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Surprising Consequences of Researching John Wooden’s Teaching Practices: The Back Story of the 1976 Study of the Legendary UCLA Basketball Coach

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Abstract

During John Wooden’s final coaching season, two psychologists systematically recorded his specific teaching acts during UCLA basketball practices. Results were presented in a 1976 Psychology Today article which garnered little media or public attention. At the time, Coach Wooden never responded to three requests for comments — twice to pre-publication manuscripts, and once to the published version. This memoir recounts the backstory of the study, and reports some unanticipated and surprising consequences 25 years later. First, Coach Wooden handed out photocopies of the article, and second, a review of research indicated the 1976 study was one of the earliest systematic studies of coaching.
Running Head: SURPRISING CONSEQUENCES OF RESEARCHING JOHN WOODEN’S 1
Surprising Consequences of Researching John Wooden’s Teaching Practices:
The Back Story of the 1976 Study of the Legendary UCLA Basketball Coach
Ronald Gallimore
University of California, Los Angeles
Gallimore, R. (In press, May/June, 2020). Surprising Consequences of Researching John
Wooden’s Teaching Practices: The Back Story of the 1976 Study of the Legendary
UCLA Basketball Coach. International Sport Coaching Journal,
Acknowledgements: In writing this article helpful improvements were provided by Joan Bernard,
Karen Bogard, and members of the Writers’ Advanced Workshop at the Osher Lifelong Learning
Institute, University of Delaware. Correspondence should be addressed to the author at
ronaldg@ucla.edu.
Surprising Consequences of Researching John Wooden’s Teaching Practice 2
Abstract
During John Wooden’s final coaching season, two psychologists systematically recorded
his specific teaching acts during UCLA basketball practices. Results were presented in a 1976
Psychology Today article which garnered little media or public attention. At the time, Coach
Wooden never responded to three requests for comments — twice to pre-publication
manuscripts, and once to the published version. This memoir recounts the backstory of the study,
and reports some unanticipated and surprising consequences 25 years later. First, Coach Wooden
handed out photocopies of the article, and second, a review of research indicated the 1976 study
was one of the earliest systematic studies of coaching.
Key words: coaching, teaching, research, sport psychology, Coach John Wooden, basketball,
UCLA
Surprising Consequences of Researching John Wooden’s Teaching Practice 3
Surprising Consequences of Researching John Wooden’s Teaching Practices:
The Back Story of the 1976 Study of the Legendary UCLA Basketball Coach
Observing Coach Wooden Teaching in His Final Season
Westwood Boulevard divides the UCLA campus. On one side is the basketball court in
Pauley Pavilion. On the other side, professors and scholars go about their work.
I crossed over the Boulevard in 1974 to study the teaching practices of John Wooden,
regarded by some observers as the greatest coach of the 20th century. It was an unusual decision
by a junior professor: coaching was not a priority subject for psychological researchers.
Unconventional studies can be risky in a publish or perish environment.
The unconventional research was launched in an unconventional setting: Roland Tharp
and I were shooting baskets in my Santa Monica backyard. As we played, Roland and I
discussed including in our teaching research program case studies of outstanding teachers. But
whom? Cases can be insightful but unsatisfying unless credible exemplars.
Maybe the bouncing basketball suggested we start with such a case working five miles
from my front door: Coach Wooden of UCLA. Named seven times college basketball coach of
the year, (Coachesdatabase.com. n.d.), he persistently attributed his success to what he learned as
a high school English teacher. Wooden insisted coaching is teaching (J. Wooden. Personal
Communication, February 12, 2002).
When we launched our study, Wooden’s teams had won 9 NCAA championships over
ten years, including 7 in a row UCLA Bruins Men’s Basketball [n.d.]. He won with teams of
great talent and some with far less. Maybe we could learn something by watching him teach. The
1974-1975 team was young, and some said lacking talent—a perfect time to observe a teacher
practicing his craft.
