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Remembering a Legend: Coach John Wooden

Original Air Date 06/28/2010

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In a tribute to legendary basketball coach John Wooden, we present a recording in which Chick-fil-A President Tim Tassopoulos interviewed the coach before a live audience at a conference several years before Wooden's passing in 2010. Wooden inspired listeners with some of the invaluable lessons he learned about character and success.

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Episode Transcript


John Fuller: The late Coach John Wooden was a great role model and family man whose love for poetry reflected his love for life.


Coach John Wooden: “A careful man I must always be, a little fellow follows me. I know I dare not go astray, for fear he’ll go the self-same way. I must be careful as I go through summer’s sun and winter’s snow, because I am building for the years to be, this little chap who follows me.”

End of Excerpt

John: Welcome to Focus on the Family with your host Focus president Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller and as March Madness is underway in the college basketball world, you’ll hear today from the legendary Coach John Wooden who was so loved and highly respected by millions of people over the course of many decades. Mr. Wooden died at the age of 99 and that was back in 2010. Today we’ll pay tribute to him and learn from him on this broadcast.

Jim Daly: Coach John Wooden loved the Lord and he looked at life as an opportunity to give back to God by investing in other people and he did it so well. He taught young men not only the game of basketball, but more importantly, he taught them and all of us so much about living and learning and growing to the very end of his life. I grew up in southern California and of course John Wooden coached at UCLA, so I knew a lot about him and heard a lot about him, even as a boy. And so during this March Madness time, hopefully you’ve picked your brackets and your teams-- I know Trent, Troy and I have-- we wanted to present a special recording from this humble man who has done so much to build character in other people.

John: And that’s going to be evident as you listen. Coach Wooden led the UCLA Bruins to ten NCAA National Championships in just 12 years, which is unheard of, and that included an 88-game winning streak. He was the first person to be enshrined in the basketball Hall of Fame, both as a player and a coach, and is arguably the greatest coach that ever lived.

Now this audio was recorded at a Chick-Fil-A business conference just a few years before Coach Wooden died. Tim Tassopoulos who is now the president and COO of Chick-Fil-A had the opportunity to sit down with the coach in front of a very large audience to learn more about his life and his philosophy and it was a wonderful time captured on tape. Mr. Wooden was 96 years old at the time and just as sharp as a tack and this Q & A is going to help you get to know him and it’s a very special Focus on the Family broadcast.


Tim Tassopoulos: Well, Coach, with all the accomplishments and uh … the affirmation, did you ever expect to be this famous? How do you keep it all in perspective?

Coach Wooden: I don’t consider myself famous at all. It’s just the fact that I’ve been thrown into a position where I’ve been on the public eye a little more, purely and simply because I had the wonderful pleasure of having a lot of wonderful young men uh … under my supervision. If they hadn’t have done well, I wouldn’t be here. (Laughter) But uh … I do appreciate and delighted to thank you very much for that very, very warm reception.

Tim: Now I understand uh … there’s a story about a statue in your hometown.

Coach Wooden: Yes. (Chuckling) Yes, there’s a statue—a life-sized statue—in the gymnasium in my hometown, which is named for me. And … and the trouble of it is, when they delivered the statue, the head broke off. (Laughter) I don’t know whether that was a sign or not, but anyway … (Laughter) The sculptor uh … they couldn’t get in touch with him and they had another one do it and they sent a picture uh … to him. And uh … he put the … made the head of the picture.

The problem is, that it wasn’t my picture that they sent. (Laughter) Uh … and uh … my children don’t like it at all. And I say, “Be quiet. It’s better lookin’ than I am, this …” (Laughter)

Tim: Uh … that’s great. (Laughter) Now Coach, you grew up in rural Indiana. Who was the greatest influence on you growin’ up?

Coach Wooden: Well, my father, unquestionably. My father, to this day, I think is one of the finest men you could possibly be. He never … he never had a[n] unkind word to say about anyone. He never used a word of profanity. He never complained about things, and he had reason to, I believe on a number of occasions, but he just wouldn’t do that. And uh … within my brothers, he had three rules. He said, “There should be time for play, after the chores and the study is done.” And he tried to impress that on … on me and my brothers at all times.

Tim: Now did he offer any specific uh … for example, I … I’ve read before about some rules that he offered to you or a creed to live by?

