Coach Wooden Talks Recruiting

The legendary John Wooden allowed us into his home to talk about recruiting at UCLA during his era. He relates the stories of Lewis Alcindor, Gail Goodrich, Walt Hazzard and more...and talks about his recruiting method and how he very rarely saw a recruit. Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa and other subjects come up, too...

I made the pilgrimage to the Mecca of Margate Street last week.

I was able to spend the afternoon with Coach John Wooden at his condo in Encino.

It was under the complete contrivance on my part to interview him about his experience with recruiting at UCLA.

The afternoon was truly a fantastic experience. What you are constantly amazed about when speaking with Coach Wooden is how incredibly sharp he is for 95 years old. He's particularly playful and has a great sense of humor. When I told him what I did, and asked him about the Internet, he said, "What?" I said, "The Internet." He said, "What's that?" and then smiled wryly.

Being able to visit him in his home is a great opportunity. The modest two-bedroom condo is literally over-run with awards, memorabilia, pictures and books. Typically he'll have a report card of one of his grandchildren framed and hanging right next to the Congressional Medal of Freedom. He then also has the resources around him to pull things out and start talking about them. He showed me many pictures (one shot of Lewis Alcindor when he was 16 years old that was amazing), read some of Swen Nater's poetry, talked about and quoted Abraham Lincoln and talked at length on many subjects.

Bill Walton called while I was there. When I asked Coach how often he called, he paused a moment and smiled. "Oh, not often," Coach said. "Just about every day."

Again, you have to remind yourself continually that this man is 95 years old.

Sometimes he'll be talking about, say, his lineup from his team at South Bend Central High in the 1930s and he'll forget a couple of players' names and he'll say, "See, my memory is going." Yeah, right.

I was told that one time at a charity auction, spending an afternoon with Coach in his condo was auctioned off for $5,000. I'd say that whoever won that bid got a bargain.

What was recruiting like when you were at UCLA, and how was it recruiting in the Southern California area?

"Recruiting here in Southern California is entirely different than, say, in Pullman, Washington. I had certain ideas of my own in recruiting.  People have trouble believing this, but I never contacted, absolutely never, and I'll take an oath on it, a player outside of Southern California. My idea was, I tried to find out each year about four or five players we'd hear about. I'd want to get their transcripts and study their transcripts, see if they have a chance to get in. Then I'd want to study their background, their extra-curricular activities, their parents, what their parents do for a living. That would give me a good insight on the players. I'd contact four coaches who played against this individual player. I'd call them and talk to them, and I'd have them fill out a questionnaire that I made out. And then I'd send one to the player's own coach. So, I'd have these five questionnaires. And I'd make one composite from those five. From that I could pretty much determine whether I'd be interested in recruiting this individual and whether we'd follow up on him. I figured that out of the five players, if I could get two a year, that'd be pretty good. These were top players, so I knew that other schools would be after them too. They were good, because there were just so many good players in this area. In any sport, really, Southern California produces players, more than any other place. Just name the sport. Well, maybe not Lacross.

"But anyway, from all of Southern California, I went by that one composite. I might manage to go see them, but not too much. In 27 years at UCLA, I went into 12 homes, all told. I think coaches today might do that every year now."

How many from outside of California did you visit?

"I didn't. I'll get to that in a minute. If you got two good ones each year you would be pretty good. And if you do that, then you attract good players, and that's what eventually happened. It didn't happen at first, since we didn't have a decent place to play in. We practiced with just two baskets. We had to climb up to the third floor, and we practiced around gymnastics on one side and wrestling at the end, and pretty girls jumping on trampolines on another side. Players told me they saw them over on the side, but I never did. So, then we would attract players, and we then attracted some from outside of Southern California. We were doing well and we had beaten some decent teams, and had some good seasons. Then we got Pauley Pavilion. Fortunately, we won our first national championship, and won a number of conference championships before we had Pauley Pavilion. In those years we got knocked out early in the NCAA tournament. Some teams had guys like that Bill Russell guy and they'd just knock you out. It wasn't fair and all. So, we'd get knocked out early, but we had some conference championships. And then when we won our first championship, Lewis Alcindor was a junior in high school. He and his coach had watched our championship game against Duke on television. Right after that, the next week or so, his coach called me and said they had watched, and they had this great player, Alcindor, and that UCLA was one of the five schools that he might like to attend. Then he asked me not to contact him directly. So, you see, we attracted interest by winning. The next year, we beat Michigan for our next championship and that solidified his attention. I then went to a coaching clinic in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and he visited and I talked to him. They got me a transcript, and he had good grades. Then he made his visit to UCLA. The first thing I did was show him Pauley Pavilion."