The next day I wrote Coach Wooden on UCLA letterhead. I explained our purpose and
requested permission to observe him teaching during afternoon practices at Pauley Pavilion.
Sometime later, I received via campus mail a handwritten reply: Thank you, Professor
Gallimore, for your note. No problem. Best wishes. Sincerely, John Wooden.
It was Fall, 1974, and practice had just begun. No one—not even Coach Wooden—knew
this would be the final season to observe him teaching basketball. Five months after we began
our study, he surprised everyone by announcing his retirement the day before his team played
Kentucky for the 1975 NCAA national championship. A day later the last team he would ever
coach won UCLA’s 10th national title despite its youth and limited talent. Some believe it was
the best teaching of a legendary 47-year career.
Choosing Coach Wooden as a case study was finally and fully justified in 2000 when
both the Naismith Hall of Fame and ESPN named him the greatest college coach of the 20th
Century. Few disagreed (UCLA Bruins Men’s Basketball [n.d.]).
Candidly, we mainly did the study because we were fans of the Wooden era of UCLA
basketball, perhaps the best in collegiate history. We expected watching him teach would be
fascinating, but expected the study wouldn’t count much as research. We were correct in our
expectation, and spectacularly wrong in our prediction.
Watching Coach in action was astonishing. Every practice lasted exactly two hours—
without exception starting at 3:29 P.M., and ending at 5:29. From his first whistle, players and
coaches were in constant motion, sprinting from one 5-7-minute drill to the next. There was no
wasted time. Every move was something a player would do in a game. Even warm-ups involved
Running Head: SURPRISING CONSEQUENCES OF RESEARCHING JOHN WOODEN’S 4
basketball moves. Slowly, steadily, over a two-hour practice the pace quickened. Seemingly at
random, players who had been constantly running were pulled out to practice free-throws. By the
final half hour full court scrimmages were run at maximum speed.
Wooden’s teaching consisted of frequent, crisp, succinct corrections full of information.
He rarely spoke longer than 15 or 20 seconds. Activity never stopped for lectures. There were no
harangues. Not one. Although frequent and in rapid-fire order, what he called corrections were
so distinct we recorded more than 2,300 as separate events across 30 hours of observations. For
example, a 7’2” freshman was struggling to learn his center position. He was expected to grab a
rebound, and quickly pass it to a smaller, nimbler player. Instead, the young center hesitated
before making the pass, triggering an instant, terse correction from Coach. In one practice, the
young center cleared a rebound and hesitated. “Ralph, pass the ball to someone short!” Coach
Wooden instructed.
Roland and I were puzzled by how Wooden came up with so many timely corrections,
delivered immediately after a player had made a mistake or neglected to make a proper move.
We thought perhaps this was simply a remarkable talent on display, one that helped account for
his impressive record. We did not know how he did it, but we suspected it was key to
understanding Wooden’s success as a teacher. We remained puzzled for the next 25 years.
At season’s end, after UCLA won its 10th national championship, we drafted an article
based on months of daily observations, and submitted it to Psychology Today. We sent the draft
to Coach, requesting his comments. He never responded. I lacked courage to call for an
appointment.
After edits came back from Psychology Today, I sent the corrected manuscript to Coach
Wooden with a letter, again requesting comments. No response. We agonized whether to
proceed. We decided the article was so positive about his teaching we were running minimum
risk going ahead with publication. The concluding paragraph read this way:
‘Life to him is a one-room schoolhouse,’ wrote sports columnist Jim Murray. ‘A
pedagogue is all he ever wanted to be.’ But Wooden’s best teaching technique is hard to
pass along. Not every teacher can use the model of his own life to inspire students
beyond their talents (Tharp & Gallimore, 1976, p. 78).
In 1976, our article appeared in the widely distributed magazine, at the time carried on
many news-stands (Tharp & Gallimore, 1976). It included an artist’s caricature of Coach as
school teacher.
Illustration from Tharp & Gallimore (1976)
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Maybe Coach Didn’t Like the Article and No One Else Cares
I sent Coach a copy of the published article, asking for comments. No response. No letter.
