Modeling Is Better Than Words

for the week of October 16, 2000
by Rubel Shelly

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden celebrated his 90th birthday last Saturday. In case you've forgotten or are too young to have known Wooden is the greatest college basketball coach who ever lived. In support of that claim, I would point out that he was national Coach of the Year six times and was named "Greatest Coach of the 20th Century" by ESPN last year.

In an age of bombastic coaches who prowl the sidelines with scowls and profanity, Coach Wooden was a restrained gentleman. Although he might mutter "Goodness gracious!" under his breath at a bad call, that's about as much of a display of annoyance as he was ever seen or heard to exhibit.

To say the least, Wooden was the antithesis of such coaches as Bobby Knight. He seldom left his seat on the Bruins bench during a UCLA game in Pauley Pavilion or elsewhere. "My feeling was that I tried to teach players that if they lose their temper or get out of control, they will get beat," he says. "Modeling was better than words. I liked the rule that we used to have that a coach couldn't leave the bench. I'm sorry they did away with that."

Wooden set records that may never be broken in college basketball. From 1948 to 1975, he had a win-loss record of 885-203 a phenomenal career winning percentage of .813. He had an 88-game winning streak at UCLA. Players such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, and Walt Hazzard played under him.

But it is Coach Wooden's belief in modeling over words that would have made him outstanding in any number of fields. Pressed in an interview to be critical of Knight, he would only say, "I think Bob Knight is an outstanding teacher of the game of basketball, but I don't approve of his methods. But I'm not a judge, and I'm not judging Bob Knight. There is so much bad in the best of us and so much good in the worst of us, it hardly behooves me to talk about the rest of us."

Wooden believed that coaches should attempt to mold players' lives for the future rather than simply use their talents for a few seasons of basketball. And when you're really trying to do that, an example is worth a dozen lectures.

Among your co-workers, with your children, or as a member of your church, remember Coach Wooden's philosophy. Less ranting and more patient instruction, less judgment and more kindness, less talking and more modeling what worked for a basketball coach will work for the rest of us because it's right.

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