John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty revolutionized college basketball. In The Sons of Westwood: John Wooden, UCLA, and the Dynasty that changed College Basketball, John Matthew Smith shares the story of the most significant college basketball program at a pivotal time in American history.
Highlights from Bill’s Conversation with John Matthew Smith
BL: What best explains the annual success of John Wooden’s teams recruiting, or teaching, or the coach’s charisma? What was going on there?
JS: Well, I think it was a combination. I mean Wooden was an excellent coach, fantastic in practice at breaking down the fundamentals, developing team unity and cohesion on the court, but John Wooden we have to remember was at UCLA for 15 years before he won his first national championship, and you can’t win without great players.
So his early championship teams were very guard-oriented with Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich — two All-Americans — but then when Lew Alcindor arrived in his first varsity season, in 1966-1967, the offense ran through him. And then after those players left, Bill Walton came, and so [Wooden] changed again with a center. So his ability to adapt, really I think, is what sustained his success with the combination of these really incredibly talented players.
BL: John Wooden was celebrated not only as a fantastically successful coach, but as a fellow who stood for tradition and order. Was that a legitimate reading of John Wooden?
JS: You know, John Wooden in the 1960s and the 1970s was a symbol of moral authority. This is an age when America’s college sons and daughters have turned a deaf ear to their parents, right? They’re questioning their parents. They’re questioning authority. They’re questioning professors and administrators on America’s campuses. Wooden projects this image of consensus in a time of dissent, but ultimately his players did respect his authority, and he was able to bring them together in a way that they were successful in a time to practice when it was time to play.
BL: Some of the most compelling stories in The Sons of Westwood involve John Wooden’s relationship with Bill Walton. Wooden didn’t like Walton’s social activism, which the coach regarded as certainly inappropriate perhaps even un-American. Walton didn’t like the coach’s rules involving things like hair length and beards. How did those two get along?
JS: There’s no doubt that every day in practice Walton tested Wooden. he was always questioning: ‘Why do we have to do it this way coach? Why don’t we think about doing it this way?’ And certainly by this time in the early ’70s, Wooden is a little tired. I think he’s fatigued from the incredible pressure of always having to win. And Walton, I think, felt that same pressure.
At their core, they were both competitors. They both loved basketball and I think that’s really what brought them together. And I think its part of the beauty — here they are, two very different guys. Here is John Wooden who has very different views of society and morals and politics. And then you have Bill Walton who is the son of liberals, grows up in San Diego, someone who was drawn to social-action movements. [In] the anti-war movement, he gets arrested in 1972 for occupying the administration building. But basketball brings them together, and I think that they both realized that they needed each other to be successful, and ultimately Walton respected Wooden as his coach. He challenged him, but there was a certain line that he didn’t cross, and I think that that was true of a lot of the players that did test Wooden on and off the court.
Bill’s Thoughts on The Sons of WestwoodWhether he wanted to be or not, UCLA basketball coach John Wooden became a symbol.
People who thought the activist and progressive college students of the ’60’s and ’70’s should shut up and get their hair cut found in Wooden a paragon of the discipline and triumph they associated with patriotism. The coach was celebrated for imposing law and order. Wooden’s teams practiced according to his meticulous schedule, and they shaved. They also won 10 national championships, seven of them consecutively.
But according to John Matthew Smith’s new book, except for all those championships, Wooden’s program wasn’t all that different from lots of other college basketball operations. With Wooden’s knowledge, Sam Gilbert, the man Smith calls “the most well-known booster in college basketball,” treated the UCLA players to all sorts of perks. They ate on his credit card, bought cars and clothes at discounts Gilbert arranged for them, and got cash from Gilbert when their girlfriends needed abortions. Gilbert also served as the agent for some of the UCLA players who went on to careers in the NBA.
Smith also focuses on the discontent expressed by those of Wooden’s charges who found his coaching methods irrationally authoritarian, and who felt he had one set of rules for the rank-and-file players and no rules at all for his stars. As one of the latter, Bill Walton got permission from Coach Wooden to smoke marijuana when he needed to relax, as long as he didn’t tell his teammates the coach had said it was okay.
In retirement, Wooden said that he felt college basketball had become too commercial. Ironically, as Smith points out, the success of Wooden’s teams at UCLA was a major catalyst for that development. When the athletic director urged him to play a game in the Astrodome because it would set an attendance record, Wooden could have said no. He didn’t.
As the revered elder statesman of the game, Wooden argued that “television encouraged greedy athletic directors, coaches, and university presidents ‘to permit things they would otherwise not permit.'” Smith points out that this was “a hypocritical complaint, given the culture of boosterism during the UCLA dynasty.”