No call. No nothing. I remember thinking, Oh, no, he didn’t like it. Maybe he hated it, but is too
polite to say so. Maybe he was practicing if you can’t say anything nice, say nothing.
After publication in 1976, there was little reaction to the study. No national or local
media mentioned it, including the campus Daily Bruin. Although visitors to UCLA occasionally
asked to meet with me to talk about the article, in time, I came to feel that it had been a
rewarding personal experience but of little lasting consequence. Many of my publications had
suffered similar fates, so I was practiced in filing articles under pleasant memories.
In 1993, eighteen years after the article appeared in Psychology Today, I got the first hint
the article had more shelf-life than I had imagined. Roland and I won an award for a scholarly
book about our research at the Princess Pauahi lab school in Honolulu (Tharp & Gallimore,
1988). To surprise me at a party celebrating the award, a friend, Professor Jack Keogh, got
Coach to autograph a copy of the Psychology Today article: Congratulations, Ron, on receiving
the Grawemeyer Award and for your interest. John Wooden, UCLA
I was startled. Always polite, perhaps Coach merely did a favor for a long-time colleague
—Wooden and Keogh had been UCLA colleagues for decades, long before Coach won national
acclaim. I could not persuade myself the autograph was an endorsement, despite Jack insisting
Coach knew who I was and was familiar with the article. I was unconvinced.
Five years later, in 1998, Coach made a surprise visit to our UCLA LessonLab. My
friend, Dr. Karen Givvin, stopped by to say Coach was coming to see me. Karen was hosting
Coach for his presentation to Professor Tara Scanlan’s sports psychology class. Coach walked in
the lab, smiling broadly, acting as if he knew me. We chatted briefly, exchanged pleasantries,
and then he was gone. Karen’s snapshot shows me with lips pursed, face contorted with shock
and awe. I didn’t ask about the article and he didn’t mention it, or say anything to indicate he
knew who I was or that he remembered the study.
Autographed copy of Psychology Today article Coach’s visit to LessonLab
It was my first-ever face-to-face encounter with the legend I had studied at a distance.
Theretofore I’d had only one brief interaction, which took place 25 years earlier at Pauley:
When we came into Pauley, the large overhead scoreboard had fallen onto the court. Wooden
came over and looked up into the stands and commented to us, ‘God must be on our side
(made prayer sign with his hands).’ He explained to the players after they came in, and said
the same thing to them. He asked Ron to toss down a rope [someone had dropped from the
catwalk above] so that scoreboard could be lifted up temporarily. (note recorded by Roland
Tharp, December 13th, 1974).
Running Head: SURPRISING CONSEQUENCES OF RESEARCHING JOHN WOODEN’S 6
Goodness Gracious Sakes, Coach is Handing Out Reprints of Our Article
Three years after Coach visited the lab, in April 2001, I walked into the Seattle hotel
headquarters of a national research meeting. Marv Alkin, then Chair of UCLA’s Department of
Education stopped me to say, “Ron, I think you will be interested in hearing this. Last week I had
lunch with Steve Lavin, the UCLA basketball coach. I gave him a copy of your Psychology
Today article. Lavin said, ‘I already have two copies. Coach Wooden gave me one.’”
I was stunned. Coach Wooden was handing out copies of our article! I don’t remember
much about the rest of the conference, or the presentation I gave later that day. I called Roland
with the news. We were both relieved. After a quarter century, we received an indication that our
most important reader liked what we did well enough to recommend it to others.
After 25 years, I Finally Call Coach Wooden
Finally, and certainly 25 years late, I summoned the courage to call Coach. His home
number had always been listed in the public directory. When I called, an answering machine
instructed to me to leave my name and number, and to repeat both twice. As I was leaving a
message explaining who I was, Coach picked up and said, “Hello, Ron, I know who you areand
invited me to visit.