Was Pauley Pavilion under construction at the time?

"It wasn't quite completed when he came on his visit that spring. It was going to be opened in December."

So that visit was the spring of 1965? Because wasn't it fall of 1965 Pauley opened?  It was Alcindor's freshman year that Texas Western won it in 1965/1966, when he was on the UCLA freshmen team. That year the freshmen beat the varsity. So his visit was spring of 1965? 

"That's correct. While here he committed to me and said, 'This is where I'm coming.' He went back home and I think it was few weeks later and I get a call, from him. And that was the first time I ever got a call from him. His coach had called before but not him. He said his coach had just gotten the head coaching job at Holy Cross, and he wanted him to take a visit there. Whew. And he asked me, 'Should I?' I said, 'Of course you should. I think you should.' He said, 'My coach knows I'm not going there. I'm coming to UCLA. He thinks if I visit there it will help recruiting.' So I told him I thought he should. I still had my fingers crossed. You know, kids can change their mind. But he committed to come when he was on his visit here and he never changed. He gave me his personal word.

"You may have heard that I had Dr. Ralph Bunche contact him. Dr. Ralph Bunche did write him a letter, but I had no idea he was doing it. He did send me a copy of the letter after he sent it. You might have also heard that I had Jackie Robinson go see him. But Lewis never met Jackie Robinson, until he came to the Rose Bowl parade one time later and he met him. But he never met him before that. Lewis has said that one of the reasons he came to UCLA was because of Rafer Johnson being student body president and being well-thought of, and he had heard that I was color blind as far as players were concerned. And that was just it. I probably learned more about man's inhumanity to man from him than anyone else. We'd go in a restaurant and you'd hear someone say, 'My God, look at that big, black freak.' First time we made our trip up to Oregon and Oregon State when he was a sophomore we stayed in Eugene but we went over to Oregon State, to Corvallis, and after the game we're coming back to Eugene on the bus.  We're coming out to get on the bus, and he's signing autographs for a while. And I say, 'Lewis, that's enough. We have to go, we have a game tomorrow night.' And he said 'sorry' to them. And then you'd hear people, adults, say, 'Look at the big so-and-so, he's too good to sign autographs.' And I was the one that made him stop signing autographs. I saw a number of things happen to him at times. I realized that he can't be comfortable in some very normal situations. Just like in an airplane, he can't sit in a window seat hardly. Beds, he couldn't find a bed. They're better now, but back then there weren't the big, long beds. Clothes, he couldn't go into a place to buy clothes like the rest of us. I didn't think of much of this before Lewis."

So, did Los Angeles, being pretty cosmopolitan and maybe having a more open-minded environment, attract him?

"I think perhaps.

"After he committed to come here, I did get a call asking if I could come and meet his parents. They wanted to meet the coach for whom he was going to play. They had met a lot of other coaches, but they hadn't met the one for whom he was going to play. So I talked to (UCLA Athletic Director) J.D. Morgan about taking my assistant Jerry Norman. See, because Norman was Catholic and I'm protestant. We had dinner with them in New York at 1:00 in the morning in their home because his father was working the 4:00 to midnight shift on the subway.  We had dinner with them, then got a taxi, went to the airport and flew back."

What other schools was Alcindor seriously considering?

"The school most in contention was St. John's with Joe Lapchick the coach. Michigan was one."

So, he visited St. John's and Michigan?

"Yes, he did. I think he went ahead and visited his five schools. One thing when I was talking to his coach I asked if we could be the last of the five. And the coach said he couldn't promise that, that he couldn't work it out that way. But it did work out that way."

So, he did take five visits?

"Yeah."

And then there was Holy Cross...

"That came later, that was his sixth."

So, that was one of your rare recruiting ventures out to the east coast...

"Yes. And I think about how our coaches at UCLA have to travel now, like what they already visited this year. You know where they visited? Australia. Europe. Argentina, I think. Someone said they spent more money in recruiting this year than I spent in my 27 years at UCLA."

When Alcindor was out here did he bond well with the guys on the team?

"Yeah, he seemed allright. He was always okay with players around. It was with others that he became more aloof."

Who were some of the best recruits, that you could have gotten in school,  that you didn't get?

