“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace.”
-John 16:33 (NIV)
Quitting the Corona del Mar High School basketball team my junior year is one regret in life that has lingered. I showed up late for a Saturday practice (the surf had been good), and coach Tandy Gillis made sure that I would not want to do that again. And I didn’t. At the end of practice, I sheepishly told him I was quitting. Enough already. I was seventeen years old and didn’t need a basketball coach dictating my life.
Or so I thought.
Coach Gillis was a bit of an icon in the basketball world. I appreciate that much more now than I did then. He was an All-American at The University of California at Berkeley (Cal), where he had played under coach Pete Newell, who coached Cal to the 1959 NCAA championship. Rumor had it that Tandy held Jerry West to his lowest offensive point total in his college basketball career at West Virginia University. And if you don’t know Jerry West, he was good enough to have the logo of the NBA modeled after him. Tandy’s Cal Bears beat Jerry’s West Virginia team in the finals 71-70 that year!
Coach Gillis was all about defense. He could teach it like Einstein could teach physics. It was quite simple. He taught us to play an extraordinarily tight man-to-man defense by following two principles:
#1: “Crawl inside their jockstrap,” as he used to say, and deny every pass possible.
#2: Protect the baseline as if it were Fort Knox; Don’t let anyone with the ball go by.
Conceding on either point resulted in sprinting the lines up and down the court until you were ready to barf.
Coach John Wooden
Growing up as a basketball fan in SoCal meant you had to be aware of what the Wizard of Westwood (as Coach John Wooden was known) was doing on the basketball court at UCLA. It all started for me when I stayed up late with Dad to watch the KTLA Channel 5 replays of those UCLA games in the mid-1960s. I could not wait for the “Oh MYs” from announcer Dick Enberg as UCLA ran endlessly up and down the court, scoring at will, always ending up on the winning side. Dad would tell you that I usually fell asleep by halftime as the replays started at 11:00p.m.
The Wooden-coached UCLA Bruins won ten NCAA Men’s Basketball Championships (March Madness) over a period of twelve years (1964-1975), including seven in a row (1967-1973), and had four undefeated seasons (1964, 1967,1972, 1973).
However, I will never forget one loss in 1968 when the Houston Cougars and Elvin Hayes ended UCLA’s 47-game winning streak in what was billed as “the game of the century” at the Houston Astrodome.[i] I cried like a baby at the end of that game.
What Coach Wooden was doing was unprecedented in the sports world, and I could not help but be caught up in trying to understand it. Something was quite different about how this man approached the game. Amidst the myriad of UCLA victories, he inspired his players to find their very best within themselves while being as cool as a cucumber watching them do it from the bench.
Even during the tensest moments of a game when his team appeared rattled, he would let them play on without calling a time out. After the game, he was always very humble, giving credit to those around him before himself. Most unique of all, Coach Wooden never spoke about “winning.” His focus was on helping each player become the best they possibly could be on the court. He emphasized the importance of practice, telling his players that the games would go well if they practiced well. “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”
Wooden’s unrivaled success was a puzzle I felt compelled to piece together to see if I could apply it to my life. Fast forward 20 years to Silicon Valley in 1992, and I was starting to see the picture. As soon as our two children, Marisa and Matthew, were old enough to play organized basketball, I entered the coaching ranks, determined to make amends for quitting Coach Gillis’ team in high school. I modeled my coaching around Coach Wooden’s now-famous “Pyramid of Success,”[ii] which summarized the building blocks required for success, both on the court and off.
Hard work was at its core, no getting around that with Coach Wooden. Once you had done the hard work, Wooden emphasized patience (“good things take time”), along with faith (“through prayer”) to be at your best when your best is needed. All this resulted in peace of mind that you could rest in the knowledge that you gave it your best effort. Coach Wooden would add, “You are the only one who truly can judge that!” Soon, I had every player on the team memorizing these pyramid blocks and reciting Wooden quotes during critical moments in a game or practice. The kids were terrific in embracing it, and of course, the parents loved taking the emphasis off winning.
Seek First The Kingdom of God
When I read Coach Wooden’s first book, They Call Me Coach; I discovered a crown jewel that had been missing in my puzzle. In discussing his beliefs on success, Coach Wooden quoted straight from the Bible:
“But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33, NIV).
