John Wooden: An Icon of Applying Christian Principles to Legendary Leadership

Well-known people die all the time.

Not a week goes by where we publish stories, blogs or links about someone famous from the worlds of religion, entertainment, politics and so on who have passed away. As is the case in obituaries, all are celebrated for their accomplishments. Some are legitimately celebrated as leaders in their profession.

Calling John Wooden a leader is akin to calling the Grand Canyon a hole in the ground or Niagara Falls a pool of water.

For people who aren’t sports fans in general nor college basketball fans in particular all the attention paid to Wooden this weekend might seem overblown. For goodness sakes, he hasn’t coached a game in 35 years and he was 99 years old – a sad death, but hardly unexpected at that age.

Wooden was by any measure an icon.

Think of people who have branched so far beyond their professional confines that their cultural nomenclature doesn’t require their full name.


Mother Teresa.


Wooden belongs in the same class.

The “Pyramid of Success” he’s known for includes so many pro-social and transparently Christian values that its transcendence is obvious.

At the top of the pyramid lies “competitive greatness” buttressed by faith and patience. Read the rest of the pyramid and concepts such as industrious, self control and loyalty and it’s no wonder Wooden was known as a man who had in-depth knowledge and investment in the Bible.

Coming from a small town in southern Indiana and having graduated from my alma mater of Purdue, Wooden quickly became a hot coaching commodity before he ever made it to UCLA. How Wooden internalized what he believed in his actions toward others is illustrated in a story from his days coaching at what is now Indiana State University, the eventual landing spot for Larry Bird.

In 1946, the year before Jackie Robinson broke into the Major Leagues, Wooden declined an invitation to the NAIA tournament – then the equivalent of today’s super-hyped NCAA Tournament – because tourney organizers told Wooden an African-American player had to stay back at the Terre Haute. Wooden refused.  Talk about standing up for your players and living by the Golden Rule at a time when institutionalized racism was still the order of the day and the path of least resistance.

The links included in this blog clearly to Wooden’s spiritual side and his commitment to faith.

Wooden will be long remembered for his winning on the court and his principles

 It was his commitment to not win at all costs, to not demean his players and his willingness towhich make him on a plateau a cherished few ever achieve.

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  1. said:

    Great article Mr. Elliot. I believe we may have seen the last of this gentlemans kind. He was more concerned with the character that he developed in his players than developing talent, because he had the godly wisdom and experience to know one had lasting value, the other would pass with time. My compliments and a very honorable tribute to a most deserving Hall of Fame coach and faithful Christian man. One wonders, if there will be basketball in heaven? If so, we KNOW who the best choice for a coach will be! 🙂

    June 12, 2010

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