FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Growing Up Wooden

with John Wooden | March 29, 2016
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Obstacles represent a stop sign to some people. To others they're a stepping-stone to success. In an interview from 2002, Dennis Rainey talks with the late, legendary basketball coach John Wooden about what it was like growing up in the Midwest in the 1920s.

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  • Obstacles represent a stop sign to some people. To others they're a stepping-stone to success. In an interview from 2002, Dennis Rainey talks with the late, legendary basketball coach John Wooden about what it was like growing up in the Midwest in the 1920s.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

In an interview from 2002, Dennis Rainey talks with the late, legendary basketball coach John Wooden about what it was like growing up in the Midwest in the 1920s.

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Growing Up Wooden

With John Wooden
March 29, 2016
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Bob: It was the 1920s in rural Indiana—the Depression had not yet rocked America. John Wooden was a young boy growing up on a farm—a high school student who loved basketball—who was about to meet the real love of his life.

John: I noticed this one little gal. I didn't know, but she had noticed me too—but I didn't know that. My freshman year—somehow, on the first day of classes, we happened to be in the same class; and I knew right then. We planned to be married after I graduated and got my first job. We were married on August 8, 1932.

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, March 29th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.



Today, we’ll listen back to the first part of a conversation we had, years ago, with a man who grew up to be one of the greatest coaches of all time. We’ll talk with Coach John Wooden about his faith, his family, and basketball. Stay tuned.

[And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Tuesday edition. We have dusted off one of your favorites today. Part of the reason for that is because we’re [at] the [end] of college basketball season, and folks are paying attention to that in their homes and their offices. But we had the opportunity, years ago, to sit down with one of the greatest names in college basketball in all of history.

Dennis: Yes; Coach John Wooden, coach of UCLA, where he won ten national championships in basketball in twelve years.



I mean, he won almost 100 games in a row, which is totally unheard of in his profession.

What a privilege, Bob! And I know some of our listeners are going, “Oh, I’m going to turn it off.” No, no, no, no, no! You need to know something—his 65-year-old daughter was outside in the control booth, listening to us interview him. After it was over, she said, “I think I like those interviews with Daddy almost as much as any I’ve ever heard because you didn’t just talk about basketball.”

Bob: Right.

Dennis: She said, “I loved it because you talked about my mom, and how he was raised, and the values that he learned.” It’s a very up-close and personal look at Coach Wooden, at the age of 92, who was quoting poetry and Scripture without a note, Bob.

You’re right—out of more than 5,000 broadcasts that we’ve done, here on FamilyLife Today, this one is one of my top five—



—and yours too; right?

Bob: Yes; it’s a great visit with a guy who was at the top of his game, professionally, but who had the right focus about his life, about why he was here, and about what really matters.

[Previously Recorded Interview]

Dennis: Tell us about life in the Wooden household when you were growing up as a young lad.


John: We had a small farm. I learned a lot, I think, of things that helped me later on. You had to work hard. Dad felt there was time for play, but always after the chores and the studies were done. Dad would read to us every night from the Scriptures and a lot of poetry. I think that created a love of poetry, which I've always had. I like to dabble in it a little bit.

My dad was a wonderful person. I never heard him speak an ill word of anybody—never blamed anybody for anything. I never heard him use a word of profanity.



I think that his reading to us each night later caused all four sons to get through college. Though he had no financial means to help and there were no athletic scholarships, all four sons graduated from college and all majored or minored in English. All got advanced degrees, and I think Dad had a lot to do with that.

Dennis: Your dad had, as you've already mentioned, a profound impact on your life. In fact, I was so looking forward to this interview with you because I've quoted you about something that you said you carried around in your pocket. It, first of all, was carried around in your father's pocket—is that right?—and then you started carrying it around. It was your dad's creed and then a poem by a pastor by the name of Henry Van Dyke.

John: My father gave to me, when I graduated from grade school / from the eighth grade, he gave me a $2 bill / one of those large $2 bills and said, "Son, as long as you keep this, you'll never be broke." [Laughter]


Then he also gave me a card. On one side was a verse by Reverend Van Dyke that said:

Four things a man must learn to do 
If he would make his record true: 
To think without confusion clearly; 
To love his fellow man sincerely; 
To act from honest motives purely; 
To trust in God and Heaven securely. 

And on the other side was a seven-point creed. The seven-point creed consisted—first of all, I think it was, "Be true to yourself.” I think we know—if we're true to ourselves, we'll be true to others. And the second was, "Help others." There is no greater joy that a person can have than to do something for someone else, especially when you do it with no thought of something in return. Another one was, "Make friendship a fine art." Work at it—don't take it for granted / work at making friends and making friendships flourish.