Coach Wooden: Well, first of all, it was two sets of threes he gave us. One was: don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal. And he said, “If you don’t lie, you won’t have to remember what you said.” And that’s pretty good. (Laughter) And the other one was, don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses; just do the best you can. And uh … then when I graduated from a small country grade school, he gave me a little card. And on one side was a verse by Rev. Henry Van Dyke that said, “Four things a man must learn to do if he would make his life more 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, and uh ... I say ... all Dad said was, “Son, try to live up to these.” The creed was … the first one was, “Be true to yourself.” And certainly, if you’re true to yourself, you’re gonna be true to all others. I … some of you may be familiar with some of Shakespeare’s immortal plays, where he … Polonius, speaking to his son, Laertes, where he’s leaving, going out in the world. And Dad thinks he should give him some advice, knows he won’t listen very much, but thinks he should give him some advice.

Then he said, “Neither a borrower, nor a lender be, for a loan oft loses both itself and the friend. And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry [and] this above all, to thine own self be true and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to anyone [any man].”

And the second one was help others and I dare say that everyone in here today, if you just stop and think; your greatest joy comes when you’ve done something for somebody else. There’s no greater joy than to learn that something you’ve said or done has been meaningful to another, especially when it was done with no thought of something in return.

And then was, “Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible.” And then was, “Make friendship a fine art.” Don’t ... don’t … you must work at making friends. You must work at making friendship flourish. Don’t take it for granted. And then, the one that probably I used a little more toward the development of my idea of teaching uh … sports was, “Make each day a masterpiece.” Just do your best you can every day. No one can do more than that. They may have more ability, maybe [unintelligible] and other things, but no one can do more than making the effort to do the best of which they can.

Then the next one was, “Build a shelter against a rainy day.” And the last one was “Never forget to give thanks for your blessings and pray for guidance every day.” That was the seven-point creed. People ask me if I’ve lived up to it and I say, “No.” (Laughter) But I’ve tried and I think that’s all I … Dad would’ve expected and that’s all I expected of young people under my supervision, of my children, grandchildren and my 13 great-grandchildren. All I ask is try.

Tim: Now growing up uh … you met your wife, Nellie. How … tell us about that.

Coach Wooden: Well, Nellie’s the only girl I ever went with. And uh … when I was a freshman in high school, I lived on the farm, eight miles away from this little town. And uh … I had seen her. I thought she was kind of cute, but (Chuckling) she didn’t see me for anything and uh … (Laughter)

But that summer I was in … I was plowing corn actually and I was resting the team and turned a corner and the … someone drove up on the dirt road right close by. And this little girl hopped out and then her dearest friend’s um … brother had a car and they’d driven up the eight miles. And they got out and motioned for me to come over and I wouldn’t go, and I wouldn’t go.

And finally, they drove away and the next year, my first class in high school, I was headed to algebra class and here she was with her, “Why didn’t you come over and see us?” And I said, “Well, I was perspiring, and I was dirty, and you’d have made fun of me.” And she said … and I can see her to this day. She said, “I would never make fun of you.”

Tim: Hm.

Coach Wooden: That started it. (Laughter)

Tim: Your coaching style, very different from many coaches today. Coaches today walk up and down the sideline. They’re constantly shouting instructions to the players during the game. And you sat on the bench and were … often were quiet during the game.

Coach Wooden: Well, the good Lord in His infinite wisdom, created us all differently, you know. And because one does something, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong and you’re right, or vice versa. But I felt that uh … that to … my players would have more um … be more under control if I seemed to be under control. And if I got out of control, how can I tell them to be under con ... how can I tell them that if they lose their self-control, they’re gonna be outplayed, when I apparently am losing my self-control on the bench? I … I tried uh … not to get too … but oh yeah, you’re gonna get excited, you know.

Tim: Uh-hm.

Coach Wooden: But I taught 40 years, and I had two technicals. And one I didn’t deserve. (Laughter and Applause) I ... I didn’t … I didn’t mention the fact that there might have been many times I would’ve deserved one and didn’t get it (Laughter), but we’ll forget those. (Laughter)

Tim: Coach, uh... how important is preparation to execution?

Coach Wooden: Failure to prepare is preparing to fail. It doesn’t make any difference what it is, failure to prepare is preparing to fail. You must be prepared.

Tim: Now what happened if a player didn’t respond? Someone who perhaps was not playing at their highest level?

