Wooden epitomizes American hero

When the task force that is charged with establishing the National Garden of American Heroes begins reviewing great figures of America’s history, the late collegiate coaching legend John Wooden should receive every consideration.

Based on the criteria that will be used to select the distinguished Americans who will be immortalized with a statue in the garden, boxes can quickly be checked off on Wooden’s candidate form. The case of support is lengthy, convincing and inspiring.

The Executive Order pertaining to the Garden defines an historically significant American as a “public figure who made substantive contributions to America’s public life or otherwise had a substantive effect on America’s history.”

As head basketball coach at UCLA, Wooden led his teams to an unprecedented 10 NCAA championships in 12 years, including seven consecutive titles from 1967 to 1973. The Bruins won a record 88 straight games over three seasons and went undefeated four times. Wooden’s overall career record in two seasons as head coach at Indiana State and 27 seasons at UCLA was 664-162 (.804).

The dominance of the UCLA program significantly influenced television networks to expand coverage of college basketball, elevating the stature and popularity of the game on the national scene. The frenzied interest in March Madness that is the norm today began during the Wooden coaching era.

In the Executive Order, recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civil award, are listed among the examples of an historically significant American. That’s another checked box for Wooden, who received the award in 2003.

At the Medal of Freedom ceremony, President George W. Bush described Wooden as “an example of what a good man should be.”

Wooden was an advocate for racial equality at a time when it was easier, and safer, to simply defer to prevailing attitudes and practices. In 1947, the same year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, Wooden declined an invitation to enter his Indiana State team in the National Association for Intercollegiate Basketball postseason tournament in Kansas City, Missouri, because organizers would not permit Black athletes to compete. Wooden would not tolerate an act of discrimination against the sole Black player on his team.

The Executive Order proposes that statues in the garden should depict Americans who are worth honoring, remembering and studying. A World War II veteran, Wooden completed his Pyramid of Success in the spring of 1948, yet it remains a valuable resource for people across the generations and in all professions. The Pyramid contains the 15 personal qualities that Wooden identified as prerequisites for success, as he defined it.

The life lessons that Wooden imparted to his players, at times through his favorite maxims, are as relevant today as they were a half century ago. One saying that Wooden repeated often is, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”

Finally, the Executive Order states that the statues to be erected will show reverence for our past, dignify our present, and inspire those who are to come. Beyond the national titles, milestones and records, Wooden’s legacy represents the ideals on which our nation was founded, the success that can be attained through shared goals, and the limitless promise that is characteristic of a democratic society. Through a lifetime of honorable deeds, John Wooden has earned a rightful place in the Garden that will be forever reserved for American heroes.


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