If you follow men’s college basketball you know we are a mere two weeks from the start of March Madness, when the best college teams play to win the top NCAA honor. Since 1939 when this famous tournament began, North Carolina has won the top title six times, and Kentucky has won eight times, however, the university which has won this honor the most times is UCLA. The Bruins have wound up on top an amazing 11 times.
What makes this number particularly astonishing is that 10 of those wins came under one coach, the legendary John Wooden. To put this in perspective, the second most winning college basketball coach has won exactly half that number.
During one streak, UCLA won 88 games in a row. From 1967-1973, UCLA won 205 games and lost only five. They won the NCAA championship seven years in a row, a feat no other college basketball team in history has ever come close to achieving.
What makes Wooden most impressive is that he taught his players more than basketball, he taught them how to live well. Throughout his life players repeatedly called to thank him for his impact and ask for his advice. Arguably, Wooden’s most famous player is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who in 2017 released his New York Times bestseller, “Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court.” An incredible tribute to the man he credits with having a profound influence both on his basketball career, and more importantly on his life.
How did John Wooden make such an enormous difference in his player’s lives? What was the source of his incredible impact? When author James Bryan Smith interviewed him in 2006, shortly before the great coach’s death, Smith asked him the secret of his life, Wooden told him, “I made up my mind in 1935 to live by a set of principles, and I never wavered from them. They are based on the Bible and the teachings of Jesus. Principles like courage and honesty and hard work, character and loyalty, and virtue and honor – these are what constitute a good life.”
Could it be that the primary reason Wooden was so successful both on and off the basketball court was that he chose to live his life with a higher calling? Yes! Consider the challenge Jesus gave near the beginning of The Sermon on the Mount, when he said, “…let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.” (Matthew 5:16, NLT)
Doing the right thing not only makes our lives better, but it also helps others discover the difference God can make in theirs. Very few will ever be a coaching legend, but each of us can help others by consistently following Jesus like Wooden did. We may never know the impact that kind of life will have on others, but the chances are it will be more profound than we imagine.