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Monday, June 14, 2010

Alabama Connection Spotlights the Lighter Side of John Wooden

John Wooden, perhaps the greatest coach in an American sport, was laid to rest Friday in Los Angeles.

Wooden died June 4 at age 99, leaving behind a breathtaking coaching legacy. His UCLA men's basketball teams won 10 national titles, seven of them in a row, and had an 88-game winning streak. None of those records is likely to be approached, must less broken.

Wooden grew up in Indiana and spent most of his professional life in California. But in a roundabout way, he has a strong tie to Alabama. And that helped produce maybe the best story of all that have been reported since the coaching giant's death.

How is Wooden connected to Alabama? Well, the man who took on the unenviable task of succeeding Wooden at UCLA was Gene Bartow. In two seasons as the Bruins' coach, Bartow went 52-9 and made one trip to the NCAA Final Four. But Wooden had set the bar so impossibly high that UCLA fans were unhappy with those results.

So when the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) wanted to start an intercollegiate athletics program and sought Bartow's counsel, the coach was ready to get out of Westwood. He became UAB's athletics director and head men's basketball coach, building a Hall of Fame career of his own.

Bartow has been retired for several years and is battling stomach cancer. But he remains a vibrant figure on the Alabama sports scene. Kevin Scarbinsky, of The Birmingham News, sought him out for his memories of Wooden--and Bartow provided a classic.

Both Wooden and Bartow long have been seen as true gentlemen in a field that has been known to produce some raucous characters. When Bartow arrived at UCLA, it seems the humble Wooden wanted him to take over his office. The equally humble Bartow felt he should take a smaller office and let the legend stay in place.

They compromised, Scarbinsky reports, by sharing the big office for several months until Wooden moved out. But the "Wizard of Westwood" didn't move out without having some fun.

He developed the habit of answering the phone: "Coach Bartow's office. This is John Wooden speaking."

One can only wonder how many callers were left speechless by that introduction.

"I can still hear him saying that," Bartow says.

Wooden left a host of homespun sayings that applied to life on and off the basketball court. They have come to be known as "Woodenisms," and Gene Bartow could tell you that the gentlemanly coach tended to practice what he preached.

Here are a few of our favorites:

"Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out."

"Adversity is the state in which man mostly easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free of admirers then."

"Be quick, but don't hurry."

"A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment."

"If you're not making mistakes, then you're not doing anything. I'm positive that a doer makes mistakes."

"Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be."

"Consider the rights of others before your own feelings and the feelings of others before your own rights."

"It's what you learn after you know it all that counts."

"Talent is God-given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful."

"Success is never final; failure is never fatal. It's courage that counts."

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