Review: Wooden - A Coach's Life

Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports might have captured the best biography yet of the legendary UCLA basketball coach...

The biography of Coach John Wooden by Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports, Wooden – A Coach's Life (Times Books; January 14, 2013; 608 pages) is being marketed as "the definitive biography of Wooden." And while there are some areas of the book with which one may quibble, in its depth, breadth, and revelations it would be hard to argue against the Davis tome as being the best treatment to-date of the life of John Robert Wooden.

Previous biographies of Coach Wooden have tended toward hagiography. In Wooden – A Coach's Life, Davis has labored earnestly to portray his subject as humanly as possible, getting input from his protagonist and people from all walks of life who interacted with Coach during his long and fascinating sojourn on earth. The result is a portrait that both reinforces the argument that John Wooden was the greatest coach of all-time, but also reveals the frailties and insecurities behind the almost unfathomable domination Coach engendered in men's college basketball from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s.

I am loath to report in too much detail what is contained in Wooden – A Coach's Life, as I encourage Coach Wooden fans, UCLA men's basketball fans, and men's college basketball fans to enjoy the anticipation of tracing the life of Coach from beginning to end in the granular chronolgy provided by Davis. But without revealing too much, let me give others a flavor for what they are generally going to encounter in Wooden – A Coach's Life – for good and bad.

Many in the UCLA community were apparently concerned about a Dukie attempting the ultimate literary compilation of Coach. But Davis makes it clear from his Prologue, which takes place in the legendary condominium den of Coach, to his Epilogue, where Davis recounts the multiple personal visits he made with Coach, that this is a very personal labor of love in charting the life of someone he came to know and greatly admire. In between, Davis divides his biography into Spring (birth through coaching stint at Indiana State), Summer (move to UCLA through the first national championship against Duke), Autumn (start of the 1964-1965 season through the last national championship against Kentucky), and Winter (the Bartow Era at UCLA through the death of Coach on June 4, 2010).

As someone who has followed UCLA men's basketball closely since the Game of the Century between the Lew Alcindor Bruins and the Elvin Hayes Houston Cougars on January 20, 1968, everything I know indicates there is not much that Davis has missed or failed to address in Wooden – A Coach's Life. Fans who enjoy recruiting will be disappointed that Davis spends little time on this subject aside from a fairly detailed rendition of how Coach landed Alcindor. I was personally chagrined that Davis failed to recount the efforts Coach made to recruit Raymond Lewis, arguably as good a southern California prospect ever as anyone not named Bill Walton. And in the ongoing Davis effort to delineate a few claims Coach made that did not quite comport with harsh reality, there is an infamous recruiting anecdote that Coach frequently retold about a local prospect he did not get that would have qualified as another shading of the facts had Davis paid closer attention to this aspect of the story (and I will let BROs endeavor to identify this nugget for themselves and our board discussions).

There is understandably significant attention paid to Sam Gilbert in Wooden – A Coach's Life, but the treatment is not overwrought. Frankly, Davis is as tough on the issue of race when it comes to Coach as he is with the Gilbert controversy – and in both instances, while being unflinchingly candid, Davis seems to give Coach a passing grade even as he points out where improvement could have been had. The weaknesses of the Davis rendition of the Gilbert imbroglios are all too common and unsurprising: no effort is made to provide due diligence as to what NCAA rules were during the Wooden Era (and they were materially different from those in-place today, though that is not to claim violations failed to occur here), nor is the larger picture invoked that would include the overwhelming likelihood that players at Indiana under Bob Knight and Notre Dame under Digger Phelps had access in Bloomington and South Bend to free food and products from local merchants despite claims by their coaches of running squeaky clean programs.

If there is anything that ought to be purged from the text, it would be the few times Davis takes gratuitous political shots that have no bearing on the portrayal. Interestingly, Davis fails to mention the relevant and important political fact that Coach was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (due in large measure to the efforts of former Wooden player Andre McCarter) – the highest civilian award available in the United States – undoubtedly because it was bestowed by a President of opposite ideology from Davis and his high profile political family.

There are other points of emphasis made by Davis to show how Coach was all too human. And in large part they are done tastefully and with balance, though stray and isolated quotes here and there may at times be given more contextual weight than they deserve.

In Wooden – A Coach's Life, Davis has done an impressive job of surfacing facts about Coach and UCLA men's basketball heretofore untold or even misreported by others. Among the areas of revelation, Davis reports:

• The conclusion of the national semifinal game against Louisville in 1975 was not when Coach decided to retire; the retirement timing of Coach was a done deal long before that – and Davis delineates a fascinating list of those who knew and when.
• Gene Bartow was not the first person UCLA Athletic Director J.D. Morgan offered the position of Coach successor to.
• One of the greatest UCLA men's basketball plays of all-time was only witnessed by a handful of players, coaches, and managers during a Bruin practice under Coach.
• One of the most highly sought UCLA men's basketball head coach candidates in the line of succession after Coach retired actually accepted the position at one point but never ended up taking the job.
• The Coach requirement that out-of-area prospects must contact UCLA first before he would begin to recruit them caused one of his assistants to forge a letter of interest from a high school All-American, who Coach then recruited and landed.
• A former player under Coach as UCLA head coach sent an assistant coach, who also played for Coach, with a bag of $30,000 in cash with which to lure a high-profile recruit to the Bruin program because they were "tired of being out-recruited" even though both agreed that what they were attempting was "so unethical and so immoral"; the recruit ended up signing with another Division I program.

Wooden – A Coach's Life mirrors its subject as being not without fault but arguably the best of all-time in its niche. For fans of Coach, the book will be indispensable; for fans of UCLA men's basketball, the book will be a necessity; and for fans and historians of men's college basketball, the book will be a crucial reference.

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