John Wooden: A Lifetime Masterpiece

In early 2003, leadership author John C. Maxwell fulfilled what he described as a lifelong dream: he spent a few hours in Los Angeles with the man he considered his mentor, legendary basketball coach John Wooden.

Maxwell relates that during their time together, he asked to see a card that Wooden reportedly always carried with him because it guided his life. Wooden produced the card. On it was a list that his father had given him when he finished elementary school. Titled “Seven Things to Do,” the list included this piece of advice: “Make each day your masterpiece.”

Words to Live By

On the occasion of his graduation from elementary school, young John Wooden received a piece of paper from his father, Joshua. On one side his father had copied a short verse, later summed up by his son in these few words: “Think clearly, have love in your heart, be honest, and trust in God.” On the other side he had handwritten a list of “Seven Things to Do.” As he handed the paper to the boy, he said only, “Son, try and live up to these things.” The paper remained in the young man’s possession until it was tattered, at which point he transferred its contents to a card. 

In a 2005 interview, the coach shared how much the words had framed his daily life. He said, “I tried to live by this and I tried to teach by it. I haven’t always been perfect, but I’ve tried.” 

Here are Joshua Wooden’s seven principles for daily living: 

  • Be true to yourself. 
  • Help others. 
  • Make each day your masterpiece. 
  • Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible. 
  • Make friendship a fine art. 
  • Build a shelter against a rainy day. 
  • Pray for guidance, and count and give thanks for your blessings every day. 

A masterpiece is something that’s done with extraordinary skill, and a review of John Robert Wooden’s life journey suggests that this maxim was indeed a daily focus.

Born in the small town of Hall, Indiana, on October 14, 1910, Wooden was fascinated with basketball from a young age. He was a superb player with the skills to lead his high school team to three consecutive appearances in the state championship finals, and his college team, the Boilermakers of Purdue University, to a 1932 national championship. His ability to bounce right back up from dives on the court earned him the nickname “the Indiana Rubber Man.” According to his official website, Wooden was “one of only two men enshrined in the Hall of Fame as both a player and as a coach.” An equally remarkable achievement was his Big Ten Award for Proficiency in Scholarship and Athletics.

After graduation from Purdue, Wooden played professional basketball and also coached and taught at a number of schools in the American Midwest. He had met his wife, Nellie, at a local carnival in 1926. They began their married life in a small ceremony in 1932 and were together until Nellie’s death in March 1985, following a long illness.

The Wooden family would grow and endure a succession of coaching positions at several colleges and universities. However, it was his tenure at the University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA), as head coach of the Bruins from 1948 until his retirement in 1975, that secured his status as one of the greatest coaches of the game.

Broadcaster Al Michaels recalled that Wooden didn’t want to hear others refer to him that way. Michaels recalls replying, “You have only yourself to blame. You shouldn’t have gone out and won those 10 national championships in 12 seasons.”

Under the guiding hand of Coach Wooden, the Bruins became an almost unbeatable force in college basketball. What separated him from most other coaches was not just his emphasis on top physical conditioning; he also demanded high character and values on and off the court. This relentless and persistent focus led to an extraordinary record that remains unmatched. Marques Johnson, a key player during the last years of Wooden’s tenure, remembers being awed by the record and the legacy in the making: “I couldn’t really sit down and have a conversation with him about real things just because I had so much reverence for him—for who he was and what he had accomplished.” Not that Wooden wanted to be treated that way; it was simply the feeling he engendered.

And he didn’t just talk. He poured himself into each player for the enrichment and betterment of the team as a whole. After the news of Wooden’s death on June 4, 2010, star player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar commented, “He was more like a parent than a coach. He really was a very selfless and giving human being, but he was a disciplinarian. We learned all about those aspects of life that most kids want to skip over. He wouldn’t let us do that.” Billy Donovan, head coach of the University of Florida basketball team, noted, “John Wooden was a great coach and a great man. He was a man of humility who embodied the best in character and values, and exemplified what coaching is all about.”

Talent is God-given: be humble. Fame is man-given: be thankful. Conceit is self-given: be careful.”

When the coach retired from professional basketball at the end of the 1975 season, he used his fame and prestige as a platform to help develop leadership skills in others. Employing a program he called “The Pyramid of Success,” Wooden expanded his influence beyond the basketball court. He had developed the pyramid over a period of years from an idea he had during his early career as teacher and coach. Finally completing it in 1948, not long before he left Indiana State for UCLA, his purpose was to encourage students to aim for high marks in their work. The pyramid comprised 15 building blocks named for various traits such as industriousness, loyalty, enthusiasm, skill and self-control. Its purpose was to help others envision what he felt were the elements of true success. “Success is peace of mind,” he famously said, “a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” (See “Helping Children Develop a Positive Sense of Self.”)

John Wooden was 99 when he died. He impressed his former players, admirers, and those who felt mentored by him with his humble enthusiasm and zeal for life. What was more impressive, however, was his unnatural ability to look beyond a game or a term paper toward the development of personal character and integrity.

Steve Jamison worked closely with the coach on books and other writing projects. On their last visit together, he felt that the elderly man was winding down as he reviewed the final drafts for The Wisdom of Wooden: A Century of Family, Faith, and Friends. Jamison recounts how Wooden carefully inspected the text and photos that would be included in his last and most personal work. “He was going back home to the unbelievable journey he made for himself—a journey which included a consensus by many that John Wooden is the greatest coach America has ever produced. And, an even greater man.”

In effect, John Wooden was looking over his life to examine whether he was living up to the standard passed on to him by his father years before. “Make each day your masterpiece.” In many ways, the famed “Wizard of Westwood” led his life in the only way he knew how: as a work done with extraordinary skill.