From 2002 until his death in 2010, we met and talked many times. My late wife, Sharon,
and I drove him to breakfast at his favorite hole-in-the-wall diner, joined him for dinners, and a
couple of Wooden family events. I sat chatting with him in his den, lined with awards, trophies,
and memorabilia. (A replica of his den is now on display at the UCLA Athletic Hall Of Fame
(n.d.).
We talked about teaching, life, and our common experiences as boys on midwestern
tenant farms with outhouses and no electricity. On every visit he’d suggest reading poems. James
Whitcomb Riley, the Hoosier poet was a favorite, especially a poem about an outhouse. Coach
jokingly bragged his family had a “3-holer,and feigned pity that my family’s had only two on
our Ohio tenant farm, 200 miles due east of where Coach was born.
During one conversation about teaching, I asked how he came up with the many timely,
succinct corrections we observed him deliver every day in practice. “Planning,” Coach said, “just
as I did as a high school English teacher. You probably saw me make notes on 3x5 cards during
practices. I used those notes to plan practices. My assistant coaches took notes, too. I didn’t want
to waste practice time, and believed in keeping my corrections short and to the point.” (J.
Wooden. Personal Communication, February 12, 2002).
He did that planning every morning, before practice. Coach and his assistants created a
detailed lesson plan including corrections for each player as teaching moments arose. He hadn’t
spontaneously said “pass to someone short” when he corrected that tall, young player in 1975.
He had planned that morning what the boy needed to learn that day. When the young center
grabbed a rebound and hesitated, Coach was prepared. What Roland and I had taken as
spontaneous in 1975 was actually the product of thoughtful planning by Coach and his assistants.
Puzzle solved 28 years later.
Lesson Learned
When we observed Coach Wooden’s practices in 1974-1975, Roland and I favored an
objectivist, distanced, and quantitative methodology. As a result, we never captured the sources
and contexts of Coach’s teaching. Though in the 1970s we were developing a better appreciation
of mixing quantitative and qualitative methods, our conversions were incomplete.
Running Head: SURPRISING CONSEQUENCES OF RESEARCHING JOHN WOODEN’S 7
As we noted in a 2004 re-visit of the original study, “the respectability of research
methods changes over time. Though we have not returned to the coaching floor, in the
intervening thirty years we have both continued as researchers of teaching, and now realize that
teaching, schooling, coaching, and all education are so complex that understanding can come
only from multiple perspectives, and multiple methods. Were we to do it over, now we would
make every effort to gain the perspective of players, of assistant coaches, of Coach Wooden
himself” (Gallimore & Tharp, 2004, p. 135).
Surprising Consequences
In addition to the 2004 re-visiting of the original article, using material and quotes from
my interviews and conversations with Coach, colleagues and I published more about his teaching
(Gallimore, 2014; Gallimore, Gilbert, & Nater, 2013; Gallimore, Ermeling, & Nater, 2012;
Gilbert, Nater, Swik, & Gallimore, 2010; Gallimore, 2006).
Two articles recounted the story of a struggling Ohio high school coach — Henry “Hank”
Bias. His teams had three consecutive losing seasons. After the last one 3 win, 17 loss season,
Coach Bias read our 1976 article and called me asking if I had video tapes of Wooden’s teaching
practices. I urged him to call Coach Wooden. After summoning his courage, he called Wooden’s
publicly listed phone saying he wanted to become a better teacher. Over the next six years,
Wooden mentored Bias, teaching him how to teach better. After installing Wooden’s approach to
teaching and many of his offensive and defensive strategies, three seasons later Coach Hank
Bias’ team won a league championship and Bias was named coach of the year (Gallimore et al.,
2012; 2013). Coach Bias’ improvement suggests Wooden’s approach is not outdated, and can be
reasonably claimed to reflect timeless principles of sound teaching.
In 2005, Swen Nater and I published a book (Nater & Gallimore, 2005) on Coach’s
teaching philosophy and practices. Swen was a member of three NCAA championship teams at
UCLA. The book combined Swen’s experiences and my research and took its title from one of
Coach’s teaching principles: You Haven’t Taught Until They Have Learned.
