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The Wooden School of Management

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.