Seth Davis: ‘John Wooden Resented By Other Coaches’
When Seth Davis set out to write a book on John Wooden, he was faced with a fairly sizable challenge almost immediately.
No, it wasn’t that Wooden had passed away in 2010, just four months shy of his 100th birthday; it was that so much had already been written about the legendary coach who won 10 national titles at UCLA from 1964 to 1975.
So, at this point, how do you make a book on Wooden unique?
“Well, you have to start off with a different mission than the other books have had,” the CBS and Sports Illustrated college hoops analyst said on The John Feinstein Show. “When people say there have been so many books written about Wooden, it’s very true, but most of those books have been written by Wooden or with Wooden. So I wanted to approach this as a journalist, as a historian, to have some type of dispassion to it and distance from that aspect of it – to really present the man’s life in full.”
Davis said the only other book of this kind was The Wizard of Westwood, which came out in 1974 – one year before Wooden retired.
Needless to say, a great deal happened to Wooden in the ensuing 36 years.
“To be able to go back and evaluate and assess his life as a journalist and a historian, no one had ever done that,” Davis said. “What I can say to people is – as somebody who read everything that you can imagine – I think people will be astounded by just the details and what they, in fact, did not know about him. I honesty think this is 600 pages of, ‘Holy cow, I did not know that.’”
One example? Wooden’s poor reputation among referees.
“At one point, the Southern California basketball writers talked about censuring him due to his behavior toward referees, as well as opposing players,” said Davis, who interviewed roughly 200 for Wooden: A Coach’s Life. “He had a very unflattering habit of talking to opposing players.”
Not unlike Dean Smith, Feinstein pointed out.
“It’s a very similar dynamic because it created a lot of resentment amongst other coaches,” Davis said. “First and foremost, because – like Dean – Wooden’s teams were winning all the time, so that in itself is going to engender a lot of resentment.
“And by the way,” Davis continued, “the fact that Wooden was resented by other coaches is another thing that has been glossed over (through) the years. It also ran counter to the image that was portrayed of John Wooden and that he liked to put out himself. He developed this nickname called “St. John” – and it was not a flattering nickname; it was a sarcastic nickname. A lot of it was writing about that third dimension.”
Wooden’s former players provided great insight in that regard.
“I’m 43. I was 5 years old when Wooden coached his last game. I have no recollection of him as a coach. My only experience with John Wooden was as a sweet old guy reading poetry in his den,” Davis said. “So when I would say that to his former players, they would laugh and say, ‘Well, I didn’t play for that guy.’
“You don’t win 10 national championships in 12 years – I don’t care how good your players are – you don’t win that by being sweet. He was extremely competitive, extremely tough, and by the way, his players didn’t always like him. He was emotionally disconnected from his players because that’s how he was raised. It was only until later in his life that he was able to connect with them on that level.
“That’s why I did the book. I knew there was so much more to this guy that no one has ever really delved into – and I wanted to be the one that did it.”