Wooden’s Faith, Principles Helped Guide Osborne as a Coach, Man
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The day before he spoke to a worldwide television audience last winter about his book, Beyond the Final Score, Tom Osborne and his wife, Nancy, visited an old friend whose books, philosophy and personal advice have guided the Nebraska football coach and athletic director for decades.
"I've read a lot about John Wooden and used ideas from him that have really been helpful," Osborne said Saturday after Wooden, perhaps the greatest teacher/coach/mentor the sports world has ever seen, died Friday night at age 99 in Westwood, Calif.
A self-proclaimed country boy who spent the last 61 years of his life next door to Hollywood, Wooden hosted his Nebraska friends for three hours that Saturday last January, and before they went to lunch, they sat down in Wooden's home to talk about what success really meant.
Osborne, who would speak the next morning on the internationally televised Hour of Power program in Garden Grove, Calif., said he and Wooden reached the same conclusion that day, and it was no surprise to either.
Success, the two legends decided, is really about preparing the best you can and giving the best effort you can with the resources you were given.
A quarter century apart in age, Wooden and Osborne believe that whatever success they enjoyed as coaches could be described in that one, simple statement.
Osborne: Wooden Was Very Open About His Faith
"John was a person of principle and certainly a person of very strong faith," Osborne said. "If you read his books, you realize he's very open about his faith. That was a huge part of his life."
Wooden was "a bright and articulate man whose mind was sharp right up to the very end," Osborne added. "I saw him as a fairly gentle person, even though he was a strict disciplinarian and ran a tight ship."
Osborne believes Wooden's ability to listen was one of his greatest strengths.
"John was always willing to listen to his players. He was not a 'My way or the highway' type of coach,'" Osborne said. "Probably more than any coach I know, he thought through the reasons behind what he did. He was very grounded in everything. He was all about the process - how you did things and why you did things."
If "the process" strikes a chord about how Osborne once coached and how Bo Pelini coaches now, it is no coincidence.
And certainly not one lost on Wooden, a man I interviewed over the phone last February after Osborne's visit.
Wooden: Osborne Had the Ability to Listen and Care
"Tom's record at Nebraska over 25 years was remarkable for many reasons, but I think the biggest might have been his ability to listen to others and learn from others," Wooden said. "In today's world, listening is almost a forgotten art, but it's always been important and always will be.
"I don't know what he did, but I've talked to a lot of players who played for Coach Osborne over the years, and they all talk about how much they cared for him and how much they learned from him," Wooden said. "You can't do that unless you care for them as much as they care for you."
Wooden was never surprised in his talks with former Huskers. "I have a signed book from Coach Osborne," he said. "I know what he stands for, what he believes in and how he relates to people."
Osborne built a considerable part of his foundation on Wooden's famed Pyramids of Success.
"People in all kinds of professions have looked at that and used its principles and beliefs," Osborne said.
Whatever Osborne used must have impressed Wooden. In the Fellowship of Christian Athletes-published book The Greatest Coach Ever - The Timeless Wisdom and Insights of John Wooden - two other coaches are referenced on the cover, Tony Dungy and Osborne.
The ironic intersection of Wooden and Osborne is this. The man who is clearly college basketball's greatest winner ever and another man who is certainly one of college football's biggest all-time winners rarely, if ever, talked about the importance of winning. "John never talked about winning," Osborne said, "but he did tell you how to put your socks on, how to play defense and how to bend your knees when you shot free throws."
Preparing the Best and Giving the Best You Have
The Wooden/Osborne shared definition of success has already been stated - preparing the best you can and giving the best effort you can with the resources you have.
That's it, ladies and gentlemen, daughters and sons, kids and grandkids. Both Wooden and Osborne focused their careers on what they could control and didn't worry about what they couldn't control. Both believed in the journey more than they enjoyed the end result. Both were more motivated by day-to-day practices than actual games, including national championships.
"Since retiring, the only thing I ever missed was the practices - not the games and not the tournaments," Wooden told me (even though his teams once won an NCAA record 88 straight games and 38 straight NCAA Tournament games). "I missed the daily interaction with the kids. Practice was where you established the real rapport and where you gained your real strength."
The old boot camp mentality of practice is still prevalent in a lot of places, but not where Wooden or Osborne coached. They believed in catching someone doing something right and encouraging them rather than seeing someone doing something wrong and criticizing them.
Wooden and Osborne not only would not criticize players, they would not allow their players to criticize other players, including their opponents.
