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John Wooden and Bobby Knight’s Venom

November 7th, 2017 · No Comments · Basketball, UCLA

In American sports, I will not abide the criticism of two (and only two) men — Vin Scully and, especially, John Wooden. (Here is my obit on him, from 2010.)

Wooden coached UCLA’s basketball program to 10 NCAA championships, in the 1960s and 1970s, and he did it with consummate class and sportsmanship, nearly forgotten qualities.

And he wasn’t just a  guy with a whistle; Wooden created an entire philosophy of competing called the Pyramid of Success, which embraced such homely virtues as poise, friendship and loyalty.

Now, Wooden has come under attack, seven years after he died, at age 99, by former Indiana coach Bobby Knight, a renown churl and verbal-abuse machine, who shared exactly one aspect of his life with Wooden — both were successful college basketball coaches.

Though Knight achieved far less than did Wooden, winning three national titles at Indiana.

That has not stopped Knight from attacking Wooden, which seems to suggest Knight is not paying attention to the Pyramid of Success. Especially when it comes to one of Wooden’s pyramid blocks:

Self control.

Knight has gone after Wooden by strongly suggesting he would not have won as often as he did without the behind-the-scenes machinations of Sam Gilbert, a Bruins supporter who some say intervened on behalf of Wooden and UCLA in recruiting and “fixing” issues encountered by players — allowing Wooden to keep up his reputation for probity.

“I’ve never been a Wooden fan,” said Knight in an interview with Joe Buck.

“I have a lot of respect for Wooden as a coach, how he coached,” Knight said. “He was a good coach.

“But from then on, and I don’t mind saying it, I don’t respect Wooden, because he allowed Sam Gilbert to do whatever it took to recruit kids.”

Knight, 77, then puts into the mouth of Wooden, who is not around to respond, if he had a mind to, a statement allegedly acknowledging Gilbert was a problem.

“And one time he told me, he said, ‘I just didn’t know how to deal with Sam Gilbert.’ And I’m saying to myself, ‘I damn sure could have dealt with him’.”

Note, please, that UCLA was never placed on probation by the NCAA during Wooden’s 27 seasons as coach of the Bruins.

The jealous and the vindictive, and Bobby Knight apparently is both, insist Gilbert actually did the recruiting, with Wooden — who was always a little too earnest for many in the coaching fraternity — apparently doing little more than rolling out the basketball for his teams of superstars.

When, of course, Wooden hardly had to recruit anyone, the final decade of his career, when the Bruins won all the time. Lewis Alcindor (later, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton and Keith (later Jamaal) Wilkes and Mike Warren and Lynn Shackleford and all the other stars of Wooden’s later teams … just knowing John Wooden wanted you to play for UCLA was enough to bring players to Pauley Pavilion.

Wooden was famous for his self-control, rarely (if ever) using profanity. He was courtly and dignified in a way hardly remembered, in the 21st century.

Knight, meanwhile, is remembered for throwing a chair across the court after a call he didn’t like, and for berating referees and journalists.

He had one tournament head-to-head with Wooden, in 1973, when UCLA’s Walton-Wilkes-Larry Farmer team defeated Knight’s Hoosiers 70-59 in the NCAA Final Four.

We can only assume that defeat still rankles Knight, as well as Wooden’s massive haul of trophies and his “soft power” victory thanks to his emphasis on character and responsibility.

It just is unnecessary, and it shows Knight in a bad light, certainly not for the first time.

I have no doubt John Wooden had the cleanest successful college basketball program during his career.

For Knight to suggest otherwise … John Wooden probably would have said Knight’s charges made him sad. Wooden probably would have hoped Knight could someday take more joy in his work.

As Wooden said: “Success is peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you’re capable.”



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