Right there, in Chapter 13, Wooden spilled the story of his Christian faith and how basketball was of minor importance in comparison to belief in our Lord Jesus Christ. Coach Wooden carried a metal cross of Jesus in his pocket through all those many games at UCLA so he could hold on to it and be comforted by his Savior when things got difficult. He said he would rub the cross for comfort to the point that it had been worn down on the corners over the years.
This was the missing piece I had been looking for; it fit perfectly. It was so simple, yet so true. The mere idea of attaining peace of mind through faith in the cross in pursuit of success would be a theme that rang true for me in my career for the next two decades in Silicon Valley. I bought several metal crosses as reminders. Most remarkable of all was that Coach Wooden practiced what he preached. His players all looked up to him for his principles and commitment to his faith. He lived it! That set John Wooden apart and helped him see the level of success he achieved at UCLA.
The most challenging job of my career was as a field sales manager at Siemens (1993-94), with a $6 million annual sales quota of telecommunications systems. I managed ten sales representatives who fought daily battles for sales territories, new accounts, quota alignment, customer satisfaction, and that very elusive Purchase Order to win a deal against the competition. My Circle of Life centered on work and not much else. I was struggling to find peace of mind at the end of the day, whether I was achieving my sales quota or not. Each day I went home to my family battle-weary, struggling to find success in the midst of it all.
In a panic to find help, I decided to type a letter to Coach Wooden and ask for resources to apply his principles around the Pyramid of Success. It was a long shot; I was hoping someone in his office might respond. Within one week, I had a hand-written letter in a hand-written envelope to me from Coach Wooden himself.
He opened by thanking me for taking the time to write:
“Your words of commendation were very kind and deeply appreciated. Many thanks for taking the time to express yourself.”
Coach Wooden was truly demonstrating the principles he was teaching! I soon created a leadership model for my sales team around the Pyramid of Success. We overachieved our sales quota two years in a row while improving customer satisfaction ratings. The puzzle was complete.
“Talent is God-given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.” -Coach Wooden
As a coach, father, and follower of Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, I have found Coach Wooden’s philosophy to be an excellent way to model the values our holy Bible teaches, both to children on the basketball court, as well as to adults in the business world. It enabled me to go home at the end of the day with a sense of contentment that regardless of how the day had gone, I gave it my best and had peace of mind in knowing that it now rested in God’s hands.[I]
“Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best you are capable of becoming.”
-Coach John Wooden
[i] Wooden authored and co-authored seventeen books before his death in 2010 at the age of 99. I have listed a couple of my favorites below. A google search on “John Wooden” will bring up many more. They all model the values and beliefs of this remarkable man.
- “Wooden on Leadership: How to Create a Winning Organization” (2005) by John Wooden and Steve Jamison. Wooden’s strategies for competitive greatness translated into a leadership principles book for business or sports. A Wall Street Journal and L.A. Times bestseller.
- “Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success: Building Blocks for a Better Life” (2005) by John Wooden and Jay Carty. A translation of Wooden’s philosophy with the Pyramid of Success into a self-help handbook based upon each of the pyramid blocks.
- “They Call Me Coach” (1988) by John Wooden
This was his first book and a personal favorite. It describes his humble upbringing on a small farm in Indiana and how his relationship with his father impacted him. It also is the only one of his books that covers the UCLA basketball teams in quite a bit of detail, which I appreciated, having watched so many of those games.
[i] The UCLA Bruins were #1 rated in the country and had won 47 games in a row, including the NCAA Division I championships in 1964, 1965, and 1967. Houston was #2 in the country and led by Elvin Hayes, who scored 39 points (he could not miss!). A footnote is that UCLA’s star, Lew Alcindor (Kareen Abdul-Jabbar), had the worst game of his college career (making 4 of 18 shots), suffering from a severe eye injury the previous week (he sat out the two previous games). Two months later, UCLA destroyed Houston 101-69 on route to their fourth NCAA Championship.
[ii] Coach John Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success” can be found at: https://www.thewoodeneffect.com/pyramid-of-success/