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John Wooden's legacy has been a great weight on his successors

Though the unfailingly modest and humble Wooden did his best to stay in the background after his 1975 retirement, the 10 national titles the Bruins won in his last 12 seasons proved a difficult act to follow for subsequent UCLA coaches, most of whom didn't last long in the job.

June 07, 2010|By David Wharton

The pained look on Ben Howland's face — pursed lips and a hard stare — was three decades in the making.

The UCLA coach had just watched his team lose badly to Mississippi State, another setback in a terrible start to last season, but he seemed equally concerned that this particular defeat had come at the Wooden Classic.

With none other than John Wooden sitting in a luxury suite above midcourt.

"It really hurts me that he was here today and we played so poorly," Howland said. "You just don't want to disappoint Coach Wooden."

The record book says that Wooden guided the Bruins for 27 seasons, ending with his retirement after a final national championship in 1975. In fact, he remained a specter hovering over the program right up to his death last week.

And while the legendary coach tried his best to stay in the background, his remarkable success and growing legend weighed on every coach who followed.

"There has been no tougher job in all of sports than replacing Coach Wooden," former player Keith Erickson said. "You could win 90% of your games and fans still wouldn't be happy."

Most of Wooden's victories came down the stretch run of his tenure at UCLA — over the final 12 years, he won 94% percent of his games and 10 championships.

So while the next three coaches — Gene Bartow, Gary Cunningham and Larry Brown — combined for a 144-34 record, they lasted only two seasons apiece.

"Had I stayed, who knows, we might have won a national championship or two," Bartow mused. "But I would still have been eight or nine short."

Larry Farmer won 73% of his games and was gone after three years. Walt Hazzard stayed for a while through the mid-1980s before Jim Harrick finally put a dent in the spell, winning a national championship in 1995.

But Harrick ran into trouble by filing a false expense report and lying about it. Then Steve Lavin was fired after seven seasons, leading to Howland's arrival in 2003.

"This is the way it is," Cunningham said. "You have to win here."

One thing seems clear: Wooden never meant to be an intrusion.

The legendary coach offered advice only when asked. Though he attended games at Pauley Pavilion, sitting a few rows behind the bench, he did his best to avoid the limelight.

"If it were up to him, he would have sneaked in under the bleachers, sat down, then sneaked out," said Harrick, a longtime friend. "But, of course, John Wooden couldn't do that."

Even as successors struggled with his legacy, they also turned to him for guidance.

"I learned how to practice from him," Harrick said. "I watched him and it was like a symphony orchestra . . . it was a performance."

Basketball was only part of the package. Lavin once talked about feeling goose bumps sitting in the den of Wooden's condominium in Encino. Cunningham sought comfort there, too.

"Whenever I had a problem, [Wooden] was my shrink," the former coach and athletic director said. "I would go over, sit with him, talk with him. He had great wisdom and gave me solutions."

If anything, UCLA coaches say the biggest problem with following Wooden was dealing with fans and alumni — not to mention the media — all of whom had been spoiled by those titles.

It started with Bartow, taking charge directly after the 1975 championship.

"I just didn't really adjust very well to the critics and criticisms," he said. "In my mind, we were winning and doing pretty good."

A decade later, with Hazzard fired, the Bruins faithful still pined for glory days. Former player Mike Warren, by then a booster club official, warned that no coach could revive the program overnight.

"The only one who could is John Wooden," he said. "And we know he's not coming back."

Harrick felt the pressure when he took over in 1988. His brash style didn't compare well with memories of Wooden as the proper Midwestern schoolteacher and each loss brought an angry response from fans.

"It was unbelievable the letters we would get," Harrick recalled.

A quarter century after Wooden's retirement, Lavin guided the Bruins deep into the NCAA tournament on several occasions but fell short in another comparison — he never delivered a championship.

Now, Howland faces a similar dilemma with three Final Four appearances but no ring.

"When you go into a place where a coach has won really big — and John won bigger than big — those are different types of jobs," Bartow said. "It takes a special person."

Back in 2003, not long after he was fired, Lavin recalled meeting Wooden for lunch at a delicatessen in the San Fernando Valley. They talked casually for a while, then the old coach leaned forward.

"Steve, I want to tell you something," he said. "And I hope this doesn't offend you."

Wooden wanted to tell him something about leaving UCLA, leaving behind the fans and the expectations.

"You're much better off."

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton

Times staff writer Chris Foster contributed to this story.

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