One in a Billion

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Steve Lawson

coach John Wooden

Coaching wizard John Wooden modeled Christian character

coach John Wooden
Former players, university officials and friends eulogized John Wooden at a public memorial service June 26, remembering the legendary UCLA Bruins men’s basketball coach as a dedicated family man and a wise teacher who lived out the values of his renowned Pyramid of Success, which includes the component of faith.

“Coach Wooden was one in a billion,” said former Bruins and Los Angeles Lakers player Jamaal Wilkes. “Coach lived a Christian life, and he died a Christian death.”

Current UCLA men’s basketball coach Ben Howland described Wooden as a humble man. “His basic nature was love,” Howland said.

Wooden’s pastor, Dudley Rutherford, assured the crowd of 4,000 gathered at Pauley Pavilion on the UCLA campus of his parishioner’s eternal destination. “Coach made it,” Rutherford declared. “He is there [in heaven] not because he was a good teacher … or won basketball games. He is in heaven because he put his faith and trust in Jesus Christ.”

Rutherford gestured to the record 10 NCAA national championship banners won by Wooden’s UCLA teams that hang in Pauley Pavilion and said: “You can win 1,000 of these things, and it will not get you into heaven. The only thing that gets you into heaven is putting your faith in Jesus Christ.”

Rutherford, senior pastor at the 7,000-member Shepherd of the Hills Church in Porter Ranch, Calif., visited Wooden almost daily while the legendary coach was hospitalized. He died June 4 at age 99.

During one visit, Wooden—who read Scripture daily for most of his life—asked that Matthew 22:37-39 be read at his memorial service. It states: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Through the years Wooden fashioned maxims that have been quoted often and applied by thousands—ones such as: “Be quick, but don’t hurry,” “Make every day a masterpiece” and “Don’t let making a living prevent you from making a life.” He also often said, “Love is the greatest word in our language.”

The maxims appear in Wooden’s many books, including the best-seller Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, written with evangelist and former UCLA assistant coach Jay Carty, and The Wisdom of Wooden: My Century On and Off the Court.

Many of them anchor devotionals in a tribute book, The Greatest Coach Ever: Timeless Wisdom and Insights of John Wooden, released July 1.

When asked by Wooden to read Matthew 22 at the memorial service, Rutherford says he reminded the coach that it would be his last maxim. Wooden nodded and said, “Tell people to love God and love others.”

At the memorial, Rutherford added, “Love God and love others—these two phrases capture the essence of who [John Wooden] was.”

Rutherford then asked everyone in Pauley Pavilion to roll up their programs the way Wooden was famous for doing during basketball games, point the programs heavenward and recite from Matthew 25:21. In unison, 4,000 voices said, “Well done, good and faithful servant; well done.”

Wooden was an all-American basketball player at Purdue and coached the men’s basketball team at UCLA from 1948-1975 where he had four perfect 30-0 seasons. His 10 NCAA titles came during his last 12 seasons, including seven in a row from 1967-1973. He is one of only two people to be inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach.

His Pyramid of Success, which contains buildings blocks leading to competitive greatness, has been used in sports, business and government. Pastors have implemented it as well. Charismatic pastor Jim Reeve of Faith Community Church in West Covina, Calif., writes in The Greatest Coach Ever that Wooden’s principles were key influences in how he went about being pastor of a megachurch.

“To [Wooden], it was not about the score, winning or losing; the outcome was merely the byproduct of preparation and hard work,” Reeve wrote. “Similarly, the ministry is not about attendance numbers or the size of offerings, but about growing disciples of Jesus.”

Wooden was an enthusiastic supporter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and Athletes in Action. He was also known to carry a cross in his hand at every game as a reminder that his faith in Christ was most important.

“Coach Wooden understood that the greatest victory anyone can achieve is total surrender to Jesus Christ,” FCA president Les Steckel said. “He explained it this way, ‘There is only one kind of life that truly succeeds, and that is one that places faith in the Savior.’”

Wooden is survived by a son, James; a daughter, Nancy; three grandsons; four granddaughters; and 13 great-grandchildren.

A Man of His Word

John Wooden tells why he took the job at UCLA

When I returned to Indiana after the war, I turned down jobs at two very fine high schools and accepted a position at Indiana State University instead. I hoped that if I did well, I would have the opportunity to get a coaching job at a Big Ten school or perhaps another major university.

My Indiana State teams did very well, and after the second year, the University of Minnesota and UCLA had openings. Both schools offered me jobs. I was going to take the Minnesota job, but UCLA was getting impatient. They wanted an answer by the middle of the afternoon.

I told Minnesota that they would have to let me know an hour before UCLA needed an answer. I never received the call. I didn’t know it, but a snowstorm had knocked out the lines.

UCLA did call, and I accepted their offer. The Minnesota people got through to me an hour later and said that all the details had been resolved. I thanked them for the offer but told them I could not take it. I was sorry, but I wouldn’t break my word to UCLA.

I came to UCLA not as a first choice. I came because a college teammate, who now was on the UCLA football coaching staff, thought there would be a future there. I came because there was a snowstorm and Minnesota’s people could not get through to me. And I came because I had given my word.

From Serving: The Heart and Soul in Sports © 2008 by Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Published by Regal Books, Used by permission. All rights reserved. To purchase the book, click here.

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