Joel Burke: A Salute to John Wooden


By Joel Burke

“Failure to prepare is preparing for Failure.”

John Wooden

I tossed and turned all night. It was a wrestling match with the pillow and the pillow won.  I was so anxious about the person I was going to meet the next morning that I felt like a kid again on Christmas Eve.  After a few hours of restless sleep, I rolled out of bed (no need for a clock radio today) for “breakfast with the Coach”!   He just isn’t just any coach, but truly the greatest basketball coaches of all time… John Wooden!  I have always admired Coach Wooden for not just being a winner, but how he won with integrity.

Just in case you’re not completely aware of his amazing success as a basketball coach, here are some highlights.

UCLA record: 620-147

Led Bruins to four 30-0 seasons (1963-64, 1966-67, 1971-72, 1972-73)

Led Bruins to 88 consecutive victories

Led Bruins to 38 straight NCAA tournament victories

Led Bruins to 149-2 record at Pauley Pavilion

Led Bruins to 19 PAC 10 championships

Led Bruins to 10 national championships, including seven in a row (1966-73)

During 40 years of coaching, compiled an 885-203 (.813) record.

What actually is more impressive and more important is the huge impact Coach Wooden has made in the lives of countless people both on and off the basketball court. Coach Wooden, who is now 93 years old, has spent his entire life challenging people to become the best they can be.

I met coach Wooden and four of his friends at a very modest restaurant in a Los Angeles suburb. From the moment “Coach” sat down at the table, everything I had read and heard about him came to life!

Some of my favorite quotes from “Coach” are….

“Why do so many people dread adversity, when it’s through adversity that we grow stronger.”

“Failure to prepare is preparing for Failure.”

“The Team that makes the most mistakes wins.”

“Be Quick- But Don’t Hurry.”

By the way, I suggest you pick up a copy of  “Be Quick- But Don’t Hurry” by Coach Wooden and Andy Hill. It’s a great resource to keep on your desk for inspiration and perspective.

For the next two hours, I soaked up as much of his wisdom as I could. I asked him about how he challenged players who were very talented, but lacked the work ethic to be the best they could be.

Coach Wooden in a quiet, soft-spoken voice simply said, “You sometimes have to pat them on the back a little lower!” (Meaning- you have to kick them in the rear end!)

We chatted about how his teams were able to win so many close games through the years.  Coach said that it first started with respecting their opponent, but not playing in fear. Second, preparation on the fundamentals and third; not creating an atmosphere of fear that each game was life or death.

Coach Wooden’s teams didn’t lose very often, but when they did, it wasn’t the end of the world. There will be another game, another day to work on being the best you can be. In fact, Coach Wooden’s definition of success is a far cry from what most of us typically consider success. Coach says,  “Success is peace of mind which is the direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”

That’s a very powerful message considering we can easily create a false sense of our success or failure.

Besides his wealth of wisdom, I was struck by Coach Wooden’s humility. If any man has the right to be boastful about his accomplishments it could be Coach Wooden.  However, he seemed uncomfortable talking about himself. He actually was more curious about me and what was happening in my life.

Also, Coach Wooden isn’t looking back, but rather looking to the future.  He has just finished co-writing three books, one of which is a Children’s book about the true meaning of success.

As we were leaving, Coach Wooden touched me on the shoulder and said, “Joel, wanna come over to the house?”  I gritted my teeth and told him I couldn’t.  What an invitation and a memorable way to conclude our time together.

As I drove away on that June gloom morning in LA, so many thoughts were running through my head. So many other questions I wish I had asked! Well, one year later Coach gave me another two hours of his time. It was even more meaningful to me. After two visits with Coach Wooden, I now don’t admire “Coach” for how he won.  Rather, I actually admire him more for his humility.

Coach John Wooden…a true Gentle-Man!

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