"Paul Westphal."

What were the circumstances with his recruitment?

"He told me he was coming on Saturday and Monday he signed with USC. He had been to my summer basketball camps and I knew him well. I think Bill, his brother, was on UCLA's side."

Even though Bill had gone to USC?

"Yeah. I don't want to mention too much about that.

"One interesting one was Tom McMillan, who went to Maryland. He said after he was at Maryland that he would have wanted to go to UCLA but that I never contacted him. I'm being very truthful when I say that I never initiated contact with anyone outside of Southern California."

What was your thinking on that?

"They were going to be away from home for the first time. There's an adjustment to be made. I always told players that if you come to UCLA you're going to be unhappy. It will be your first year away from home for the first time. You're leaving the friends you've been with a number of years and you'll have to make new friends. And academically you're going to be sitting in a class with other regular students. And it's a different type of student than those at your high school. To me, the greatest adjustment was social adjustment for a youngster. Leaving home. That's why I'm still adamant about the freshman eligibility rule. I made a strong bid on that just a couple of weeks ago to the president of the NCAA, Myles Brand."

So, when Walt Hazzard, who was from Philadelphia, came to UCLA, what were those circumstances? You didn't have Pauley Pavilion to sell then.

"I had never heard of Walt Hazzard. And you know, Andre McCarter came from the same school. What happened with Walt Hazzard is that Willie Naulls (UCLA player in 1954-1956) was playing with the New York Knicks. Willie's cousin was playing with the Philadelphia Warriors. He and Willie had a pretty good eye, and he told Willie about Hazzard, that he was a player that could play for me. On his high school team, they had him playing out of position too. Willie, next time he was in Philadelphia, then went to the church where Walt's father was a minister, and he also saw him play. He called me and said he was sure he could play for me. He said he's a little fancy but you could get that out of him. So, I told him to have him send his transcripts. I never talked to Walt. And he sent the transcripts, and he couldn't get in. So, I told him he couldn't get in. And I told him if he wanted to come he'd have to go to junior college. He wasn't far off academically. They were pretty strict in those days. We didn't have much leeway in basketball. They might have had it in football."

I think it's still fairly strict today at UCLA, Coach...

"Yes. So, I told Walt if he wanted to come out here he'd have to go to junior college. You can't play. Because the one where I want you to go is Santa Monica City College. It's close by and I can stay in touch with you. I knew the director of admissions there. In fact, I held the daughter of the director of admissions when she was a baby. You know who that was? One of the most prominent women in recent history. Sally Ride, the astronaut. Her father was a friend of mine and the director of admissions at Santa Monica. So, I told Walt that he'd have to come out here in the summer, you can get a job, and you go there, and you can't play. But there is a team for Kirby's Shoes (a shoe store chain), an amateur team, and some of my ex-players are playing on that. So, he wanted to come. I told him what courses and what grades he'd have to get. He wanted to do it and he did. He came and played with Kirby's Shoes. And I talked to Eddie Sheldrake and Jerry Norman and told them, "Don't let anyone else get to him." Other coaches were going to see him, like Pete Newell. There were going to be a lot of other coaches out there after him. So keep him under wraps. And that's exactly what happened until he came the next year. So he never played freshman ball for us, and just three years of varsity."

Were there some recruits that you got that you didn't think you were going to get?

"I can't think of names. There were probably some. I  know there were some out there that we got that many programs were after, so I'm sure it went both ways. I couldn't say any names off the top of my head. I can't remember any that were leaning to us and went elsewhere. Like Bill Walton, we knew he was coming the whole time. No question about that. (His brother) Bruce was on the football team."

How about Lucius Allen?

"I first saw him at a conference in the summer. It was in Estes Park, Colorado. When I coached the all-star team in 1962, his coach from Kansas City was my assistant. He wanted Lucius to get away from Kansas. And he brought him to Colorado. That's where I met him. He had good grades and could get in. I never visited him."

What was the toughest recruiting experience you had? Was it Alcindor?

"I wouldn't say that was tough."

There's the story about how you started to recruit Gail Goodrich...

"When Gail was a junior, I went to the City tournament. I went with my closest friend at my church. I went to see Los Angeles Poly, particularly looking at another player, and I can't tell you who it was. My memory is bad. When I was watching the game, I made the statement in the stands, 'That little left-hander is very small but he's smart. He has a quick shot and I can see he'll end up bigger than he looks because he has long arms and he had pretty big hands on the ball. I'm going to be watching next year,' since I knew he was a junior."

