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UCLA coaching legend John Wooden had an affinity for ACU


Former UCLA coaching icon John Wooden during a press conference on his 2000 visit to ACU.
Former UCLA coaching icon John Wooden during a press conference on his 2000 visit to ACU.

Photo by Gerald Ewing

Abilene Christian University and UCLA have never played a collegiate basketball game against each other. That will change today at 4:15 p.m. when the No. 14-seed Wildcats and No. 11-seed Bruins meet in the second round of the NCAA Tournament’s East Regional in Indianapolis.

They have a unique connection in their legendary former head coach and his long-standing interest in ACU.

The late John Wooden, the “Wizard of Westwood” whose teams won 10 NCAA Tournament titles in 12 years, including a record seven in a row (1966-67 through 1972-73), had an appreciation for the university, starting with its founding athletics director and continuing through visits to campus to speak through the years.

Wooden’s teams were 620-162 during his 29-year collegiate coaching career in the sport, a winning percentage of .804. During the seven consecutive national title years, his record was 205-5 with three 30-0 seasons. His 10 national championships are twice what Mike Krzyzewski’s teams at Duke have won. Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp won four.

When legendary ACU coach and athletics director A.B. Morris retired in 1982, Wooden sent Morris a personal note of congratulations that included this verse from an unknown author:

No written word, no oral plea
Can teach our youth what they should be.
Nor all the books on all the shelves,
It’s what the teachers are themselves.

“Being a good example is a powerful teaching device,” he wrote in his autobiography, Wooden, a plainspoken collection of his logic and advice that have shaped several generations of teachers and coaches who appreciated his wisdom, calm under fire, selflessness and unparalleled career accomplishments.


John Wooden poses at center court in Moody Coliseum in 2000 during one of his speaking engagements on campus.
John Wooden poses at center court in Moody Coliseum in 2000 during one of his speaking engagements on campus.

Photo by Gerald Ewing

Dr. Gary McCaleb (’64), ACU vice president emeritus who for years taught a class on management and leadership, befriended Wooden while on a 1984 fundraising trip to California. With no prior introduction, McCaleb phoned Wooden before the trip to ask for a few minutes of his time and advice. He began by asking the coach if he was familiar with Abilene Christian.

“Oh, yes, I am. It’s a very fine school,” Wooden quickly replied. They agreed to meet once McCaleb arrived from Texas, but Wooden did not return calls promptly. When he did, he invited ACU’s vice president for PR and development to sit with him in a hospital where Wooden’s wife was being treated for a recent stroke. McCaleb offered his condolences and asked to reschedule.

“No, you would be keeping me company,” the coach explained. “I can only see my wife once every two hours.” Although little more than strangers at that point, the two met at the hospital the next morning and talked several hours, the coach liberally sharing his wisdom.

Wooden later visited ACU three times. He was the featured speaker at the annual President’s Circle Dinner in 1986, at a dinner with Wildcat coaches and a luncheon with university friends in 1992, and in 2000 as featured speaker at a luncheon in the Margaret and William J. Teague Center sponsored by ACU’s Center for Building Community.

At the latter, 450 youth league, high school and college coaches from West Texas flocked to listen to Wooden’s sage advice on his famous “Pyramid of Success” and other matters of life, and to be photographed with the 89-year-old philosopher.

On his 1986 visit, Wooden was astonished to learn that PGA great Byron Nelson, an ACU benefactor and a trustee from 1965-74, was on campus to speak at a Parents Day event. “I have admired him my whole life,” Wooden told McCaleb. “Can I meet him?”

McCaleb arranged for the two to speak in a classroom adjacent to Scruggs Gymnasium, where parents were gathering for a luncheon. “I have admired him my whole life,” Nelson said of Wooden. He excused himself from his speaking engagement and walked across the hall for a rare first – and perhaps only – meeting of two of the most admired people in American life and the world of sports.

Wooden was a devout Christian like Nelson, the namesake of ACU’s Byron Nelson Clubhouse and in whose name the Wildcat golf program is endowed.

“I have always tried to make it clear that basketball is not the ultimate. It is of small importance in comparison to the total life we live,” Wooden once said. “There is only one kind of life that truly wins, and that is the one that places faith in the hands of the Savior.” Wooden said if he was ever persecuted for his faith, “I truly hope there would be enough evidence to convict me.”

Wooden died in 2010 at age 99. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003. The basketball court in UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion is named for John and Nell Wooden. And on the corner of Georgia and Meridian streets in Indianapolis, where the Wildcats and Bruins play today, is Wooden’s Legacy, a bronze sculpture depicting the Indiana-born coach by whom all coaches are measured.

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– Robin Saylor

Mar. 22, 2021

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