Coach Wooden: Well, I had the greatest ally in the world-- the bench. (Laughter) They could sit by me a while and I might talk to them a moment and uh... might give ‘em a chance to try again... and um.. if they tried again and didn’t shape up, they’d be sittin’ back on the bench again. It’s the greatest ally you have, but remember, one of the greatest motivating things in the world is the pat on the back. Every one of you, you like to be patted on the back. If you say you don’t, you’re lying. Every one likes to be patted on the back and um... but sometimes the pat has to be a little lower and a little harder (laughter). But, uh... But I think any person in the position of leadership must get it across to those under your supervision, whether it be in business or in sports or whatever it might be that you care for ‘em. You care for them as a person. You care for them. You care about their family. You care for ‘em. I wanted to know if my players’ parents were having any problems or brothers or sisters... I wanted to know those things. One of the problems that they might be having and maybe just talking over problems can help, maybe you can’t solve ‘em but you can help and it’s just very important. So important that you know and get across to them that you care for them individually.

Tim: Do you see yourself and did you see yourself more as a coach or a teacher?

Coach Wooden: Oh, a teacher, by all means, I’m the teacher. That’s all a coach is-- you’re a teacher, you’re teaching the sport, whatever sport that might be. But you’re a teacher and you have the same, follow the same laws of learning and I had to follow in teaching my youngsters to parse a sentence or write a composition or doing something else in the English class.

Tim: Now earlier you mentioned these two words, “love” and “balance.”

Coach Wooden: Uh-hm.

Tim: Tell us a little bit more about why you think those are the two most important words.

Coach Wooden: Well, if you’d come in my little condo that I have, that … one bookcase is carved in there and it’s titled “Love” and the other’s “Balance.” And another one is “Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible.” Then … love is obviously the most important word in our language. If we had it throughout this troubled world to the extent that I think we would have love for one another, our problems would not be as severe. We’d have problems, of course, but they would not be unmanageable if we just had more love and consideration for the other side, whatever it might be.

Now, we must keep things in perspective. Balance is keeping things in perspective. Don’t get carried away if things are going too well, or things are going too poorly. Don’t get carried away. Just continue making the effort to do the best you can at whatever you’re doing and you must always be learning—learning from others—to improve yourself in the activities in which you’re involved, whatever they might be.

And I think that uh … so, I … I … I really believe that those are … are ... all words are important, of course, but I believe that they are probably the two most important words to me.

John: This is Focus on the Family and we’re listening today to the late Coach John Wooden who was interviewed at a business conference a few years before he died by Tim Tassopoulos, the president of Chick-Fil-A. And you can request an extended version of this conversation. It’s available on CD or as a download when you make a generous donation of any amount at

Tim: Looking back over your life, what’s the greatest challenge you’ve ever faced?

Coach Wooden: Losing my Nellie, that’s the greatest challenge, when I didn’t care much to whether I carried on or not at that particular time. But with my great grandchildren coming along at that time, she didn’t live to see any of my 13 … our 13. And uh … I think then get myself and the feet on the ground and uh … and carrying on. And uh … I think that is … was a challenge in … in … uh … of getting yourself under control. That was the biggest one I’ve had.

Tim: Your greatest joy in life?

Coach Wooden: My great grandchildren, my grandchildren (Laughter) and my … my family, that … that they’re greatest, the greatest joy, yeah. That … that is, they’re my greatest joy.

Tim: And how did you balance family with such a demanding coaching career?

Coach Wooden: Well, but I think that there’s three things that I’ve used and I speak about these in the book, is faith, family and friends. If you have uh … if you have those three, what else do you need?

Tim: Hm.

Coach Wooden: Faith, family and friends, if you have faith, you’re gonna be at ease; you have your family around you, you couldn’t have much else. Then friends, we need friends. And uh … we have those, we have all we need.

Tim: Now I know you have a favorite poem about faith, about the little fellow who follows you.

Coach Wooden: Yes. When uh … when my son was born in 1936, I had just finished doing a … or editing a book for Huck Operation Company [?] and I’d finished that and they sent me, of course, the check. And they sent me a set of encyclopedias. I’ll bet there were that many. And if you put that along Book of the Knowledge today, you’d say, “Well, I guess they didn’t … not … not much happened before 1936.” (Laughter) I guess it did.

But they sent me a picture of a man walkin’ along the seashore and his little son is trying to step in the footprints behind him before the wind whisked them away. And there are some lines along the side that say,

“A careful man I must always be, a little fellow follows me. I know I dare not go astray, for fear he’ll go the self-same way. I cannot once escape his eyes, what ‘ere he sees me do, he tries. Like me he says, he’s going to be, this little chap who follows me. He thinks that I am good and fine, believes in every word of mine. The base in me he must not see, this little chap who follows me. I must be careful as I go through summer’s sun and winter’s snow, because I am building for the years to be, this little chap who follows me.”