Yes, these two coaches had a knack for being able to change behavior because they were always reinforcing behavior.
Both Were Teachers First, Then Coaches, Mentors
No wonder Wooden and Osborne both enjoyed teaching as much as coaching because reinforcing behavior is the essence of both. It's also no surprise that mentoring was a third leg in their respective tripods because both loved to share what they'd learned themselves.
Osborne said Saturday that despite Wooden living near all the power and money and the home of television and movies, life to him was about values, commitment and process.
ESPN's Rick Reilly said Wooden never made more than $35,000 a year, and that includes national championship No. 10 in 1975. Wooden also never asked for a raise. Osborne was known for sharing whatever extra money he made with his coaching staff and insisted on slashing his salary almost in half before taking the job as athletic director.
Saturday, in a segment on ESPN, Reilly had to wipe away tears after watching one of his own segments on Wooden during an interview. Wooden "was such a good and decent man and stood out brazenly in Hollywood of all places," he said, admitting that he was fascinated that "such a wonderful man, who was as square as a pan of fudge," would live there.
Nebraska has its own "square" in Osborne, who no doubt had Pyramid principles in mind when he involved the entire Nebraska Athletic Department to create a new mission to serve its student-athletes, coaches, staff and fans by displaying integrity in every decision and action; building and maintaining trust with others; giving respect to each person encountered; pursuing unity of purpose through teamwork; and maintaining loyalty to student-athletes, co-workers, fans and the University of Nebraska.
There is one more critical element that helps explain how Wooden and Osborne took their respective sports to unprecedented heights.
Both Hall-of-Fame coaches believe strongly in a spiritual dimension and encourage respect for diversity equally strongly. They believe that athletes do not just play with their physical beings or their mental powers, and they see spiritual endeavor as a way to get you past your own desires, so you sacrifice for the common good. They also believe in loving those around you and even in loving your opponents.
You know what Osborne-coached teams were known for. Play hard. Knock people down. Help them back up. Pat them on the back. Then hit them again because that's the way the game is played.
Wooden was the one who said you should be more concerned with your character than your reputation because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.
A Time-Honored Seven-Point Creed to Live By
In our 20-minute conversation last February, I was struck by Wooden insisting that you can't live a perfect day without doing something for someone else. Talk about timeless wisdom. He said he still used the "Seven-Point Creed" that was given to him by his father, Joshua, when Coach Wooden graduated from grammar school in Indiana.
The creed encourages you to be true to yourself; make each day your masterpiece; help others; drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible; make friendship a fine art; build a shelter against a rainy day; and pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day.
I asked Wooden what he considered the most important parts of his Pyramid. "The cornerstones," he said, assuming I had one in front of me and knew that industriousness and enthusiasm anchored the bottom of a pyramid topped by competitive greatness.
Wooden spent a couple minutes explaining why faith and patience are significant traits among the 15 blocks, even though they are not blocks themselves. "I've often said the two most important words in our dictionary are love and balance, and I don't have either one of them in my Pyramid either," Wooden told me. "Keeping things in balance is extremely important, but love is the most important word of all."
I asked Wooden to give me an example of why he felt that way.
"Do you mind if I use a short poem as my answer?" asked a 99-year-old gentleman.
"I would be honored," I said, making sure my tape recorder was still running.
Wooden cleared his throat and proceeded to say:
A bell isn't a bell until you ring it.
A song isn't a song until you sing it.
And the love that's within us wasn't put there to stay.
Love isn't love until you give it away.
John Wooden was born 19 years after Dr. James Naismith put up his first peach basket and invented the game of basketball. He died four months short of his 100th birthday.
He was loved by everyone close to him and is respected by others who now understand how he made every day his masterpiece and, in the process, managed to write his own love story.
I don't know about you, but I can't wait to see the movie.
Editor's note: Hit the arrow in the photo above to see Osborne's 7-minute internationally televised Hour of Power interview with Sheila Schuller Coleman the day after he met with John Wooden.
