The Last Non-Materialistic Icon
John Wooden has been celebrated for just about everything in the past few days, and deservedly so. But there is one other thing for which he should be remembered.
He was the last great sports figure of our time who didn’t care about money.
Think about that for a moment. Here he was, the most successful coach in the history of sports, and personal finances never entered his mind. He loved what he was doing and that was enough for him.
Not only did he accept the meager $32,500 UCLA paid him, he never asked for a raise. That’s right, never. When I was researching my book on Wooden, his daughter, Nan, told me that the coach’s beloved wife, Nell, or “Nellie,” as he called her, would get angry and argue with Wooden about it.
She knew her husband was the most underpaid coach in the country and, now that you look back on it, the most underpaid coach of all time. But Wooden was stubborn. He said school officials had to come to him with more money. He refused to go to them. To the great shame of the university that now extolls his virtues, they never did give him anything close to what he deserved.
But UCLA wasn’t the late coach’s only chance to make money. First, the old San Diego Conquistadors of the now defunct American Basketball Association came calling with a huge offer that included a paid condominium in the plush environs of La Jolla. Wooden turned them down.
Then Jack Kent Cooke and the Lakers made a pitch. Reluctantly, Wooden agreed to a meeting with the late owner whose wealth was the only thing that surpassed his arrogance. Cooke offered Wooden a multi-year deal that would have paid him about 10 times what he was making in Westwood. When the coach said thank you, not no thanks, Cooke angrily told him to leave. Reportedly, Wooden got up and casually walked out of the room.
So the man who eventually captured 10 national championships, put together an 88-game winning streak and rolled up 38 NCAA Tournament victories in a row, went back to work for $32,500 at UCLA. He also continued to live in the tiny condo in Encino, even though boosters had offered to build him an expensive new house. He insisted on driving a beat-up Ford Taurus as opposed to the other top coaches in America who could be seen in their Cadillacs and Mercedes Benzes.
Once, a splendid new car was presented to him, he drove it around for about a week and then turned it back in. “I just like my Taurus better,” he told me.
Can you imagine any of that happening today with John Calipari at Kentucky, or Jim Calhoun at Connecticut, or Roy Williams at North Carolina?
Money is such an intregal part of sports now that it practically dwarfs everything else. Kids who have played one year of college basketball become instant millionaires. Coaches who never have made it to a Final Four regularly earn seven-figure contracts. It’s not just in basketball, either. It’s everywhere.
On Tuesday, a 17-year-old catcher who just recently started using wooden bats will be the No. 1 pick in the major league baseball draft and likely will sign a contract in excess of $10 million.
It all has spiraled out of control. Greed has slithered its way into every tiny crevice of sports, and the fallout hasn’t been pretty. It used to be about the games. It isn’t anymore. Now it is about the money.
That’s why, when recounting the memorable life of the man who died on Friday night, it should always be noted that he accomplished more than winning championships and setting mind-blowing records.
John Wooden became the last one standing. The last sports icon who did it for something other than the almighty buck.
— Steve Bisheff