How big was he at the time?

"About 5-8, and he weighed about 135 pounds. And then shortly after I made that statement someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Mr. Wooden, do you mean what you said about that player?' I said, 'Oh yes, I did.' And they said, 'Well, we're his parents.' Now I can't back out, you know.  So next year he went up to about 5-10, and maybe 160 pounds, then the next year he was probably 6-1 and 170 pounds. He never played much bigger than that. But they came out and gave me his transcripts and he couldn't get in. His test scores were good. It was ridiculous that he didn't have better grades. He was very capable, just not applying himself. He was into everything, baseball, basketball, tennis, everything. I told him, 'If you want to come, this is what you'll have to do.' But then I found out he was going to graduate mid-year the next year. So I made a promise. It wasn't very smart but I did it. I told him that if he made up his grades and got in I'd give him a scholarship for the next year. Nobody else had been recruiting him at this time. His father was a basketball captain at USC. Did you know that?  So, he came out and we went over the grades he'd have to make. And I told him, 'You can do it.' I told him that the second semester he'd have to change some things. And he'd have to go to summer school. And then the first semester the next year, after which he was going to graduate, he got all As.

Coach in the office of his Encino condo.
I frankly never thought he'd do it. But he took the classes, made up the grades, and got in and graduated. In the meantime, he had grown. Then USC was after him. But it was too late. The dad's feelings had been hurt. And then there was his mother, and they control things anyway, don't they?  So at this time he said he was going to come.

"But there's something else about Gail you might not know. They wanted him to not go to school that next semester. He was told he'd get a good job, make some good money and maybe buy a car, and then maybe come in next fall as a true freshman. I told him the exact opposite. I told him that he should come in and get settled. So he came in and played freshman baseball and got a freshman letter. The next year at UCLA he got a freshman letter at UCLA in basketball, and a varsity letter in baseball, in the same year. So he was a freshman in basketball and on varsity in baseball in the same year. But anyway, he made it. He turned out to be a good student at UCLA, not a great student. He wasn't Don Bragg or Keith Wilkes. They were good students."

So, were the early teams, the ones that set up things for the teams that followed, made up of players that weren't heavily recruited? Guys like Jack Hirsch, Fred Slaughter, Keith Erickson...

"Well, with Keith Erickson, he wasn't getting recruited hardly by anybody. But he was as fine an athlete as I ever had. He could do anything. He could have been have been a big-league shortstop, or an all-pro defensive back, or a tumbler. He was good at everything."

Back then, you didn't have scouting services that you subscribed to. You'd have to rely on what you heard about certain players through contacts?

"I relied on the newspapers, friends and alumni. Then I get those five questionnaires and make a composite evaluation and I decided pretty well from that."

But were there some people whose evaluation skills you trusted in identifying players?

"Sure. But there were a lot of coaches I wouldn't trust. Some coaches would over-rate him and some would under-rate him. They fear he might not make good, and then his reputation goes bad. Too many ifs. When you make the composite, it's more accurate. Certain things will get knocked out. They all tend to agree on certain things. If his own coach is way off on something, you wonder about that. You'd find out in some cases that an opposing coach might have a little animosity toward the player. Maybe he beat him or something. So, you'd get some biases. People are people. Thank Goodness."

So, it wouldn't really concern you then if someone wasn't being recruited by anyone else?

"Right. And the players I had from out of state I never saw any of them play."

So, you relied solely on the opinion of a contact?

"Well, I'd contact some people that I knew in the area, and that knew me. Mike Warren, for example. Why wouldn't I know about Mike Warren? Mike Warren played at South Bend Central High, where I taught. His coach at that high school played for me at that high school and also played for me the two years I was at Indiana State. He was my assistant at that high school. Michael Warren wanted to major in theater arts. If USC had found out he wanted to major in theater arts, I would have had to say that UCLA had more backing on that than they did."

When you were reviewing those composite questionnaires, was there something you looked for primarily? A sign of mental toughness perhaps?

"You could get a lot from those questionnaires and their transcripts. Their extra-curricular activities, did they go to church, what's the father's profession, what does the mother do, his brothers and sisters. You can get so much from those, and just not the grades. Grades, of course, were good indicators. If he can't get in, how good could he be? Not good at all. I complained about it sometimes, not being able to get some kids in. There were two players on the University High School city championship team, Don Pino and Lee Harmon. Whoo, good players. Very good. They wanted to go to UCLA, but they couldn't get in. So they ended up going to Oregon State and played against us. They could get them in and we couldn't get them in. It was tough sometimes."

