Much is known about John Wooden, whose coaching success at UCLA is unlikely to ever be bested or even threatened. Not only a master tactician, but a man of impeccable moral character, he is part philosopher, part motivator and 100 percent Boilermaker.
His "Pyramid of Success" is perhaps as well known as the long list of All-Americans he coached at UCLA. He is a basketball institution.
What is not so well known is that this Martinsville, Ind., native excelled on the hardwood at the old Memorial Gymnasium, led a national championship team as a player in 1932, and credits his years playing for Ward Lambert with laying the foundation for his future success.
"Lambert was a great psychologist, accomplishing more with words than any coach I've ever known," Wooden told his biographer for the 1972 book "They Call Me Coach." He continued on in a similar vein about Lambert's ability to motivate with words: "I think it is one of my attributes that can definitely be traced to him. He was not one for team meetings; I'm not either."
At Martinsville High School, Wooden led his team to the state championship in 1927 and runner-up finishes in 1926 and 1928. He was a three-time all-state selection.
A three-time All-America selection at Purdue, Wooden established a new scoring standard with an unheard-of 12.1 points per game his senior season. In his last game as a Boilermaker, he equaled his own single-game record with 21 points in a 53-18 victory over Chicago. He excelled off the court as well. During the first semester of his senior year in 1932, his grade point average stood 19th in a student body that numbered 4,675.
Following his collegiate playing days, he went on to play semi-professional basketball and then coached high school basketball in Kentucky and South Bend, Ind.
Wooden entered the collegiate coaching ranks in 1946 as basketball and football coach as well as athletics director at Indiana State. After two successful seasons in Terre Haute, the offers poured in and he narrowed his next move to either UCLA or Minnesota. Although he was all set to take the coaching job at Minnesota, a snowstorm kept his would-be boss from making the phone call to offer the job. Instead, the offer came via telephone from Westwood first. Wooden accepted, thinking Minnesota had lost interest. When the frantic call came in later that evening from the Minnesota athletics director, Wooden informed him it was too late.
At UCLA, he amassed a 620-147 record. The Bruins notched four 30-0 seasons under Wooden, as well as these records that still stand: 88 consecutive victories, 38 straight NCAA Tournament wins, 19 PAC-10 championships and 10 national championships.
This master of the game is as humble and unassuming as he is successful. He quickly credits others with inspiring ideas that are identified with his UCLA teams.
Lambert leads the list of those who came before Wooden who molded him, according to his 1972 biography: "From a technician's viewpoint, Coach Lambert has had the greatest influence on my career, both from the viewpoint of playing as well as coaching."
Outside Purdue basketball circles, Lambert's name will never be mentioned with that of John Wooden. But Wooden himself tells repeatedly of the early exposure to ideas that worked that he later employed as a coach: "In the past few years, following our great success at UCLA, I have overheard people say that I originated the pressing defense. Not at all. I played the press at Purdue under Lambert."