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3 Lessons from Mr. March Madness

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Romans 12:21

By Dennis Rainey

Photo Credit: wolterke -

In more than 27 years of interviewing over 1,000 guests for FamilyLife Today, Coach John Wooden was one of my top five favorites (Bob Lepine, my co-host, agrees). He was a spry, articulate communicator and my oldest guest at the age of 91. His daughter, who was 66 at the time and watched the interview, said “I’ve seen Daddy interviewed hundreds of times, but this was one of my favorites because you didn’t just interview him about basketball.”

(I want to encourage you to listen to the first of the three interviews … play it for your kids, grandkids, and pass it on to co-workers. This is the kind of story that our minds need to feasting on these days. Interviews #2 and #3 are a national treasure … a true character based leader that was a gift to our nation.)

Wisdom from the Wizard of UCLA Interview With John Wooden

She was right. The interviews focused on his faith in Jesus Christ, his love for and marriage to Nellie for more than 53 years, his family, and his character.

Growing up in rural Indiana in the 1920s, John didn’t have many toys. Perhaps it explains partially why the boy threw a “cow chip” (manure pie) at his brother. I don’t know if the homemade frisbee made contact with its intended target, but John’s dad did make contact with John, spanking him for his nasty frisbee that he flung at his brother. His dad loved his boys and they respected him for his discipline in character development.

Ultimately John traded in those cow-frisbees for a basketball and excelled in high school and later in college. He was named three times as a consensus All-American and the first ever Player of the Year. He was only 5-10, but he was quick.

But his love of the game didn’t stop there. He went on to coach at Indiana State University from 1946 to 1948 and at UCLA from 1948 until 1975. It was at UCLA that he became known as the “Wizard from Westwood,” winning 10 national championships in 12 years, from 1964 to 1975. The greatest number of NCAA Championships that any other coach has won is four, John won seven in a row! He also won a record 88 games in a row.

In 1975, when he retired as head coach of UCLA at the age of 64, he was being paid $35,000/yr. He never once asked for a raise.

Coach was renowned for his rock-solid character. Here are three life lessons we can learn from Coach’s life:

Life Lesson #1: Courageous leadership has convictions … it does the right thing.

In our interview I neglected to ask Coach one of my favorite questions, which is, “What is the most courageous thing you’ve ever done?” But he did tell a story that, to me, represents courage in its purest form.

Early in his coaching career, Coach made a decision that many believed would be a “career limiting move. In 1947 his Indiana State team had won the conference championship and received an invitation to play in a national tournament in Kansas City. But Wooden refused the invitation, citing the tournament’s policy that banned Black players. One of Coach’s players was Clarence Williams, a young Black player from East Chicago. Coach Wooden disagreed with the policy and both he and his team stayed home.

Think with me for a moment: Here was Coach John Wooden, only 36 years old, standing up against the policies of one of the leading athletic associations. Alone. No other coach stood with him. He exemplified courage which is doing your duty in the face of fear.

The next season his team had a stellar year and received another invitation to attend the tournament in Kansas City. This time they changed the policy. Coach took his team to the championship game against Louisville, but lost. It was the only championship game his teams ever lost from 1946-1975. But his principled leadership and character had won something far more significant.

In my interview with him he had a twinkle in his eyes when he shared that Clarence was the first African-American man ever to play in that national tournament, and a few years later an all African-American team won that tournament. He felt that his decision had made a difference.

Edmond Burke made a prophetic statement for our day when he said, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

Today our country needs more men and women who refuse to do nothing, but will do something when we see evil being done to another person. We cannot right every wrong, but we must refuse to be passive and do nothing.

Life Lesson #2: Courageous leadership has integrity … it keeps its word.

Coach Wooden repeatedly modeled what it looked like to make a commitment and follow through on it. He was a man of his word.

In 1948 both UCLA and the University of Minnesota tried to hire Coach Wooden as head coach. In the midst of the negotiations UCLA made an offer and Minnesota was to call Coach on the same day with its offer. A massive snowstorm hit the upper Midwest, shutting down all communications. Coach assumed that Minnesota had lost interest in him, so he accepted the offer from UCLA.

The next day, Minnesota heard that Coach had accepted the UCLA offer and called him with an offer that was much better. He declined the offer saying that he “already given UCLA my word.”

My dad would have loved Coach Wooden because he too was a man of his word. All you needed to seal a deal with “Hook” Rainey was a handshake. A return to character-based leadership is needed in the church, in corporations, ministries, and in local, state and national politics.

Life Lesson #3: Courageous leadership develops people … it challenges people to become the best then can be.

In 1971 Bill Walton was one of the most highly sought after basketball recruits in the nation. At 6-11 he dominated high school basketball in California. And after joining UCLA he tried to dominate Coach Wooden, but he met his match.

Coach had a rule about facial hair in those days … facial hair meant NO PLAY for him with the Bruins. As a sophomore Walton led his team to the national title, and in the fall he showed up for the season’s opening practice sporting a beard. When Coach reminded him of the rule, Bill pushed back and said that Coach didn’t have the right to tell him how to wear his hair.

Coach replied, “You’re right, Bill, but I do have the right to say who’s going to play for me, and we’re going to miss you!” He gave Walton 15 minutes to get his hair cut, and the player dashed off on his bicycle to find a barber!

Coach understood that young men may need to press the boundaries, but at some point a line had to be drawn and they had to learn to submit to those boundaries.

I can’t help but wonder if parents today are being seduced by the world’s mantra of, “Your children can have it all.” According to my friend Jim Stroud, a Dallas/Fort Worth businessman, coming out of the Covid-19 lockdowns gives us a fresh “reset” to pass on to our children. As things open back up perhaps we should model how to say “No” and how to live with boundaries.

My Senior year of high school basketball

My bold request for Coach

Bob and I hit it off with Coach during our interviews, and I think he really enjoyed the questions we asked. So when Coach Wooden gave me one of his books, I asked him for a favor. With a grin on my face I said, “Coach, I didn’t share with you that I was a pretty fair basketball player around the time you were starting your run of 10 NCAA national championships. I set a school record for most points scored in a game my senior year at Ozark High School in 1966—44 points—and it still stands as the record.”

I went on, “I used to watch your teams and think I would have loved to have played on one of your teams.” Holding out the book he’d just given me I asked him to sign it, “To Dennis. You could’ve played for me at UCLA.”

I’d seen his sly grin before in the interviews and it wrinkled its way across his face again as he took the book, wrote something, and signed it.

Before I opened it to see what he wrote, he said, “Dennis, remember we were just talking about integrity!”

I opened the book and read on the inside cover:

Thank you, Dennis, for your interest. Since I never initiated contact

for an out of state player, why didn’t you contact me? John Wooden


He died in 2010, just four months short of his 100th birthday.

Enjoy March Madness.


Dennis Rainey

1 Peter 4:11


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