And that’s what we’re all doing, not necessarily our own flesh and blood, but others who observe us. We’re setting examples for others and … and our conduct will have a great bearing on our youth, certainly. And our youth is our future.

Tim: Now as you taught, one of the things that you used to teach was your Pyramid of Success.

Coach Wooden: Correct.

Tim: How did you develop it and what role did that play in your teaching?

Coach Wooden: Well, I think it helped. I … I didn’t like that way of judging success, you know, whether an A or a B or what … scoring more points at something. I think you can be successful without that. And uh … I wanted to come up if somebody would help me and become a better teacher. And … and I coined the … my definition for success. All I had to begin was at the apex, “success.” I didn’t know how many blocks, but the first two blocks I chose were the cornerstones. If any structure should have any real strength and solidity, it must have a strong foundation and of course, the cornerstones act as a foundation.

And in anything, the two cornerstones, I think, are so important. One is “industriousness,” hard work. There’s no substitute. [If] you’re lookin’ for the easy way, the trick, the shortcut, you’ll not be developing your talents. There’s no substitute for hard work.

And the other is “enthusiasm.” You have to enjoy what you’re doing. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, you’re not gonna be able to … to work as hard as you’re capable of doing.

And the foundation between the cornerstones, I had three blocks that include others: “friendship”, “loyalty” and “cooperation.” Now I could talk a lot on all three of those but I won’t, I’ll just go up and give you an idea.

The second tier I chose four blocks. “Self-control”, “alertness”, “initiative” and “intentness.” You must maintain self-control. Those of you who are going to play golf while you’re here, you better maintain self-control or the ball will either be farther to the right or left than it normally is, most of you. (laughter)

You must be alert and alive and always learning. Abraham Lincoln, my favorite American, said he never met a person from whom he did not learn something, although most of the time, it was something not to do. That’s learning. (Laughter) You must be alert and alive.

You must have initiative. Don’t be afraid to fail. We’re all imperfect. We’re gonna fail on occasions. Learn from our failures and not repeat them. And then, intentness. Might I … I said “determination.” I might have said “persistence.” I might’ve said, “perseverance.” Be intent on reaching realistic objectives and know that there’s gonna be obstacles along the way, but don’t make … don’t let them make you quit. Someone said, “When I look back, it seems to me all the grief that had to be, left me when the pain was o’er, stronger than I was before.” We get stronger through adversity.

Then you must have consideration for others—team spirit. It’s an eagerness. Team spirit is an eagerness to lose one’s self in the group for the welfare of the group. We need that. We need that so much. If we had more of that throughout this troubled world, our problems would not be as severe.

Then we move up to poise and confidence. You must believe in yourself, but you can’t if you’re not prepared. And poise is just bein’ yourself, is my definition for poise, just bein’ yourself. If you’re yourself, you won’t be pretending. You won’t … acting. You’ll not be something you’re not. You’ll execute near your level of competence. All these things will make you competitive—competitive greatness, the last block.

And then, from the one side, leading up is “patience” and the other side is “faith,” up to the apex. And so, it is a gradual process. I worked on it for 14 years before I brought it to its present form. I could change the names of some of them, but I … I haven’t seen fit to … to make a change in it, since I completed it in 1948.

Tim: You know, Coach, 96-years-old, as you think about the road behind and the road ahead, any thoughts?

Coach Wooden: (Chuckling) Well, um … “Some time as I think the fates must grin, as we denounce them and insist the only reason we can’t win is the fates themselves have missed. Yet, there lives on the ancient claim, we win or lose within ourselves. The shining trophies on our shelves can never win tomorrow’s game. You and I know deeper down, there’s always a chance to win the crown. But when we fail to give our best, we simply haven’t met the test of giving all and saving none, until the game is really won, of showing what is meant by grit, of fighting on when others quit, of playing through, not letting up. It’s bearing down that wins the cup. Of dreaming, there’s a goal ahead, of hoping when our dreams are dead, of praying when our hopes have fled. Yet losing, not afraid to fall if gamely we have given all. For who can ask more of a man than giving all within his span. Giving all, it seems to me, is not so far from victory. And so, the fates are seldom wrong; no matter how they twist and wind, it’s you and I who make our fates. We open up or close the gates on the road ahead or the road behind.” And there’s only one real gate that we want to be open to us.

