOBODY thought anything of in the ’60s.

    Wooden put college basketball on the popular map. Rupp’s teams made Kentucky famous..and my alma mater..the University of San Francisco..showed that black players were great and the stuff of championship teams…but UCLA took the sport to the level it enjoys today. Wooden monopolized talent in a way that would be impossible today. EVERY successful college program has alums and supporters who operate in the shadows. I don’t happen to find that very offensive..Most of these kids have NOTHING and get very little for the money and recognition they bring to their schools…Reggie Bush, of course, aside.

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