And then was one that, I think, stood out to me a great deal was, "Make each day your masterpiece." I tried to teach from that, as time went by, to my players and my English students—to just try and do the best you can each day—just make each day your masterpiece. It's the only thing over which you have control. You have no control over yesterday / that will never change. The only way you can affect tomorrow is today.

And then another one was to "Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible.” And then was, "Build a shelter against a rainy day." He wasn't thinking about a physical shelter / he was thinking about a more lasting shelter. When I think about that, I often think of when Socrates was unjustly imprisoned and was facing imminent death. The jailers, who were mean people, couldn't understand his serenity. They said, "Why aren't you preparing for death?" And his statement was, "I've been preparing for death all my life by the life I've led.”



When I think of building a shelter against a rainy day, I think that's what Dad had in mind.

Then the last was—the seventh was, "Give thanks for your blessings and pray for guidance every day.” I've carried that with me in one form or another since those days; yes.

Bob: Those core convictions are so bedrock with you—that's a part of how your mom and dad raised you. I think some people hear those things, in the 21st century, and some people say, "That sounds kind of old-fashioned / kind of corny"; but that's so ingrained into who you are and who you've been. You would say that's been a part of what has made you successful as a coach; right?

John: Well, I would hope so; but I know, too, as someone said, "I'm not what I ought to be, and not what I want to be, and not what I'm going to be; but I think those things have made me better than I would have been.” [Laughter]


Dennis: Your dad read the Bible every day.

John: Yes; he did.

Dennis: How did you see him live out his faith in Christ every day, as a father? What are the most indelible memories that you have, as a boy, watching your dad? Because, undoubtedly, for him to have the influence he had on you, as a man, his character has to resonate even today in your life.

John: Perhaps I wasn't realizing it at the time—but as I look back on my dad, and the fact that he never spoke an ill word of anyone and just was a good person—you don't realize it so much of the time. Many of the things—one of the things he said was: “Never try to be better than someone else. You have no control over that. If you get too involved, and engrossed, and concerned”— maybe these weren't his exact words but—“over things over which you have no control, it will adversely affect the things over which you have control.”


Now, years later, I remember that. So somewhere in the hidden recesses of the mind, they stuck there; but it was things like that.

I remember him reading to us, during nights, from the Scriptures. [Also,] I can still close my eyes and hear him reading "Hiawatha." I can still hear: "By the shores of Gitche Gumee, by the shining Big-Sea-Water, stood the wigwam of Nokomis…" and so on, and things of that sort. [Laughter]

Bob: You didn't have any TV / any radio. So, in the evening, reading was the primary form of entertainment; wasn't it?

John: You're correct—by a coal oil lamp or candles.

Bob: Yes. Was your dad—as you think back on his life, you've talked about this tender side of him; and yet, he was still whipping you when you did the wrong thing. Was he a strict disciplinarian?

John: Well, I would say, “Yes,” but not in a physical point of way. I know I didn't want to get an unkind word from my dad / a strong word. I don't know—you just hated to hurt him in any way / you just had that feeling about him.


Dennis: As you followed your dad, you undoubtedly watched how he loved your mother.

John: Oh, yes.

Dennis: Tell us about what you observed there and his commitment to her, as a woman and as his wife, over their years together.

John: Well, I think dad's first concern was always for mother. He was looking out for her the best he could in every way—but in a gentle way / in a gentle way. I can picture them together—not in the romantic way that you might think—but there was just something between them that was very, very special. I don't know how to describe it.

Dennis: You said of yourself in your book, They Call Me Coach, that, as you moved into your high school years, you were shy / you were reserved, especially with the opposite sex.

John: Yes; I suppose, not being exposed much—no sisters—and I'm on the farm.



I suppose that's the reason—I don't know—but I was a little shy.

Bob: But here you were—this star basketball player on the high school team. I mean, the girls / the cheerleaders had to notice Johnny Wooden; didn't they? Did they call you “Johnny” back then or was it “John”?

John: John Bob.

Bob: John Bob.

Dennis: John Bob!

John: Nellie and I had been married for many years when her sister came out here to California—her sister came one time and she said, "Don't you think you and John have been married long enough that you should quit calling him John Bob?" [Laughter]

Bob: But didn't the girls start to notice you as you were draining those jump shots on the basketball teams?

Dennis: Yes; he kind of skirted your answer there—I was watching him about that.

John: Well, I'll tell you—my freshman year, I was still living on the farm. We didn't lose the farm until after my freshman year, and we commuted from this little town of Center—we lived about a half a mile out of that—to Martinsville.



I noticed this one little gal, and I didn't know that she had noticed me too—but I didn't know that. That summer, she got the brother of her closest friend, who then became very dear to me, to drive up. The brother had a car, and they drove up. I was working in the field, plowing corn with a team. They parked in the road and motioned for me to come over, and I wouldn't go over. I just kept on.

