Yesterday I promised you a story to take your mind off all the bad stuff happening in and around Giantsland. And you know I never break a promise.
This one is especially interesting because it involves a Super Bowl-winning coach and an old basketball coach of another era who made his living in the Final Four, which not coincidentally starts Saturday. Tom Coughlin has been a fan and admirer of UCLA coach John Wooden, he of those 10 national championships in 12 years back in the 1960s and ’70s, for his entire life. Coughlin had called Wooden for short phone chats two, three times a year since the mid-’90s. But he had never met the great coach in person.
Not until last Thursday, as the NFL owners meeting in Dana Point, Ca. broke up and the NCAA’s Sweet 16 began. It was then that Coughlin made the 78-mile drive north from the meetings to the 98-year-old Wooden’s modest apartment in Encino for an audience of three hours “that felt like five minutes,” Coughlin said.
“You know, people have those lists of 100 things they want to do before they die?” he said. “This was a top-10 for me. Top-10.”
Those who know Coughlin would not necessarily put his name and the word awe in the same sentence. But Coughlin was truly awed by the man, not just for the amazing streak he put together with teams that featured Lew Alcindor, later to become Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and Bill Walton, but by the man’s grace and integrity, and the creed he lives by.
A little background. The head coach’s Giants Stadium office has as much Wooden as it does Coughlin. Wooden’s list of life virtues — prepare well, live clean — sits in an honored place atop a center bookshelf. In a credenza, a full-color reproduction of his fabled Pyramid of Success sits next to pictures of the coach, its elements laying out a philosophy of faith, perserverance, and self-confidence. His blue-covered book, Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On And Off The Court, sits within arm’s reach of his desk, its first pages indexed in Coughlin’s hand with important passages.
“It never leaves my side,” Coughlin said. “It sits right next to me. You read through this, it’s like reading another one of the gospels. Very simple. It’s all about being a good person and leading a good life.”
The reverence is obvious.
“For me, you’re talking about a national treasure,” he said.
Yet, Coughlin had never met the man until his wife urged him to try for an appointment.
“She said, ‘You’ve got to go see him, sit with him, talk to him, because if you don’t you’ll regret it for the rest of your life,'” Coughlin said.
Coughlin made the call a week before the meetings and was granted time. No small thing there, since what could be a torrential flow of visitors — from athletes and coaches to presidents and statesman — is purposely limited by Wooden’s family to preserve his strength. He is 98 after all. He uses a wheelchair to get around now, but when he received Coughlin he was seated in a plush, comfortable chair in his office.
Wooden was just two days out of the hospital after a 30-day battle with pneumonia.
History surrounds him.
“You walk in there, and right across from you is the ’67 team, on of the four undefeateds,” Coughlin said. “My last playing year at Syracuse was ’67, and I told coach Wooden, when I was in college, it was John Wooden and Vince Lombardi. Those two guys were the kings. That was what I watched, those two coaches and their teams.
“His teams are on the wall. Pictures three deep on the shelf.”
Coughlin found a man whose body is failing, but whose mind is still as sharp as the master tactician of the ’60s.
“He is gracious, extremely polite, sincere,” Coughlin said. “He never interrupts. And he’s an intent listener. You know how some people, when you’re talking, they’re getting their next thought ready? He’s not like that. He listens to every word you say. He has a tremendous memory. He’s a great story-teller.
“He has a tremendous sense of humor. He makes fun of himself. I asked him about his medication and he said, “I have no idea what’s for what, nor do I know if they counteract each other.'”
What Coughlin really wanted to know, however, was how Wooden came upon his method of practice.
“His practices were legendary,” Coughlin said. “They never stopped. I asked him about the running game, and he smiled and said, ‘That was my game, the running game.’ The pressure defense, the fast-break offense. He always prided himself on conditioning.”
Wooden told him that, as a high school coach at South Bend Central High, he visited Notre Dame football coach Elmer Layden’s practice and saw how organized and intense it was. He took it all back to his gym and transferred it to basketball, sectioning off practices so one drill flowed into another.
Stories flowed about Walton and Jabbar, but one gave Coughlin particular insight into the man, not the coach.
“At that time, people would say crude things to Jabbar, who coach Wooden called Lewis,” Coughlin said. “One day, a woman was stunned by how big he was and said something very rude. Coach Wooden took him aside and said, ‘That was one of the cruelest things I’ve ever heard anyone ever say to a person.
“And then he paused, and he said, ‘She didn’t mean it. She’s startled by your imposing figure.’
“The point is, he’s a humanitarian, and he’s trying to make Lewis feel better by telling him this woman just said what came to her mind.”
Coughlin soaked it all in.
“I’ve always had great respect for my elders,” he said. “But not just for what he’s accomplished, but what he stands for, that’s why it was so important for me to see him. Not only does he espouse the Golden Rule, he lives it. Respect for others. Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.
“He talked about effort. Make the great effort and everything else will take care of itself. He said he never talked to his players about winning. It was all about effort and preparing properly. And don’t compare yourself to others. Be as good as you can be.”
He came away utterly, completely awed, with Wooden’s children’s book autographed to Coughlin’s grandkids with, “Love, John Wooden.”
After all, it’s not everyday a Giants coach can sit down with a national treasure.