The death of legendary UCLA basketball Coach John Wooden last Friday night had hoopheads running to the record books to review the Wizard of Westwood's accomplishments.Many of them are of the Eliot Ness variety - you know, untouchable.Wooden had 10 NCAA Tournament titles in 12 years - seven in a row. He guided the Bruins to nine straight Final fours. His teams won 38 NCAA Tournament games in a row and 88 games in a row, period.I could go on. The list is longer than the inseams of Lewis Alcindor - Wooden always called him that - and Bill Walton, combined. Yet, there is something else that basketball fans should appreciate more about what Wooden left behind with his 1975 retirement and his death at age 99.More than anyone, Wooden and his teams are responsible for making college basketball a truly national sport. While people love or hate the Bruins much as they do the Yankees and the Celtics, the UCLA dynasty lifted the sport to new heights.Consider the famed UCLA-Houston game in the Astrodome, featuring Alcindor, who later was known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, against Elvin Hayes. It was on national TV in 1968.The NCAA Tournament championship didn't make it to a major network until 1969, and that was NBC during the Bruins' success. The semifinals didn't make national telecast status until 1971.Wooden's teams turned college hoops into must-see TV, even before there was an ESPN, which hit the airwaves in September 1979. For all of Wooden's greatness and accomplishments, I think maybe that push to nationwide exposure really should mean the most to fans.
THE LAST coach to pass Wooden for 21st place on the all-time victories list before the Wizard's death was Bob Huggins. Wooden had 664 victories, and Huggins got his 665th with West Virginia's Big East Conference tournament semifinal win over Notre Dame.Huggins has 670 now. Next on the ladder is Wooden's best protege, former Louisville Coach Denny Crum, at 675.Wooden, an Indiana native, spent most of his coaching life far across the country, but there are those from these parts with warm and vivid recollections of the Bruins' bench boss.For example, there's former Morris Harvey College Coach Rich Meckfessel. From his St. Louis home, Meckfessel recalled his own personal Wooden moment:"In the spring of 1971," Meckfessel said in an e-mail, "I was looking for a speaker for our All Sports Banquet and came across a coaching clinic brochure that had him speaking in Greensboro, N.C., right around the time of our banquet."Taking a 'nothing to lose' attitude, I called him and he accepted our offer of $250 plus the additional expense of a hotel room, meals, and add-on flights to get to here and then to Greensboro. In spite of all the NCAA championships, UCLA did not pay him very much ($32,500 in his final season)."That night he gave a terrific talk. I had preceded him, and as part of my remarks I apologized to the crowd for not winning 20-plus games, as we had the previous six seasons. Coach Wooden spoke last, and he made a point to talk about how wins and losses are not important but doing your best is. He never mentioned my name, nor looked in my direction, but I'm sure, as were the 300 or so present, that he was responding to what I had said. It was a lesson I never forgot."The banquet ended about 9:30 and I invited him over to our house, which was on campus, right across the street from King Gym. (President Marshall Buckalew and his wife) were there, as were a bunch of our players and coaches, and some boosters. He sat in a rocking chair (the same one Bill Russell had sat in a couple of years prior), and talked with our guests way past midnight."As I drove him to the airport the next morning, we talked as if he had known me all of his life. What a great man."
GREG WHITE had a closer relationship with Wooden than others, because the Mullens native and former Marshall and UC coach was a UCLA assistant for Charleston native Jim Harrick in 1995-96. Wooden regularly attended Bruin practices.One night not long after his California arrival, White was asked to dinner at Wooden's apartment by longtime UCLA operations man Doug Erickson. "It was amazing John Wooden lived in this small apartment, but he did," White said."Coach Wooden asked me where I was from, and I told him, and he said he'd been to West Virginia and he referenced being at that banquet at Morris Harvey," White said. "After I got out there, he knew my family, and we became friends. I was just honored to be around the man."When I was trying to get the Marshall job later, I called Coach Wooden and he made a couple of calls for me. Hey, it wasn't just anyone calling in there. It was John Wooden. And once I got to Marshall, I'd call him on occasion. He always called back. Or, I'd drop him a note, and he'd write back, and send one of his poems. He was always so incredibly nice."The highlight for me was, the year out there, we had Midnight Madness on Oct. 15, and then practice the next afternoon. I show up that afternoon and walk into Pauley Pavilion before practice. Coach Wooden is already there to watch practice."They'd hung the NCAA championship banner for Coach Harrick's (1994-95) team the night before. I look up, and it's 'Wow!' There's that banner, and Coach Wooden's 10 banners, and he's sitting there. It's Coach Wooden, UCLA, and Coach White. Dreams do come true."
THEN, THERE is Joey Holland. Wooden's last game, against Kentucky in the 1975 NCAA Tournament championship game at the San Diego Sports Arena, was a Monday night telecast on NBC. It remains the eighth-highest Nielsen rating in NCAA history.Holland didn't need a TV. He was a sophomore on the Kentucky bench for Wooden's last game.The South Charleston car dealer and former George Washington High star played two seasons for UK. Holland and his dad, Joe, are among only 10 father-son pairs to have played on Final Four teams. The elder Holland was on Kentucky's 1948 title team known as "The Fabulous Five."The younger Holland did not play in the 1975 Final Four, but he recalled the clamor over Wooden's sudden announcement prior to the title game."My main memory," Holland e-mailed, "is just the shock of his retirement announcement on the Sunday morning following the NCAA semifinal games, and obviously one day before we were to play UCLA for the national championship."The games were in San Diego, so (UCLA) already had a home-court advantage, but all of the focus suddenly became about them winning a championship for Coach Wooden in his last game! I remember that he did not want the attention for himself, but used it for extra motivation for his team."I really didn't understand what a great person he was until years later, and now I greatly appreciate the privilege of being a part of that very special event. When they won (92-85), he was nothing but class, as he credited his players, and also applauded our team's efforts!"Memories are often better than records.Contact Sports Editor Jack Bogaczyk at