Bob: Why wouldn't you go over?! Here's this cute girl on the side of the road—

Dennis: —and you even liked her too!

John: Oh, yes; but I guess I was dirty.

Somehow, on the first day of classes, we happened to be in the same class. She said, "Why didn't you come over to see us over there?" I said, "Well, I was dirty and perspiring. You would have just made fun of me." And Nellie said—I can still see her—she said, "I would never make fun of you"; and I knew right then.


Dennis: There was a spark in her eyes.

John: Yes; and this is the only girl I ever really went with.

Bob: So, by your junior year in high school, did you think, "This is the girl I'll marry"?

John: I did.

Bob: And you all started going together?

John: We did.

Bob: So you waited to marry until you got to college?

John: Yes, until I graduated. We planned to be married after I graduated and got my first job; yes.

Bob: Coach, that's a long courtship—from your junior year in high school until you graduated from college and got your first job. That must have been hard!

Dennis: But, Bob, the rest of the story is—if Nellie hadn't put her foot down—

Bob: Oh! He might still be dragging it on today?

Dennis: Well, there is a rest of the story here because he really had promised her that he was going to marry her upon graduation; but then the war came along.

John: Yes; well, I had an appointment to West Point. She said: “That would be six more years, and I'm not going to wait. I'm going to a convent." So I didn't go to West Point. [Laughter]


Dennis: She said she wouldn't wait on you?

John: Yes; that's right.

Dennis: And so what did you do?

John: Well, I finished at Purdue.

Dennis: So you were married then?

John: We were married on August 8, 1932.

Dennis: You were, in those days, All-American three years in a row. You were named the College Player of the Year your senior year. As I was doing this research, I was thinking / I was talking to Bob—I said, "I don't remember Coach Wooden being that tall to be College Player of the Year. He must have been 6'3" or 6'4".” On the sidelines, you looked a little small around those big guys at UCLA. But you were only 5'10" in those days.

John: But, you know—the teams weren't as big then, either, as they are now too. Our center at Purdue, Stretch Murphy, was 6'8"; and he was a giant.



I only had the pleasure of playing with him one year. I had the displeasure of playing against him one year when I was a sophomore in high school for the Indiana State Championship. He was the center on the opposing team, and he was good.

Bob: Did you just have what it takes as an athlete? Were you just a naturally-gifted—something about the way God made you that you turned out to be a good basketball player? Or did you work really hard to be a good ball player?

John: Well, I hope I did the latter; but He provided the former. [Laughter] I had natural quickness. I couldn't do much about my height, but I could do something about my condition. I always wanted to be in the best possible condition and hoped that would be better than others—hoped others wouldn't work as hard at it as I did.

Bob: Back when you were in high school and in college, the game was different. The center jump was a pivotal part of the game. If you had a good center, that was the key to a successful season; wasn’t it?


John: At Purdue, we led one team one time 16 to 0; and they hadn’t touched the ball yet. There was no three-second rule or anything of that sort. So the game was different. My senior year at Purdue, I broke the Big Ten scoring record—about 15 points a game. [Laughter]

I played semi-pro basketball with the Kautsky Club in Indianapolis on weekends and during vacation periods sometimes—six years I played with them. My last year / my sixth year was the only year I ever played without the center jump. I wasn’t as good a player in my last year because I’d suffered a leg injury. My whole game was quickness and speed. I still wasn’t as good of a player, but I scored twice as much than I’d ever scored before. That is merely an indication of what the abolishment of the center jump did to the game.


Bob: Today, when a young man graduates as the College Player of the Year, he’s going to be drafted #1 or #2 in the NBA draft. He’s going to get a signing bonus that is millions of dollars. He’s going to get a contract that is worth millions of dollars a year. He’s going to be an instant media celebrity. When you graduated, as the College Player of the Year, was there anything like that that accompanied your graduation?

John: Well, of course not; but there were a lot of things that were better. I had Nellie immediately after my graduation as soon as I got a job. [Laughter] I had a job—I only got $115 a month, but it was a job. I made as much, on the side almost, playing the semi-pro basketball as I did on my job; but there are a lot of advantages / there are a lot of disadvantages.

Dennis: Coach, you mentioned that your father was a tremendous influence on your life.



You also mentioned your college basketball coach, who had an interesting nickname—Piggy.

John: Yes; Coach Ward “Piggy” Lambert was his nickname.

Dennis: How did he influence your life?

John: I think that Mr. Lambert had as high morals as any coach that I’ve ever known—many, many things—I’ll give you an example. After my sophomore year, we were generally considered national champions. There was no tournament at that time.

