Thursday, February 22, 2024

The Front Row with MARK NELKE June 10, 2010

| June 10, 2010 9:00 PM

A better game, but not in all ways

I remember back in the late 1960s, growing up in Salem, Ore. (yes to running water, no to cable TV), holed up in my room on a Friday or Saturday night, listening to Oregon State basketball games on an old AM radio. I would root for the Beaversto beat everybody - except, for some reason, UCLA.

I remember in January 1968, finagling my way into my older brothers' bedroom so I could watch the "Game of the Century" on an old, small, black-and-white TV - and then feeling sad when UCLA lost to Houston before what was then a record crowd of 52,693 in the Astrodome.

I remember being bummed watching on TV as UCLAlost to North Carolina State in the national semifinals in 1974.I couldn't believe it was going toend that way for Bill Walton and his crew - he was supposed to win three national titles in three seasons (remember, freshmen were ineligible to play on the varsity then), just like Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) did from 1967-69.

I remember, now living in Spokane, watching on TV as UCLA eked out a victory over Washington State in Pullman in the 1975 season. I remember UCLA coach John Wooden being interviewed on TV after the game. He looked a bit weary by then, his 27th season in Westwood, and wondered how long he could keep doing this.

It was then that it dawned on me that the end of a great era was nearing.

So when the great coach, John Wooden, died last week at age 99, even though he had been away from the college basketballsideline for more than three decades, it was still a sad day.

Wooden coached UCLA from 1948-75, compiling a record of 620-147. He never had a losing season with the Bruins. His stretch of 10 national championships in 12 seasons (1964 and '65, then seven in a row from 1967-73, and the final one in '75) will never be duplicated.

That was back in the days when they referred to the NCAA tournament as the "UCLA Invitational."

These days, a coach's success is measured by number of trips to the Final Four. During that time, just making the Final Four was not good enough at UCLA.

As the story goes, after Wooden won his final national title in his final game at UCLA in 1975, a booster came up to him, not so much to congratulate himforwinning anational title, but for redeeming himself after, the booster said,Wooden "screwed it up" in 1974.

I think back toa few years ago. I nevermet the man, but Imentioned something about John Wooden in a column. A few weeks later, a kind, anonymous reader must have contacted UCLA, because I received a package in the mail with a couple of things inside.One was an autographed picture of Wooden. The other was his famous "Pyramid of Success." Both were autographed by Wooden, with my name on it. It remains one of my cherished possessions.

Could a coach like that have survived at the Division I level for that long these days, with players eligible to leave after just one season, all sorts of media around the clock to dissect every facet of every move of every game, and many, many very good teams around the country these days, instead of a few "heavyweights" back then? (Back in the day, it was not uncommon for players to say they'd rather sit on the bench at UCLA thenstart anywhere else. Imagine that these days.)

These days, coaches are fired for infrequent trips to the NCAA tournament. Despite all the winning seasons, John Wooden took UCLA to the NCAAs ONLY five times in his first 15 seasons. He did not take the Bruins to the Final Four until 1962, his 14th season. His first national championship came in his 16th season, though he obviously made up for "lost" time after that.

The man Wooden succeeded at UCLA, Wilbur Johns, lasted nine seasons despite an overall record of 93-120 and no postseason appearances. Then it took Wooden 14 seasons to get to a Final Four, and 16 to win a national title. I can't imagine an athletic director, under pressure from fans, media and boosters, having that kind of patience these days -- no matter how many "life lessons" the coach taught his players, and no matter how many players continued to show their love for their coach, more than three decades later.

It's a much different game these days. In some ways, it's a better game. But in some ways, with John Wooden no longer a part of it, it's not.

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via e-mail at