Tuesday, March 28, 2006 | You wouldn’t expect a high school football player to be able to tell you much, if anything, about Barry Switzer.
Maybe some kids remember he was the Dallas Cowboys coach who forgot he had a gun stashed in his travel bag when he tried to board a team flight. But they probably couldn’t tell you Switzer coached Oklahoma’s national championship football team in 1975.
How about asking high school athletes to identify the 1975 championship coach in pro football, baseball or basketball?
They might wonder if Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll was an East German dictator since he had something to do with building the Steel Curtain. They might guess Cincinnati Reds manager Sparky Anderson was a Soviet Union hockey coach since he ran the Big Red Machine. And in basketball they might say Golden State Warriors coach Al Attles’ name sounds like he must have been a Sesame Street character.
But ask them about John Wooden, another championship coach from 31 years ago, and they know that the Wizard of Westwood isn’t some old movie about a man behind a curtain.
Wooden coached his final game in 1975 at the San Diego Sports Arena when his UCLA Bruins beat Kentucky for his 10th NCAA title in 12 seasons, but decades later his name still holds instant recognition.
It was with a little caution that I asked Greg Oden about Wooden. Oden is the 7-foot, 245-pound kid from Lawrence North High in Indianapolis with the world at his feet.
Basketball people say Oden would have been the first pick of the NBA draft this year, but that was before the NBA’s new rule that prevents teams from drafting prep players until a year after they finish from high school.
Oden is in town this week among the 24 boys and 24 girls named as McDonald’s All-Americans. They’re playing Thursday night in the McDonald’s High School All-American games, a girls-boys double-header at San Diego State’s Cox Arena.
When I posed the Wooden question to Oden, I clearly underestimated Wooden’s royalty with even the ESPN-influenced generation.
“I met him this year at the John Wooden Classic,” Oden said of an early-season college tournament in Indianapolis. “I was star-struck when I met him. I didn’t know what to say. I just smiled and shook his hand.”
The basketball gods smiled on San Diego 31 years ago when Wooden coached two games in the Final Four at the Sports Arena.
Wooden, now 95 years old but still as sharp as one his full-court presses his Bruins used, is in San Diego this week as a chairman of the McDonald’s game. It’s expected to be one of his final public appearances. He planned to retire from his McDonald’s chairmanship last year, but when San Diego was awarded the 2006 game, the symmetry of one more basketball game in the city he coached his final college game was too much to disrupt.
I, like others in the sold-out crowd of 350 people for a luncheon Monday at my day job at the San Diego Hall of Champions, sat and listened in rapt attention as Wooden responded to questions about basketball then and now. Reverence for his thoughts filled the room.
Wooden explained he doesn’t like the showmanship prevalent in basketball and sports in general. He told a story about attending a UCLA game at Pauley Pavilion when one of the UCLA players had a breakaway whirling dunk.
“A fan tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘What did you think about that, Coach?’ ” Wooden said. “I said I would have had him out of there before he hit the floor.”
Wooden said were he empowered to make college basketball rules, he would do away with freshman eligibility. He also doesn’t like the dunk. He likes the 3-point shot, but he thinks it should be a little further from the basket. He believes the combination of the dunk and the 3-point shot has robbed the game of the intermediate shot.
Asked to name the biggest disappointment of his career, he didn’t say it was the end of UCLA’s 88-game winning streak at Notre Dame in 1974 or the loss to North Carolina State in the Final Four semifinals that ended a streak of seven straight NCAA titles.
“That two or three of my players didn’t graduate,” he said.
Wooden said in many ways he prefers the women’s game because of the emphasis on fundamentals.
“The better women teams play the purest game today,” Wooden said. “They play below the rim instead of above the rim. They’re fundamentally sound and I enjoy watching them. I think they stick to the fundamentals more so than the men.”
Wooden’s involvement in the McDonald’s game has helped raise money over the years for the Ronald McDonald House Charities. Two balls signed by Wooden and Morgan Wootten – the legendary high school coach from DeMatha near Washington, D.C., who also is a McDonald’s chairman – went for a total of $4,100. A dinner for five with Wooden went for $11,000.
The bidding for all three items went quickly. Wooden’s last game was 31 years ago, but his name raised $15,100 in about 31 seconds.
Tom Shanahan is Voice’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at