SAN JOSE, Ca.—I knew John Wooden better than I know Nick Saban but how lucky I’ve been to first-draft witness coaching greatness across such a historical spectrum.
It’s only sports and I’m only a sportswriter. But imagine covering Thomas Edison at the end of his career and Steve Jobs at the start of his.
I was a huge, off-the-chart UCLA basketball fan growing up in Southern California and remember like yesterday Wooden winning his 10th and final NCAA title in 1975.
I was in Seattle, working for the L.A. Times, with John R. Wooden in the stands, when UCLA captured its last NCAA title in 1995.
I was lucky to know Coach Wooden, professionally, as the paper’s national basketball columnist and admired everything about him. But he was an old man then, 20 years removed from office. He had moved into his wise-sage living legend phase, holding court from his studio apartment.
My experience with Nick Saban has been more contemporary in that I have chronicled all six of his college football national titles (five at Alabama, one at LSU).
Saban is closing in on national title No. 7 on Monday in Santa Clara, of all places, which would leave him three titles short of the magical “10.”
It has been mostly sacrilege in these parts to compare any collegiate achievement to what happened at UCLA a half-century ago.
But it is time for us in the West to let loose the clutches and consider the magnitude of what Saban is doing at Alabama.
On Saturday, in the hotel lobby, I bumped into Cecil Hurt, a truly fine writer and columnist for the Tuscaloosa News.
I asked how his season has gone and he said it was like being in the middle of Wooden’s dynasty.
It used to upset me, as a left-coaster, how often people in the South dismissed UCLA and Wooden for reasons that could only be ascribed to ignorance and jealously.
Years ago, after North Carolina Coach Dean Smith broke Adolph Rupp’s all-time victory record at an NCAA Tournament in Winston-Salem, a southern reporter said out-loud in the press room, something like, “Well, I guess that makes Dean Smith the all-time greatest…”
I almost spit out my soda and couldn’t help but offer “Well, there was that guy named Wooden.”
I have had to constantly fend off Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski against the legacy of Wooden. Coach K has five national titles, which is wonderful, but it has also taken him 44 seasons to reach that mark. Wooden won 10 titles in 27 years at UCLA, an average of one every 2.7 seasons.
Saban’s run, as Cecil Hurt suggests, is more comparable to what Wooden did. Saban is seeking his seventh title in his 23rd season as a head coach.
Wooden won 10 titles in a 12-year span at UCLA. A win for Saban on Monday would mark his sixth title at since 2008.
It is unlikely, but possible, that Saban could win 10 national titles in the same time it took Wooden to win 10 at UCLA.
What would anyone say about that?
Saban is not Wooden, but he is creeping into the neighborhood.
Wooden’s UCLA teams won 38 straight, single-elimination NCAA Tournament games. That, to me, is the most impressive and unassailable feat of Wooden's dynasty.
What Saban is doing in real time, though, should not be pettily dismissed just because he is threatening the record of a cherished and beloved coach.
We should consider what Saban and Wooden have in common. Both hailed from small, rural hamlets (Indiana and West Virginia). They married sweethearts and stayed with them (Nell and Miss Terry). And if you think Saban is paranoid with the media, well, Wooden kept Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton under house arrest.
Wooden got his points across better, through his whimsical sayings and pyramid of success, but Saban has basically been practicing and preaching what led to Wooden's top building block.
Competitive greatness: Be at Your Best When Your Best Is Needed.
Wooden made all of this more digestible for the masses: Failing to prepare is preparing to fail... …Be quick but don’t hurry…Be more concerned with your character than your reputation…
What Saban lacks in poetry he has made up for in results.
Wooden’s greatest UCLA teams never practiced for opponents. They made opponents practice for them.
Saban’s attention to detail and preparedness is uncompromising—and straight from Wooden’s handbook.
Saban said Sunday he isn’t worried about his legacy as much as he’s worried about tomorrow.
“That doesn’t really enter into my mind,” he said of being on the brink of his seventh national title. “I don’t ever even think about that at all. I do think a lot about trying to make and help this team to be the best possible and to put them in the best possible position to have a chance to be successful.”
What Saban was trying to say, in so many days, is “Make each day your masterpiece.”
It’s up for Alabama fans today to determine whether Saban has already surpassed Bear Bryant as their greatest coach.
If Saban wins his seventh title on Monday, however, he’ll shoot one crown past Bear and inch closer to the mountain top of 10.
It may, or may not, happen. But it is no longer blasphemous to consider the comparison or the possibility.