Wooden: Faith and fidelity (updated)

Many people simple called him the “reverend,” which was nice since he hated his famous nickname — the Wizard of Westwood.

He was constantly reading his Bible, as well as stacks of other books, which was perfectly natural for a former English teacher who hardly ever missed church. However, try to find a picture of this man reading his Bible.

He studied Abraham Lincoln and the person he admired the most — among those who lived during his 99 years of life — was Mother Teresa.

However, a strange thing happens if you open up the main Los Angeles Times story about the life and death of the legendary UCLA coach John Wooden and run some basic searches.

Let’s try “Christian.” Phrase not found. OK, how about “Disciple”? Phrase not found. I tried those two right off, since Wooden was a lifelong member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It isn’t very hard to learn that fact, since his church was a huge part of his life. This is even mentioned in the official mini-biography of the coach posted at the website for UCLA athletics.

At the same time, a search for “Christian” in this obituary of record would have also turned up references to his decades of service to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (watch for tributes here).

How about “religion” or “religious”? Phrase not found.

OK, too specific. Let’s go very vague, with “faith” or “spiritual.” Phrase not found. Phrase not found.

However, I do have some good news for anyone interested in the faith-based foundation of Wooden’s life, marriage, teaching and coaching. I am happy to report that The Los Angeles Times also ran a column about the coach by T.J. Simers, under the fitting headline, “John Wooden’s life was a love letter.” Here is the opening:

To say it is a sad day would be to risk meeting him again, and getting that look from John Wooden.

To say it is a time to be happy might not sound right, but you could hear the anticipation in his voice about this very day whenever he spoke about the chance to reunite with Nellie Riley, the love of his life. He meant so much to so many, but it was the only girl he ever dated and then married who meant the most to him — a love letter written from husband to wife on the 21st of every month to mark her death.

On the table in his condo is a stack of inspirational sayings, which are designed to reveal a new passage every day. But it has been 25 years since anyone turned the page, Nellie the last to do so before going to the hospital and never returning.

“It says, ‘Oh Lord, make me beautiful within,”’ Wooden said in recounting the inspirational reading that still sits there today. “She was beautiful within.”

The Simers column is the must read of the day, along with a Los Angeles Times tribute written in 1972 by the great Jim Murray. The latter is part of a great package on Wooden at ESPN.com, which includes many indirect references to his faith and a tribute to John and Nellie that, honestly, requires a box of tissues (when viewed by anyone with a heart).

That stunning Rick Reilly video feature ends with Wooden quoting a poem written by one of his former players. It’s about death, eternal life and, of course, Nellie. The same poem appears in the Simers column, like this:

Wooden lived what he preached, as sound a road map as anyone might want to follow, and while obviously in no hurry to die, he did so at peace with the prospect of even happier days ahead with the woman he loved. A few years back, moved by such devotion, one of his former players, Swen Nater, put it in a poem, “Yonder,” which Wooden recited from memory near the end of Scully & Wooden.

Once I was afraid of dying.
Terrified of ever-lying.
Petrified of leaving family, home and friends.
Thoughts of absence from my dear ones,
Drew a melancholy tear once.
And a lonely, dreadful fear of when life ends.
But those days are long behind me;
Fear of leaving does not bind me.
And departure does not host a single care.
Peace does comfort as I ponder,
A reunion in the Yonder,
With my dearest who is waiting for me there.

On the other coast, the obituary in the New York Times mentions that Wooden was a “religious man whose strongest exclamation was ‘Goodness gracious sakes alive!’, a fact that the story links to the fact that some other coaches did not consider him a saint. Wooden would have certainly agreed with that statement.

However, at the end of the story, this report by Frank Litsky and John Branch did find a way to address — in secular terms that would not offend the newspaper’s audience — the kind of moral influence that Wooden had on his players. Thus, we read:

For most of his retirement, large crowds flocked to his speeches, usually revolving around his “Pyramid of Success,” 15 conceptual building blocks of traits like industriousness, alertness and poise, held together by faith and patience. In recent years Wooden simply sat in a chair and spoke for up to an hour without notes, hoping to impart his wisdom to newer generations. His former players said they did not appreciate Wooden’s life lessons when they were young, but the precepts stuck with them.

