John Wooden’s Legacy Revisited

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Sam Gilbert was his name, a UCLA booster. Bob Knight says Gilbert made sure John Wooden’s Bruins were plush with prime players. Is it true? If so, what does it mean for Wooden’s legacy?


Sam Gilbert wasn’t a coach. He wasn’t employed by UCLA in any capacity. He was–as they used to say in college sports –“a booster.”

Today we like to call these folks athletic philanthropists. The term booster, benign on its face, has become tarnished.

SMU boosters funneled thousands of dollars to football players through a slush fund that was administered by school officials, including former Texas governor Bill Clements, who’s pictured here. (photo, Newsday)

Too many boosters engaged in deals designed to secure players and keep them “happy.” The best example was SMU football in the 1980s.  SMU got the NCAA “Death Penalty” for what happened.

Well, a decade or so before that, another booster–Sam Gilbert, a local businessman–“boosted” UCLA basketball for the school’s head coaches … legendary John Wooden included.

Wooden was a student of the game, perhaps the best who has ever lived. And, boy, could he practice what he knew! His UCLA teams dominated NCAA basketball in the 1960s and ’70s, winning 10 NCAA championships, including (incredibly) seven in a row from 1967 to 1973.

People have always spoken highly of Wooden. He wrote over 50 books on basketball and leadership, and the concepts and principles he espoused are practiced to this day. Business executives are especially fond of what Wooden called “the pyramid of success.”

Always an admirer of John Wooden, I’ve shared my admiration in writing, too. That’s why I’m trying to make sense of what (to me) are troubling allegations.

As the story goes, UCLA and Gilbert had “an arrangement.” Wooden would concentrate on coaching and Gilbert would “take care” of recruiting.

Bob Knight, another legendary coach (with three-time NCAA championships), is speaking out about what he knows about Gilbert, UCLA, and John Wooden. He did so, again–just a few days ago–on AT&T’s DirectTV-limited program, “Undeniable with Joe Buck,” which airs on The Audience Network.

Watch/listen to what Knight had to say.

I want to believe the allegations are untrue. For starters, is Knight a reputable source? He was a competitor of Wooden’s. Knight is also a curmudgeon (definition — an ill-tempered, surly person). This is exactly the kind of stuff I’d expect Knight to bite into. But….

The problem with that interpretation is that it’s entirely person-dependent–all about Knight. And it would be misguided, too. After doing a little research (believe me, I didn’t need to do much), it’s obvious that Knight wasn’t the first to make these allegations about Wooden. It seems that naughty stuff was going on in Westwood and people knew about it.

Consider this. Within days of Wooden’s passing in 2010, The LA Times published a feature article entitled, “The dark side of the UCLA basketball dynasty.” Wooden was wary of Gilbert, the article asserts, “but he generally turned a blind eye.”

Sam Gilbert (photo, Cleveland.com)

“Maybe I had tunnel vision,” The Times quotes Wooden.

“Gilbert’s influence ultimately helped land UCLA basketball on NCAA probation,” wrote the Times. “In December 1981, UCLA was cited for nine infractions and received two years’ probation, which included a one-year NCAA tournament ban and an order to vacate its 1980 NCAA national title game appearance against Louisville.”

Gilbert would have gone to trial for his dealings, but he died the same week that the Feds indicted him for racketeering and money laundering. Reputed ties to the Mafia were also in the mix.

Another source is sports journalist and telecaster, Seth Davis. Davis wrote a book about the coach, Wooden: A Coach’s Life (2014). In it, Davis writes about the situation with Gilbert.

Davis writes about how Bob Knight’s long-standing admiration for Pete Newell–a Wooden-rival who coached and won a national championship at California–bothered Wooden. And even though Wooden had complained about Gilbert — to his athletic director and to his players — Davis asserts that Wooden wasn’t close enough to his players to know whether they were following his advice to stay clear of the guy.

Knight concludes that Wooden was a good coach, but not a good person. That assessment seems understated on the coaching side and overstated on the personal side. But, to be fair, Knight has good reason to vent his angst: he’s a stickler for the rules and “the Gilbert matter” bothers him to this day.

For my part, I believe Wooden was a great coach. He knew how to organize and propel people to individual and team success. But other things are involved–they always are–in doing one’s job and living a life. You can be superb in some dimensions and not-so-good (even bad) in others.

Solving the “Gilbert problem” would have been in Knight’s wheelhouse, but it wasn’t in Wooden’s.

I have no doubt that Knight would have “handled Gilbert.” But Wooden’s personality was different.

John Wooden didn’t do anything expressly to break the rules. That doesn’t mean rules were unbroken. All it means is that Wooden lived with a situation he didn’t know how to handle.

We’re all like that. We handle some things just fine. We’re flummoxed by other things.

I understand why Bob Knight is upset. What requires a bit more personal exploration is why I’m not.

 

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About Frank Fear

I’m a Columnist at The Sports Column. My specialty is sports commentary with emphasis on sports reform. I also serve as TSC’s Chief Operating Officer and Managing Editor. In that role I coordinate the daily flow of submissions from across the country and around the world, including overseeing editing and posting articles. I’m especially interested in enabling the development of young, aspiring writers. I can relate to them. I began covering sports in high school for my local newspaper. In college I served as sports editor of the campus newspaper and worked in the Sports Information Director’s Office at St. John Fisher College. After finishing grad degrees at West Virginia and Iowa State I had a 35-year academic career at Michigan State. Now retired, it’s time to write again about sports. I strongly support TSC’s philosophy–democratizing voice by giving everybody a chance to write.



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