That is a question that has been whirling around in my mind since I finished reading a biography on UCLA coaching legend John Wooden.
“Wooden – A Coach’s Life,” written by Seth Davis, is a book of more than 500 pages about the life of John Wooden, who is considered one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time. He died in 2010 at the age of 99.
His record speaks for itself. Wooden’s UCLA teams won 10 national championships, including seven in a row from 1967 to 1973. His 10th title came in his last season of coaching.
I can honestly say that I never liked Wooden when he was coaching. Perhaps the fact that his Bruins defeated the Michigan Wolverines in the 1965 championship game had something to do with my feelings toward Wooden. I was a big Cazzie Russell fan and I wanted the Wolverines to walk away with the title.
I rooted against him during the NCAA basketball tournaments. I didn’t like it that he often berated officials and sometimes his own players.
Despite the fact that some of his own players didn’t like him, Wooden was a great coach. He knew how to get the best out of his players. He knew his basketball strategy and aligned himself with outstanding recruiters.
While Wooden could be cold toward his players and seldom interacted with them off the court, he knew how to win.
Later in life, after he retired, Wooden managed to reconnect with many of his players who, during their playing days, weren’t particularly fond of Wooden.
I’ve changed my mind about John Wooden after reading this book. He knew how to get the best out of his athletes. He also taught them how to be successful with their careers after basketball.
Something could be said about Wooden having the most talented basketball players. But there have been other coaches with talented athletes who haven’t been as successful.
Let’s face it, coaching is difficult. At the college and professional levels, a coach’s job security is determined by how many games he or she wins.
Look at the Detroit Lions and Detroit Pistons, for example. They’ve gone through a boatload of coaches in recent years. We keep hoping that those two teams will finally hire the right coaches.
However, even some coaches who have had success in the past have fallen prey to the emphasis on winning.
Grand Haven native Dan Bylsma was fired last month as the coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins beat the Detroit Red Wings in 2009 to win the Stanley Cup. He even brought the cup to Grand Haven.
I got to talk to Bylsma several times when he was working out at the Tri-Cities Family YMCA during the summers when he played in the National Hockey League. I found him to be an extremely intelligent and sincere man. I thought the Penguins made an excellent choice in hiring him as their coach.
But, borrowing a phrase from Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, “the bottom line is that you have to win.”
The pressure is even felt at the high school level. High school coaches have been fired because they didn’t win enough games. These are men and women who were working with high school kids because they enjoyed it.
Certainly, John Wooden was one of the greatest coaches of all time. His methods weren’t always endearing to his players, but he got the job done.
But coaching can have other rewards. High school coaches can have a lifetime impact on kids by the lessons they teach them.
Yes, I’m now a fan of John Wooden. But I’m also a fan of all those coaches who have had positive impacts on their athletes.
— By Len Painter, Tribune community columnist