As you had more success, did you get more pull with the academic acceptance committee at UCLA?

"Never. Not ever. But we certainly attracted more players that wanted to come. I was very fortunate that I had many academic all-americans at UCLA. In many ways, with the academic restrictions, to some degree it hurts you and some ways it helps you. It hurt us, like with the two players I just mentioned. And they weren't the only ones. There were a lot of others."

What percentage of recruits do you think you couldn't get that you wanted because of UCLA's academic restrictions?

"Well, I'm thinking of the four or five I'd be trying to find out about every year, my first selection of the four or five, there'd be at least a couple of those that wouldn't have a chance. So I'd have to find someone else that either can get in, or we knew they'd have a chance. I would say probably half of them couldn't get in."

So, when you identified the four or five, and a couple couldn't get in, you would then find a couple more to add to that list?

"Right."

Was Keith Wilkes someone that was always going to come?

"I didn't know early on at the time. But pretty much as time went by I knew he wanted to come to UCLA. And he was really the type of player I wanted at UCLA. An outstanding student. A wonderful family background. Just a wonderful person. Someone you really wanted to be around. But I was worried about other schools. USC was recruiting him, Cal was, and Stanford was. He could have gotten in anywhere. He wasn't really thought of that highly by some because of his appearance of being frail, and he had a crazy shot, you know. I certainly never had anyone who had shot that way, and I certainly never taught it, but I liked the results, so it was okay."

Did you ever think of correcting his shot?

"No. The only thing that worried me about it was that he could be blocked from behind when he brought it behind his head. But it didn't seem to happen. He had a sixth sense or something, where he could always get it away on time. I wouldn't say that he never had it blocked, but I hardly remember it."

How about David Meyers' recruitment?

"We had him all the way. And he was highly recruited."

Did you have contact with him early on?

"As a junior, and he wasn't highly recruited as a junior. Not until his senior year. But we had talked to him as a junior."

Did high school recruits come to your games?

"Not until we got Pauley Pavilion. I wouldn't let them before that."

A recruit that's coming in next year from Orange County, James Keefe, is someone you might like. He's been compared to David Meyers.

"You know, I didn't hear too much about Mike Roll, but I like him. He works hard, he hustles on defense. And he can shoot outside. I like his energy. I don't like activity without achievement, but he's able to achieve."

When you identified those four or five every year, if they were from Southern California, how many times would you go out to see them play?

"Very little. Very little. (Assistant) Denny Crum would go some. Denny might go if we were wavering a little bit. Then sometimes we find out a time for a game and set up the schedule and we'd go together. So we did that. We did that with Wilkes, as one example."

And you never saw anyone from out of state...

"Never contacted them and never saw them play. I'm trying to think just to make sure. Like with Henry Bibby, back in North Carolina...I went to coach in a camp there every summer, and got very well acquainted with some of the coaches back there. The principal of the high school where Henry was was a UCLA grad. They didn't want him to stay in the South."

I think I read sometime that you went to one of Richard Washington's games at Portland Benson Tech High?

"Yes, we did. You got me on that one. It was by chance. We were playing at Oregon and Oregon State and because of the wrestling conference championship I think, they had to change the schedule. So we had a chance to go over to Portland and watch Richard play.  The trip wasn't arranged, but it just happened by chance that one time."

So, you didn't think that, at least with the Southern California kids, you'd like to see the four or five players you were targeting just maybe once?

"I always thought that it's better not to see a recruit at all than to see him play only once. I think I got a much better idea of whether we wanted him or not from the questionnaire that we'd send out and make a composite from."

Did you always think that you were going to get Marques Johnson?

"I thought we'd get him. With (Crenshaw) coach (Willie) West, I have a lot of respect for him. I thought pretty sure he was coming. Not 100% confident."

What about Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe?