Voices from Husker Nation
I thoroughly enjoyed your article on the parallels of John Wooden and Tom Osborne. I grew up in Nebraska and was very fortunate to have been a student-athlete and coach at Nebraska. My freshman year, my coach gave me Wooden's Pyramid of Success, and I hung it on my dorm wall. I have carried Coach Wooden's Pyramid throughout my coaching and business careers as my foundation for success. I was so fortunate to play at Nebraska during the Coach Osborne era. Even though I was on the softball team (1989-90-91-92), his dedication to excellence resonated throughout the entire athletic department. I now live in California, and I am still involved in sports. I have close friends at UCLA who introduced me to Coach Wooden about four years ago. We spent the afternoon at his home and were able to learn more about where he drew his inspiration. Coach studied the Bible, the acts of Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi. When we were getting ready to leave, I asked if he would sign my well-traveled Pyramid. He not only obliged, but also gave me a brand new signed copy. I had both framed, and they are now hanging in my office for my employees to refer to. I am honored to have had access to both Hall-of-Fame coaching greats, and they have inspired me to always do my best! Misti Guenther, Redondo Beach, California
Thanks for the piece on John Wooden and Tom Osborne - a story that inspires me to describe my own "Meeting with the Doctor." As an avid Husker fan, I can hardly imagine a personal encounter with Coach Osborne where I didn't rattle off a series of "What was this game like?" or "Just how fast was this player?" type of questions. I can think of so many schematic, football-related questions that I could ask him, particularly the inquiries into the guts it takes to choose the prospect of winning over an almost sure case of tying and the certain rewards that come with that. But as I found myself face-to-face with the man so few have the opportunity to "chat up", it wasn't this game of football I enjoy so much that deserved reference. The Lord has made a man named Tom Osborne to be a leader of men, a sculptor of young, impressionable minds, a voice of the truth of Jesus Christ. With that voice he has conducted countless interviews with a humility possessed by very few. With that voice he spoke of trials overcome only with the presence of the Lord at a uniting of Nebraska Christian men last spring. He needed no praise of mine. But when I got my opportunity to fire the endless number of "game day" questions at him, it was not me, but the Lord saying "thank you" for his work done inside the lines of life. Not even a breath of the word "Huskers." Interesting work, God, but not surprising. Adam Holland, Lincoln, Nebraska
I am convinced that the spiritual aspect that Dr. Tom and John Wooden spoke about in the article gave them the underpinnings and foundation for their legendary careers. When one hears the stories from Tommie Frazier, Grant Wistrom, Jason Peter, and the like, it is very apparent that deep relationships were the key to the Huskers' chemistry and success. I think the principles in Tom's books are tantamount for reading not just for coaches but an inspiration to everyone, especially for coaches, managers, and mentors. Thanks again, and keep 'em coming. Brad Loseke, Beaverton, Oregon
Great story about two of the greatest coaches in all of college sports both on and off the field/court. Both won the right way and were great teachers in life lessons. That was interesting reading Coach Wooden's seven-point creed. Dave Torkelson, Council Bluffs Iowa
Wonderful article about two great men who never seem to look to themselves when accounting for their success. It is amazing how we forget what wisdom those who have lived and loved longer have to teach us, if we would only take the time to listen. I believe Coach Wooden was right. Listening truly is a lost art. Thank goodness you took the time to listen and write about it. Richard Houlden, Newport News, Virginia
I enjoyed your N-Sider because it had such a unique Nebraska angle, but I've also enjoyed the attention Coach Wooden's passing is getting across the country and even here on the West Coast. The ESPN coverage has been particularly good. One of his former players talked about how honest, direct and laid back Coach Wooden was. That surprised me, but really, doesn't that describe Coach Osborne? Another mentioned how much Coach Wooden could say in a just a few words. He remembered, for instance, how his coach would say: "Be quick, but don't hurry." That sounds like something Yogi Berra would say, but with the balance and love that you described, it worked for a legend at UCLA. Ri Edwards, Yuba City, California
I chuckled reading Coach Osborne's comment about John Wooden teaching his players how to put their socks on because a UCLA player made the same statement in an interview this weekend. He also talked about how basic Wooden-coached teams were. He said opponents knew exactly what UCLA was going to do, but they were so fundamentally sound, they couldn't be stopped. Hearing Coach Osborne call Coach Wooden his mentor in the video, I thought to myself, what a mentor he was. It's probably no coincidence that everyone knew what Nebraska was going to do, too, but we couldn't be stopped because we were so fundamentally sound. I can't wait to watch our offense catch up to our defense this fall. If they do, we could be a real threat in the national picture. Jason Phillips, Overland Park, Kansas
Nice column on John Wooden and Tom Osborne. A friend told me that you wrote a column about Coach Wooden watching the Nebraska women's basketball team this season and having something nice to say about them. Can you rerun the column? Ron Anderson, Grand Island, Nebraska
Editor's note: The column is in our archives. Here's a direct link to Wooden's observation, about 11 paragraphs into the column.