I thought I’d channel my inner Wally Hall today and talk about a topic that occurred almost a week ago: the passing of former UCLA basketball coach and undisputed amazing person John Wooden. But dont worry, there’s a reason why I’m making this my column, Razorback fans.
Coach Wooden passed away at 99, just a few months shy of a perfect 100 years old. From what I’ve been able to gather since his passing, not reaching 100 was his only failure of any kind since he began winning national championships at UCLA in the early ’60s. As has been voluminously documented, Coach Wooden is hands down the greatest basketball coach the college game has even known, and probably ever will. His ten national crowns are almost as many as the next three coaches on the all time list for men’s national championships combined. His players at UCLA are a “who’s who” of the greatest players ever: Lew Alcindor (aka Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Bill Walton, Walt Hazzard, Gail Goodrich, Sidney Wicks, the list is long.
And in the days that followed Coach Wooden’s passing, it was his former players who paid the most touching tributes to their mentor. Not “former” mentor. Mentor, for life. They spoke of the lessons learned under him being utilized as fathers, businessmen, husbands, just plain human beings. What he taught those giants on the court translated to success in college, many times also in the NBA, but most importantly in their homes, jobs and hearts. It was AFTER his coaching days were over that Coach Wooden may have had his greatest success.
I was only eight years old when I discovered a book written by Wooden entitled “They Call Me Coach.” In it, his now-famous “Pyramid of Success” was copied by me onto a sheet of notebook paper that I taped up in my locker later in the 8th grade. It was – and is – a superb guide to achieve success in anything you put your mind to in life. It is the pyramid, and his many now famous “Woodenisms” (such as “Be quick, but don’t hurry” and “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail”) that may have had the longest lasting affect on generations after his UCLA teams dominated the college hoops landscape.
But it was his devotion to his wife Nellie that may be the most remarkable aspect of Wooden’s life. The first girl he ever kissed at 14 would turn out to be his life partner until her passing away on March 21, 1985. Wooden remained devoted to Nellie, even decades after her death, until Wooden’s own death. Since her death, he kept to a monthly ritual (health permitting) – on the 21st, he visited her grave, and then wrote a love letter to her. After completing the letter, he placed it in an envelope and added it to a stack of similar letters that accumulated over the years on the pillow she slept on during their life together. Wow.
What an amazing man. Amazing. Amazing coach. Amazing person. Awe-inspiring in every way. There is little doubt that Coach Wooden had no peer as a man. However as a coach on the collegiate stage, I think I may be able to find someone who’s resume is in the very rarified air that Wooden’s accomplishments reside. And I don’t even have to leave town.
Ladies and gentlemen, I introduce to you, John McDonnell.
A look at McDonnell’s resume almost looks preposterous. 42 (seriously?) national championships (which include 19 in indoor track, 12 in outdoor track and 11 in cross country) are more than any coach in any sport in the history of college athletics. McDonnell also won five national triple crowns (national crowns in all three indoor track, outdoor track and cross country in 1984-85, 1991-92, 1992-93, 1994-95 and 1998-99) which is two better than UTEP with three, just three ahead of the rest of the country with zero. And that’s just the national dominance. The conference dominance and dominance of his individual track stars is almost laughable. No. It is laughable.
Let these soak in for a minute:
- 20 conference triple crowns since 1982, including eight straight between 1987 and 1995
- 25 consecutive conference titles in cross country with indoor track and outdoor track combined from 1987 to 1995
- 73 conference championships in the last 77 events Arkansas has entered since 1981-1982
- 84 conference championships overall since 1974 including 38 in the SWC and 46 in the SEC (out of a possible 50, or 90 percent)
- 12 consecutive NCAA indoor track championships (1984-1995)
- coached 185 track All-Americans, earning 652 separate All-America honors
- 34 consecutive league cross country championships, including 17 straight in the SEC (1974-2007)
- 54 individual national champions
- 23 Olympians coached spanning three decades and six different Olympic Games including gold, silver and bronze medalists
- his 1994 indoor track squad won the national championship by the widest margins in the history of the sport as well as scored the most points (94) in the history of the NCAA event
- his 1994 squad scored a meet record 223 points at the SEC Outdoor Championships
- has been named national, regional or conference coach of the year a total of 140 times
- has coached 23 Olympians, including gold, silver and bronze medalists, 105 NCAA individual event champions and 331 individual event conference champions
The man would need to buy a house in Candlewood just to house his awards! 140-time Coach of the Year? Really? I still have the bumper sticker that said “Razorback Track and Field National Champions…Pick a Year!”
I am in no way trying to take away from the tremendous life and times of Coach Wooden, let me clarify. His life and career is a shining example for anyone to aspire to. But every time somebody on ESPN or the internet would say in the past week that he was the greatest collegiate coach of all time, period, I couldn’t get the thought of Coach McDonnell out of my head. Like the people at UCLA are with Coach Wooden, we are incredibly fortunate to have had him as a coach at our university and representing the Razorbacks here and around the world for so long.
Jon Williams is a contributor for the Fayetteville Flyer. He also hosts “The Jon Williams Show” mornings on Clear Channel’s 93.3 The Eagle and has lived in Northwest Arkansas for 20 years. Jon’s world revolves around his son Jack and wife Judy, and invites you to join the Loyal and Royal Army of his listeners on Facebook. For more of Jon’s contributions, visit his author page.