“At the time it was like, ‘Pyramid, shmyramid,’ ” Marques Johnson said. ” ‘Where’s the party at? Where are the girls at?’ I didn’t want to hear anything about principles and living a life of integrity at that time. But as you get older, and you have kids, and you try to pass on life lessons, now it becomes a great learning tool.” …

[Kareem] Abdul-Jabbar recalled that there “was no ranting and raving, no histrionics or theatrics.” He continued: “To lead the way Coach Wooden led takes a tremendous amount of faith. He was almost mystical in his approach, yet that approach only strengthened our confidence. Coach Wooden enjoyed winning, but he did not put winning above everything. He was more concerned that we became successful as human beings, that we earned our degrees, that we learned to make the right choices as adults and as parents.

“In essence,” Abdul-Jabbar concluded, “he was preparing us for life.”

Watch for more tributes in the days ahead, because you know that they are coming. For example, here’s an inspirational, but faith-free, second-wave piece from Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post and ESPN.

It may take time for some insiders to pull their thoughts together. Some of the players — Bill Walton leaps to mind — may simply be too stricken to go on camera and offer comments at this point.

It will be interesting to look for faith-based material in the mainstream press coverage of Wooden’s funeral and any memorial service that is held on UCLA, perhaps even on the “Nell and John Wooden Court” in Pauley Pavilion. John Wooden agreed to allow the court to be named in his honor — once the school agreed to add his wife’s name and to put her first.

Please help me watch the ongoing coverage. Meanwhile, I will start searching in my files for my notes from an interview with Wooden in the mid-1980s. He was, of course, in Denver for a meeting of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (and to watch some basketball).

UPDATE: The ESPN.com package just keeps expanding. A classic Rick Reilly magazine column on the elderly Wooden, with more on Nell, is right here. Check it out. New Reilly video here, with the veteran journalist fighting back tears.

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Chip

    I never knew much of John Wooden until his passing, I did know he was great. The news left me curious as to what “religous” meant. I’m so glad you posted this page for fellow Christians to celebrate his life. I’ll eagerly await more news on how he lived out his faith and balanced such a tremendous amount of success.

    Thank you.

  • Dan

    The failure to report on John Wooden’s faith is particularly egregious given how important his faith appears to have been to him. Like Chip, I did not know a whole lot about John Wooden but I had heard about the “pyramid of success” and his motivational speaking. I wondered, and still have questions, about how the latter things relate to his understanding of Christian teaching. The LAT and NYT reporting, at least thus far, do not fill in that gap, needless to say. But the jury is still out somewhat on the LAT. It is going to have a special section on him on Sunday,

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    It was much worse for the LAT in print, where more than 20 percent of subscribers didn’t get the Wooden obit on the frontpage — or on ANY page. What they got was a refer on the front of the sports section to the A section, where the mystery obit was missing.

    This was due to the paper’s unusually early deadline for its front section. (Remember: Wooden’s death was announced around 7 pm in Los Angeles, and the LAT is in Los Angeles). Here’s what LAObserved reports happened when the paper stopped the presses and tore up the A section:

    Who did and did not get the paper was, as usual, erratic. I heard from a San Diego reader whose paper arrived late but with the coverage, and Los Angeles readers who are royally ticked that they didn’t. Sample: “I call 800-LA-Times and get someone in a far away land who doesn’t know who John Wooden is or what I could possibly be talking about.”

  • Bernie and Jo-An Gottlieb

    Thank – you for posting this most complete and interesting story on John Wooden. We were wishing that he could have made his 100th birthday but when it’s time to go back HOME we just “drop our old tired body ” and the every young spirit is ready to make the journey to be with his beloved,his families, friends who have gone before him and enjoy his much deserved return to the Heavenly Relms to get his big hug from Heavenly Father/Mother/Son and Angels. God bless John Wooden for all he has done for so many. An Icon of a man.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    “Wooden was a lifelong member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).”