Mr. Lambert called me in that spring before school was out and said, “Do you know a Dr. So-and-so?” And I said, “Yes, he’s one of our good friends.” He said, “He really likes you.” I thought that was nice. He said, “He wants to do something for you.” I said, “Well, what does he want to do for me?” He said, “He wants you to quit working in the fraternity house and to not have to work at other jobs to make money.” I said, “Well, that sounds pretty good!” 


He said, “Well, then, how are you going to repay him?” I said, “Well, I thought he just wanted to do this.” He said: “He does, but I thought you were the type of person who would want to repay him. I want you to think this over. Come in, in a little while, and let me know.”  Well, I went in a few days later; and he said, “What did you decide?” I said, “Well, I’ll go along.” And he said: “Oh, I thought you would! That’s exactly what I thought you’d do.” And he said: “You’re not going to owe anybody anything! You’ve earned your way and deserved it, and I thought you’d do that.” 

“But,”—he said—“you need some clothes. I know, when we played Wisconsin and Minnesota last year, you didn’t have a topcoat and your shoes weren’t very good. You go over Hennes [spelling uncertain] Department Store—it’s all set up over there for you to get some clothes.”    I had the best suit and best pair of shoes I had ever had. I think I got a pair of Florsheim shoes; I think they were $5 then. That was nice! [Laughter] Mine before, I think, had been a dollar or two.


He said, “But this is not a gift.” He said, “You know, you’ll get tickets. Next year—your second year as a starter—you’ll get three tickets and, being captain, you’ll get a fourth ticket. Dr. Rosnick [spelling uncertain] gets your tickets / you’ll get no tickets.” But he said: “If your parents or Nellie comes up or anything, we’ll get them in. Don’t worry about that.” [Laughter]


Bob: Well, we have been listening to a couple of much younger guys interviewing Coach John Wooden. [Laughter] We sound a little different there; don’t we? [Laughter]

Dennis: We did! You know, Coach Wooden lived to be 99 years old before he died in 2010. You just kept hearing stories about him all the way to the end—of the impact he had on other coaches, former players, and young men.



He was stretched out all the way to the finish line.

Bob: And we’re not done hearing stories from Coach Wooden this week. Tomorrow, we’ll continue our conversation we had with him back in 2003. But I wanted to let our listeners know we’ve got a book that we’ve got in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center that’s called The Wisdom of Wooden: My Century On and Off the Court. It is more than just a basketball memoir—it has his philosophy of life. His seven-point creed is included: “Make each day a masterpiece,” “Help others,” “Be true to yourself,”—the guiding principles that he used to mold young men to be more than just basketball players.

Find out more about the book, The Wisdom of Wooden: My Century On and Off the Court, when you go to If you know somebody who’s a young man playing basketball in junior high or high school, this would be a great book to get for that young person.



Read it with them, or give it to them as a gift. Again, you’ll find the book, The Wisdom of Wooden, when you go to Or you can call 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY,” and ask to have the book sent to you.

Now, we’ve got some friends, who live in Meridian, Idaho, celebrating their second wedding anniversary today—Paul and Sasha Shulga—they are Legacy Partners. I think they hosted an Art of Marriage® video event, and I think Paul has taken guys through the Stepping Up® video series. We just wanted to say, “Congratulations!” to you guys on year number two in your marriage. We’re glad that you listen to FamilyLife Today. We appreciate your support of this ministry.

We’re all about anniversaries, here at FamilyLife. This is our 40th anniversary, but it’s not our anniversary that we want to focus on this year. We want to focus on all of the anniversaries that have happened because of how God has used FamilyLife over the last 40 years.



There have been a lot of them—like the Shulgas.

Thanks to those of you who help make this ministry happen. We appreciate your financial support. We are listener-supported. All that we do is made possible by folks, like you—who will either give occasionally or who will join us, as Legacy Partners, and give each month to support the ministry of FamilyLife Today.

If you’re able to make a donation today, we’d like to say, “Thank you,” by sending you a copy of Michelle Anthony’s book, Becoming a Spiritually Healthy Family. It’s our thank-you gift when you support the ministry of FamilyLife Today. You can do that online at; you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY; or you can mail your donation to FamilyLife Today at PO Box 7111, Little Rock, AR; our zip code is 72223.

By the way, we’d love to help you celebrate your anniversary in a special way this year.



We’ve got some anniversary ideas that we will send to you about a month before your anniversary comes around. All we have to do is know when your anniversary is and whether you’d rather get text messages or emails. Go to and sign up to make this a very special anniversary in 2016.

Now, tomorrow, we’re going to hear more of our conversation, recorded back in 2003, with Coach John Wooden—a classic visit with one of the greatest coaches of all time. I hope you can tune in for that.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, with special help from Mark Ramey. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.

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