When I read the news that UCLA coaching legend John Wooden had passed this weekend, a strange sense of melancholy passed over me. There wasn't a reason for it, as far as I could initially tell. John Wooden lived in a time far apart from my own, just thinking about it he started coaching basketball 15 years before my father was born. Wooden lived in a place far from where I lived, played, even watched TV. And he coached a game that I played as a child but never took more seriously than a backyard game of three on three. But his passing affected me none the less.
Wooden was a larger than life kind of figure that seemed to transcend his chosen occupation and the sport he was known for. Reading the responses to his passing only reinforced this presumption. He wasn't just a famous basketball coach, he was a mentor, a father figure, a molder of young men whose impact on sports as a whole continued to be felt long after he officially retired from it. He was one of the rare figures in sports that you not only knew who he was automatically, but you knew what he stood for and the positive things he'd done. By any definition he was a legend.
It wasn't that long ago that the Michigan fan base lost a legend of their own. In 2006 the sudden passing of Bo Schembechler caught us all by surprise. Bo was still, to many of us, relatively young; 22 years Wooden's junior at the time of his passing. Irrespective, his impact on Michigan, and college football is still being felt. Seemingly single-handedly, Bo brought a storied but moribund program back to life through a singular vision and commitment to principals. So did Wooden. After accepting the head coaching position at UCLA, Wooden led the Bruins to a 22-7 record despite UCLA finishing only 12-13 the year before his arrival.
But with both men it wasn't wins that defined them. Looking at both men they were legends not because of their prowess as coaches or players, but because of what they meant to their players. These men were teachers, first and foremost, and they'd be the first to tell you that. Wooden became as well known for his Pyramid of Success as he did for his championships. He was routinely praised by his former players as their hero, or their guiding light. His gift for reaching young men seems to know no age or geographic boundary, as Martell Webb (a current Michigan Tight End) recently tweeted:
I Feel Honored to have an Autographed and framed " Pyramid Of Success" from John Wooden. R.I.P.
He was just that kind of man.
For UCLA fans and for fans of college basketball, Wooden's passing has allowed many outside this realm to remember or be reintroduced to a legendary teacher. It is a bittersweet occasion. While we mourn his passing and regret that there will no longer be this wonderful man to learn from, we now are free to reflect upon all he has taught and how he has reached so many people.
With Bo's passing, everyone, even Buckeye fans, were Wolverines for a moment. Someone who made up a piece of who we are had passed, and even our most bitter rivals respected that loss. For those who only knew Bo from a distance, his passing gave people outside Michigan the chance to see Bo for the great, yet sometimes imperfect man that he was. And it let others understand why we loved him so much.
Now our friends at UCLA have lost the man that helped craft the very definition of what it means to be a Bruin, and there really aren't words to describe that loss. What can you say when a legend, a father, a devoted husband, and a good man all pass at the same time, other than to say it is a loss that will take time to come terms with. A great light has gone out and we are all the lesser because of it.
To the Wooden and UCLA families I offer my deepest sympathies for your loss. I can only say that he was a wonderful teacher, and I think that's how he wanted to be remembered.