    If I’m not mistaken, the Disciples of Christ denomination is one of the liberal mainline churches. The liberal media could have reported it, and it would help out the LibProts whose mainline denominations have been shrinking over the past few decades. LibProts stand with the liberal media on so many issues and the liberal media could have returned the favor.

    Out of curiosity, was Wooden part of a conservative remnant within the liberal Disciples of Christ, or was he a liberal Protestant too?

  • William Blakey

    Coach Wooden said that he did accepted Christ. He said he did not do it immediately upon joining the church but gave his life to Jesus over time.

  • karen

    John Wooden attended the same church as me when I was a teenager in the ’70′s. Everyone loved him. He was a wonderful man and as busy as he was, he was active in the life of the church.

  • Cathy

    This is and isn’t about journalism: I didn’t know Wooden, but I saw him a lot as an undergrad at UCLA. He exuded confidence and dignity and respect for others. Even in an era when people our age were trashing things and convinced that all grown ups had ruined the world – it was Vietnam and Watergate – he was obviously a grown up we revered. I look back and I see how his faith formed him. I had an inkling at the time, but with years, one can see what it meant to him and how he lived it. However, with or without references to it in the coverage, I don’t see how the written word can convey that. You had to see it to believe it.

  • http://www.biblebeltblogger.com Frank Lockwood

    In the summer of 2008, I started working on an article about famous people and their favorite hymns. I contacted UCLA and asked if I could find out Coach Wooden’s top pick. In a matter of days, I received a gracious response, which I’ve posted this weekend.

    Until I read this post, I wasn’t aware that Coach Wooden had belonged to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The Christian Church, today, is a tiny, tiny, tiny denomination, but when Coach Wooden was born (in 1910) and when fellow Disciple Ronald Reagan was born (1911), it was one of the largest Protestant bodies in the United States. It was especially strong in the Midwest and it had large numbers of evangelicals. But in the wake of several splits (the a cappella Churches of Christ exodus early in the twentieth century) and the departure of the independent Christian Churches (in the 1930s, 1960s and beyond, I believe), those who remained with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) came to be categorized as Mainline. And the Disciples of 2010 is a fraction of the size of the Disciples of 1910. Now, Bobby Ross Jr. knows these details better than almost anybody, so if I’ve scrambled any of the details, I hope he’ll bail me out.

  • Pastor Dudley Rutherford

    In 1994 Coach Wooden was a member of the First Christian Church in Santa Monica, CA and after the Northridge Earthquake, I believe that church was red-tagged and he then began to attend the Church that I pastor (Shepherd of the Hills Church in Porter Ranch, CA). He and I shared many conversations concerning his faith and belief in the Lord.

    Even in his final weeks of his life we spent time reading the scriptures, praying and talking about heaven. Be rest assured that this was a great man of faith and his family has made it clear that HIS faith in the Lord will be a part of his public service.

    Please continue to be in prayer for his family during this difficult time and know that his faith will never be forgotten.

  • Ray Caldwell

    Just watched a fascinating video on Foxsports.com’s College Basketball channel where Coach was asked what he attributed his longevity to, and he eloquently answered, “peace within yourself, not being afraid of death.’ Then, when asked what would he like to hear God say when he enters heaven, Coach answered, “Well Done!” I think he earned that much for sure!
    We’ll miss you Coach,

  • john collins

    Have been looking on the internet to know more about Wooden’s faith and your post tells me what I wanted to know…..Thanks.

  • http://darleeneisms.la darleene

    I began researching Coach Wooden when my station reported that he was in grave condition for a slideshow. I didn’t know much about him prior. What I came away with was….I want my life to be as faithful as his was! And I also recognized that my husband had the same kind of faith, steadiness and peace that Coach Wooden had. It helped me forgive him after one particularly trying night over the weekend. :)

    Thanks for the great post!