"Wicks wanted to come all the time, but he couldn't get in. He had to go to Santa Monica City College for a year. But he wanted to come. He could have gone to many other places, where he could have gotten in. But he told me he wanted to come to UCLA, and I had no fear about losing him. Wicks academically was even much superior to Curtis. But Wicks went to Hamilton High School and didn't have the grades and Rowe went to Fremont, and he got the grades to get in from Fremont. It was a little different, to get the grades from Fremont, at the time at least, as it was from Hamilton or Fairfax. Neither one were an eligibility problem at UCLA. And Curtis had to work hard to make his grades, and he always made it. Wicks would drop a class sometimes, and I have to get on him once in a while. He would drop a class and say he would pick up something else. 'I'm sure I will. I talked to the professor.' He didn't work that hard, and he still made satisfactory grades. He wasn't interested in being an outstanding student, but he didn't want to be bad."

It's amazing that, back then, a kid would turn down a scholarship to another school and would rather go to junior college to be able to go to UCLA a year later. It just wouldn't happen very often today...

"And they were potentially great players."

Today they would think they're going to the NBA soon, so they'd want to get to college as fast as possible to get to the NBA. That would take precedence. In fact, if you were a coach today, how would you like recruiting given all of today's factors?

"Well, coaches today are making more in one year than I made in 27 years at UCLA. So I'd put up with the other stuff. There are problems with every era. You just have to adjust to your particular problems. If you think there weren't problems in my era, or before my era, that would be a mistake. There always are. Problems change, but there are always problems. Right now, today, do you think that Mike Krzysewski is having much trouble recruiting at Duke? I've been a speaker at the McDonald's All-American game every year. Why did Greg Paulus and Josh McRoberts, the two outstanding players, want to go to Duke? Why did the best three-point shooter want to go there? You build a better mousetrap and they'll come.

"When you talk about players leaving early, it really hurt Duke a few years ago when they lost those three potential starters. The next year they were just decimated. But then the next year they were the number one team in the country. How about Arizona, when they lost Richard Jefferson, they were the best team in the west the next year. There is just so much talent now."

 

Was one of the reasons you considered coaching at UCLA was the potential recruiting advantage the area could provide?

 

"Not a big one. You have to understand at that time, my friend (William) 'Dutch' (Fehring) was a football coach at UCLA at the time. He told me that I was going to be disappointed in basketball, that it'd be quite different than Indiana. He said UCLA was a young school, but he said he thought UCLA would become a really great school. The school I wanted to teach at was Purdue. But when they offered me the job, I thought it was miserable the way they were treating their coaches, so I didn't want to work for them. At the same time I had Minnesota and UCLA. Minnesota didn't work out soon enough."

 

Well, there was a little snowstorm...

 

"They couldn't get through on the phone. If they had called it would have been Minnesota and not UCLA. They called about two hours later than they were supposed to call. But UCLA had called and wanted a definite answer, and I understand that.  As Abraham Lincoln said, 'Things work out the best for those who make the best of the way things work out.'" 

 

You obviously admire Lincoln's ability to turn a phrase...

 

"There was just so much depth in his simple statements. 'The best thing a father can do is love their mother.'"

 

My wife says that all the time...

 

"'The worst thing you can do for those you love are the things they could and should do for themselves.' That's Lincoln. 'There's nothing stronger than gentleness.' That's Lincoln. 'Most anyone can stand adversity, but to test a person's character, give them power.' That's Lincoln. And on and on. The Gettysburg Address, those 260 words say more than many volumes really. His second inaugural address. 'With malice toward none, with charity for all.'"

 

So much of what he said had compassion as an overall theme...

 

"Yes. At the end of the Civil War when they were discussing possible reparations for the South, the Secretary of State said to Lincoln, 'You know, you're supposed to destroy your enemies and not make friends with them.' And he said, 'Am I not destroying an enemy to make a friend of him?' That's powerful. It's like Mother Teresa saying, 'A life not lived for others is not really a life.' And 'Forgiveness sets you free.' They say a lot in just a few words, unlike most of us.

 

"But getting back to what we were talking about..Really, if I had never gone into the service I probably never would have left coaching in high school. I liked it, and I liked the people I worked with. I was happy.  I had been offered several college coaching jobs. If Purdue, though, had I would have probably taken it. I had just turned down Tennessee and Iowa State."

 

So, your wife, Nell, must have signed off on UCLA...

 

"Yes. I wouldn't have come out unless she had felt it was okay."

 

So coaches back then didn't consider the recruiting potential of the school as a big factor in deciding to take a coaching job?

 

"I doubt it. I really doubt it. Maybe, some. I doubt that most considered it a major factor, though."

 

Did you think UCLA was a step back in recruiting from Indiana, since Indiana high school basketball was considered better than Southern California at the time?

