Sports legend links success with character for high school students, business leaders

John Wooden can define success any way he wants to:

  • 10 national basketball championships
  • winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom
  • author and speaker
  • husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather

The definition Wooden brought to two events hosted by Fresno Pacific University was more personal and completely intertwined with character. "Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming," he said. "Reputation is what people think you are. You're character is what you really are, and you're the only one who knows that."

Wooden, former UCLA basketball coach, spoke Tuesday and Wednesday, October 7-8, on campus and at the Fresno Convention Center. On Tuesday Wooden appeared at of the Character in High School Activities Conference, hosted by FPU's Bartsch Institute of Character and Civic Education, with the assistance of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. On Wednesday he addressed the FPU Business Forum Breakfast.

Over 1,000 people attended each sold-out event. The character conference attracted athletes, coaches and cheer squads from more than 40 high schools to the university Special Events Center. The business forum drew community leaders from many fields. Interest in Wooden caused the forum to be moved off campus for the first time in its five-year history.

In both presentations, Wooden spoke for more than 30 minutes without notes, answered questions from the audience and signed books and autographs. He also participated in a 90-minute meeting with local reporters and FPU coaches. His only concession to his 92 years was to keep a cane by his side and to sit when he spoke.

Wooden often quoted poetry from memory to make a point. His speech was soft but his wit was sharp. What he would do if a player did a slam dunk? "I'd have him out of there before he hit the floor," he said.

His spirit remains generous and his outlook optimistic. Asked more than once if young people have changed, Wooden always gave the same answer: "No, they'll never be different. They're good. They're born good."

A couple of young ladies summed it up. "You just want to give him a hug."

The prepared remarks were based on Wooden's Pyramid of Success, which he began as a high school English teacher in his native Indiana. The blocks of his pyramid are more about personal character than professional expertise. Talent and luck don't even appear. The foundation is industriousness, friendship, loyalty, cooperation and enthusiasm. They support self-control, alertness, initiative, intentness, condition, skill, team spirit, poise, confidence and competitive greatness.

Competition is important, and great competitors enjoy the game more when the score is close, but the point is not to outshine others. Instead, as Wooden quoted his father, "never cease to be the best you can be." 

As a player and coach, Wooden is among the most honored athletic figures in American history. In a 40-year coaching career ending in 1975, Wooden's teams won more than 80 percent of the time. In addition to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Wooden also received the Reagan Distinguished American Award and is the first sports figure to win the Bellarmine Medal of Excellence. A college All-American and player of the year, he is the only person inducted into the national basketball hall of fame in more than one category (player and coach). He was college basketball coach of the year seven times. The Sporting News and Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Year and ESPN called him the greatest coach of the 20thcentury

His records include consecutive college coaching victories (88), NCAA championships (10), consecutive NCAA championships (7), consecutive NCAA tournament victories (38), undefeated PAC 8 seasons (8) and full undefeated seasons (4).

As a teacher and motivator, he applies the lessons learned in basketball to life. He still speaks regularly and wrote or co-wrote five books. His latest volume is Coach Wooden One-on-One: Inspiring Conversations on Purpose, Passion and the Pursuit of Success, a volume of devotions he wrote with former L.A. Laker and longtime friend Jay Carty. Among the 60 readings are Wooden's thoughts on questioning God, finishing well, focusing on things that last and making the right mistakes.

When praised, Wooden takes it in stride: "Nice to hear; I just try to be myself."