Tim: Hm. Thank you.

Audience: (Extended Applause)

Tim: Coach, uh … as we close our time together, I know that there’s a special poem to you, as well, about “Don’t look back.” Would you grace us?

Coach Wooden: Well, I was asked some time ago to write a poem. I … I like to dabble in it. I’m not very good. I’m a “rhymer,” not a poet. But as one of my granddaughters once said, uh … uh ... about an older group and they wanted me to write something. So, I wrote something that said,

“The years have left their imprint on my hands and on my face. Erect no longer is my walk and slower is my pace. But there is no fear within my heart, because I’m growing old. I only wish I had more time to better serve my Lord. When I’ve gone to Him in prayer, He has brought me inner peace. And soon my cares and worries and other problems cease. He’s helped me in so many ways. He’s never let me down. Why should I fear the future, when soon I could be near His crown? Though I know down here, my time is short, there’s endless time up there. And He will forgive and keep me, ever in His loving care. May I not waste a day that’s left to glorify the name of the One who died that we might live and for our sins, took all the blame.”

Tim: Hm.

Audience: (Extended Applause)

Coach Wooden: Thank you very much.

Audience: (Extended Applause)

Coach Wooden: Thank you. Thank you very much.


John: What an amazing response to the legendary college basketball coach, the late John Wooden, who was 96-years old when that conversation was recorded with Tim Tassopoulos who’s now the President and COO of Chick-Fil-A.

Jim: John, I wish I could’ve played basketball for Coach Wooden. I guess I wished I could’ve played basketball is probably the better thing. (laughter) Because man, what a great man and what a man to be around. One of our team members, Doug Bernie, played for him at UCLA and he has such wonderful stories about his witticism, his spiritual depth and his concern for the players. It’s something that, boy, all men should really aim to become is that kind of mentor and good man. I love that homespun wisdom and graciousness that just poured out of him from his biological father and from his heavenly father. And something that really touched me deeply was how much he loved and missed his wife, Nellie.

John: I’d agree. And he continued to write letters to her even for 25 years after she was gone. He adored her that much.

Jim: Well, one other thing that caught my attention was this idea of treating people with respect even when they disagree with us. In the Christian faith, we’re taught to love our neighbor, not only if they think like we think but just because they’re near us. And Coach Wooden modeled that so very well.

John: Yeah, I appreciate that theme throughout his life and if you admire everything that Coach Wooden stood for, we have some great resources that I know you’ll enjoy. A book compiled by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which is a tribute to this great man. Stories from coaches, players and others who knew and admired Mr. Wooden. It’s called The Greatest Coach Ever. We’ve got that at our store and then we have an extended version of today’s presentation on CD or as a download. That’ll include twice the content that we could fit into today’s conversation.

Jim: And John, let me remind everyone that Focus on the Family is a listener-funded program and it’s important for us to hear from our friends who help us do this outreach. When you give, you’re sharing in the harvest of what’s happening here-- lives are saved, marriages are saved, parents who are equipped to be better parents for the next generation and the list goes on and on. Babies saved from abortion-- you are the core support of the ministry here at Focus.

John: And, as I noted, we have that book here at our store and you can donate and request your complimentary copy of that when you join the support team at or call 1-800-232-6459. 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.

And be sure to join us on Monday as we’ll have Milan and Kay Yerkovich talking about love styles and how you and your spouse can get out of destructive communication patterns.


Kay Yerkovich: So we weren’t able to have an honest conversation until probably the 15-year mark. But we did have that frustrating core pattern of his chasing me and me avoiding him and, of course, the more he chased, the more I avoided.

End of Teaser

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More Episode Resources


John Wooden

View Bio

John Wooden is one of the most successful coaches in college basketball history. He led the UCLA Bruins to 10 NCAA championships in a 12-year period, with a streak of seven in a row from 1967 to 1973. Over 27 years, he won 620 games, which included an 88 win streak. Wooden was also the first person to be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame both as a player and as a coach. The sports legend passed away on June 4, 2010 at age 99. He is survived by two children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.


Tim Tassopoulos

View Bio
Tim Tassopoulos is the president and chief operationg officer of Chick-fil-A, the popular fast food chain that has more than 2,000 restaurants across the United States. He began his Chick-fil-A career more than 40 years ago as a restaurant employee who worked his way up to several positions of corporate leadership including director of field operations, vice president of operations and executive vice president of operations. He assumed his current role in 2016. Tim and his wife, Maria, have two sons.