 

"My Indiana State team, when I left there, I had everyone coming back for two more years. In my first year, I had 11 freshmen and one sophomore. So, the next year, my second year, I knew I should get some new blood in since I was going to lose all those. When I got to UCLA, I thought, 'Gosh, I wish I had brought those teams from Indiana.' But I didn't see it well. There was more there than I saw at first. We won the conference at UCLA that first year. At that time, and I believe I was right, there wasn't the overall strength in talent that I saw back there. I didn't think overall the personnel was quite the quality, although I thought there was some outstanding coaches in the conference at the time. But as time went by it just kept getting better and better. I think the advent of the Lakers in Los Angeles brought basketball more into the limelight out here. It gave it more credibility."

 

There had to be a considerable different talent pool, say, in the '70s than there was in the '50s in Southern California...

 

"Oh, yes. Yes. Not that there weren't some fine players and athletes back then in the '50s but it was so much better later. There is now an abundance of talent here in Southern California."

 

You mentioned the Lakers. What else would you attribute the growth of basketball in Southern California at that time?

 

"I think youngsters started thinking more about playing basketball. At the time, when I came out here, you could not play both football and basketball in Los Angeles high schools. So, here's a good athlete. Is he going to wait for basketball? Football comes first. So when they started letting them play in more sports that helped. As basketball's stature started to grow, the kids wanted to start playing basketball and they could."

 

So, when you were considering UCLA, you didn't know about the rule that high schoolers couldn't play both football and basketball?

 

"There were a lot of things I didn't know about out here, and if I would have known I wouldn't have come. I didn't know my paycheck was being signed by the president of the student body. I thought it would come from the state of California, not the Associated Students. I didn't know I wasn't under a retirement plan. I was at UCLA for 27 years, but my retirement comes from my last 15. I didn't have any for the first twelve. And I didn't know that. It was my own stupidity. I don't have anyone to blame but myself."

 

So, the question follows: Given so many negatives, why exactly did you come to UCLA?

 

"Much of it really was because I didn't know many things about it. But I can't answer that. I really don't know. If Dutch hadn't been here I wouldn't have come. He was a friend, and we roomed together my senior year in college.  He was a sophomore then. He was an amazing person and we were good friends. He's another that got the Big Ten academic medal. He got his doctorate from Stanford. He was a starter on our baseball team, a catcher all three years. A starting tackle on the football team every year. Starting basketball player three years. And he ran track. He played everything at Purdue, like Jackie Robinson at UCLA."

 

So, was it the deciding factor possibly that Dutch was telling you what UCLA could become?

 

"That certainly had something to do with it. If he had given me a different picture I never would have come. That I know. It wasn't that California had a great, wonderful appeal, like Hollywood or anything like that. The weather had something to do with it. I thought the weather might be better for Nellie."

 

Well, Dutch certainly was right. He made a pretty good call there...

 

Coach points to a picture on a shelf of him with another gentleman wearing a Stanford hat at a basketball game.

 

"That's him. That's Dutch. That was at a Stanford game at Pauley Pavilion. The student body came over and put a big UCLA thing on my head since I was sitting there with a Stanford guy."

 

Ultimately how important do you think recruiting is?

 

"Talent is the most important thing. Talent is first. No one can do it without it. Not everyone does it with it, but no one can do it without it. If you're not recruiting, you're not going to get it. But if you get a program going, they'll come to you."

 

Most of the best coaches in the game are some of the best recruiters. There's the saying: Recruiting is like shaving; If you don't do it every day you look like a bum.

 

"Well, the cornerstones of success are hardwork and enthusiasm. You can't work hard if you're not enthusiastic about what you're doing. You may appear to, but you're not. If you're not enthusiastic you're never going to be executing near your own particular level of competency, at all."

 

Some of the most successful coaches are recruiting junkies, and it has to be correlational...They'll spend all day and night during the summer in gyms scouting.

 

"I hope they have successful married lives. I doubt that they will have. What's more important? But it really has to be tough on them if they're married. And then there are the children. And married people usually have those.  I wouldn't mind coaching again today if you could give me Denny (Crum) and Gary (Cunningham) back as my assistants. They can do all that leg work."

 

It's not too late, Coach... 

Jeff Fellenzer, a former writer for the Los Angeles Times who is now the president of a sports marking firm, Innovative Sports Management, which owns and operates the annual Pete Newell Challenge, contributed to this story.


Bruin Report Online Top Stories