Ron & Coach at LessonLab;
Aisha Sims in background.
Swen, Coach, & Ron at LessonLab
Coach continued handing out the 1976 article. I kept replenishing his supply with
photocopies of the original and providing him copies of the article which re-visited the original
study to add new findings (Gallimore & Tharp, 2004). I also provided him with copies of the
book Swen and I wrote, which I was happy to learn he also handed out..
Coach liked most, I think, that Roland and I had documented his greater support of
bench players than starters. This countered criticism that he showed too little appreciation for
reserves. This was as gratifying an consequence as I could hope for an unconventional research
project. Coach Wooden valued our findings.
Running Head: SURPRISING CONSEQUENCES OF RESEARCHING JOHN WOODEN’S 8
But I had no reason to believe anyone else remembered the study, much less found it
useful as Coach did. I was wrong again.
Some regard the 1976 Psychology Today article a noteworthy scientific contribution.
Shortly after I learned Coach liked it, a review of coaching research offered this conclusion:
. . . Tharp and Gallimore’s [1] seminal research on legendary college basketball coach
John Wooden is one of the earliest and well-known studies on coaching effectiveness in
action (Côté & Gilbert, 2009, p. 307).
Astonishing. I had no idea. Because I did not work in sport psychology or coaching
research, I was ignorant of a brush with minor scientific celebrity. Of the scholarly articles and
books I published in a long career, the Wooden studies attract among the most interest and
Google hits.
It was a consequences I never imagined, but it was not the most important. More
important is this lesson I learned from Coach:
I tried to teach by example, too. . . . I feel that anyone in the public eye has a responsibility
to conduct themselves in the proper manner. . . . Way back in the mid-30s I picked up
something and I still don't know who it was, you might know who wrote it. ‘No written word,
no spoken plea can teach our youth what they should be. Nor all the books on all the shelves,
it's what the teachers are themselves (Anonymous).’ That made an impression on me in the
middle thirties and I never forgot it. (J. Wooden. Personal Communication, February 12,
2002).
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the 20th century’ a crafty wizard, or a master teacher? Education Week, 25(25), 30, 31.
Gallimore, R. (2014). Coach John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success: A Comparison to the Sport
Psychology Literature: A Commentary. International Journal of Sports Science &
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and Reanalysis of John Wooden's Teaching Practices. The Sport Psychologist, 18(2),
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Gallimore, R., Ermeling, B. A., & Nater, S. (2012). Timeless Lessons. Athletic Management,
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Psychology in Action, 1(2), 86-94.
Nater, S. & Gallimore, R. (2006). You haven’t taught until they have learned: John Wooden’s
teaching principles and practices. Morgantown, West Virginia: Fitness International
Technology, Inc.
Running Head: SURPRISING CONSEQUENCES OF RESEARCHING JOHN WOODEN’S 9
Tharp, R. G. & Gallimore, R. (1988) Rousing Minds to Life: Teaching, Learning, and Schooling
in Social Context. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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What John Wooden Can Teach Us: Was the 'greatest coach of the 20th century' a crafty wizard, or a master teacher? Education Week
  • R Gallimore
Gallimore, R. (2006, March 1,). What John Wooden Can Teach Us: Was the 'greatest coach of the 20th century' a crafty wizard, or a master teacher? Education Week, 25(25), 30, 31.
  • R Gallimore
  • B A Ermeling
  • S Nater
Gallimore, R., Ermeling, B. A., & Nater, S. (2012). Timeless Lessons. Athletic Management, XXIV (2), 43-47.
You haven't taught until they have learned: John Wooden's teaching principles and practices
  • S Nater
  • R Gallimore
Nater, S. & Gallimore, R. (2006). You haven't taught until they have learned: John Wooden's teaching principles and practices. Morgantown, West Virginia: Fitness International Technology, Inc.