INDIANAPOLIS -- Forty years ago this spring, he took his rolled-up program and 10 national championships and walked off into the sunset.
John Wooden was only 64 the day he coached his last game in 1975 -- a UCLA title clincher, of course. That’s three and four years younger than Mike Krzyzewski and Bo Ryan, respectively, who both will be at work here in the Final Four this weekend.
In other words, Wooden’s numbers could have been even more staggering had he decided it was not time to go be with his wife. But what’s better than immortal?His shadow falls over this event even now, four decades later. This is Wooden Land. He was born 40 minutes southwest of Lucas Oil Stadium and played his high school ball at Martinsville, then went to Purdue just northwest up the road an hour. His first college coaching job was 90 minutes west at Indiana State.
The coaches of today -- even the most hallowed of them who have come here to play -- understand Wooden’s legacy is in a place they will likely never see.
Take the man who has matched Wooden with his 12th Final Four.
"Starting out coaching, I always felt that if you crossed the bridge to the Final Four, you got to the Promised Land," Mike Krzyzewski said Thursday.
But he knows he’s been crossing the Wooden Bridge. It has taken Krzyzewski 30 years -- from his first Final Four to this one -- to make it to 12. It took Wooden 14 years. Krzyzewski has four national titles in those 30 years. Wooden won 10 in a 12-year championship bender.
"You’re really talking about one of a kind," Krzyzewski said. "I think almost all records will be broken. His will never be broken.
"He did it one after another. He got great players to play as a team, over and over. And it never got old for him; the pressure, the expectations of being perfect. It was really as an incredible a run, I think, as there has been in sports."
Maybe there weren’t as many teams in the tournament then.
Maybe the regional fields weren’t as balanced, and the sport had less parity.
Wooden’s Bruins weren’t playing any No. 16 seeds in their first tournament game, nor did they narrowly eke their way to all that hardware. Their average Final Four winning margin was 13.4 points. The two semifinal games he lost were by two and three points.
With the 40th post-Wooden Final Four imminent in his home state, maybe some comparative numbers can remind us what his age was like.The four coaches here this weekend -- Krzyzewski, Ryan, Tom Izzo and John Calipari -- have won 2,885 college basketball games. All certain Hall of Famers. Combined, they have six national championships.
Or four fewer than Wooden by himself.
Kentucky is trying to become the eighth men’s unbeaten national champion. Wooden did it four times. Everyone else who ever coached the game did it three.
Michigan State is here with 11 losses. Wooden’s 10 national champions combined for just 10.
Krzyzewski has lost four national championship games. Wooden went 10-0.
Izzo is 3-5 in the Final Four, Calipari is 4-4, Ryan 0-1 and Krzyzewski 12-7. A combined 19-17. While we’re at it, Dean Smith was 8-11, Rick Pitino is 8-5, Roy Williams 6-5.
Wooden was 21-3, counting third-place games.
Michigan State is trying to become the first Big Ten national champion since 2000. The entire league has won 10 national titles in its history.
The same as Wooden.
Krzyzewski has flown here on the wings of freshmen. Calipari has made Kentucky an annual juggernaut ... with freshmen.
The two iconic Wooden players -- Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton -- weren’t even allowed to play as freshmen.Forty years and nine UCLA coaches later, Wooden’s aura has not dulled for those who now chase a championship.
"I remember meeting him for the first time," Izzo said. "He said to me, 'Welcome to the fraternity of 40.' At the time there were 40 guys that had won a national championship. I felt really good, 6-8 walking around, that I was one of the 40. Bill Walton tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Remember, John’s won 10 of them.'
"I was about that [fingers held close together] big. It kind of humbles you."
It also can teach.
"No one will ever match the amount of titles he has, so you learn from that," Krzyzewski said. "One of the main things is how to handle any level of success you had. I always thought he handled it with great dignity. I always thought that his players loved playing for him. They played like a cohesive unit. I also saw in his teams the ability to adapt.
"Everyone would talk about Alcindor and Walton. Half of his championships, he didn’t have those two guys. His first champions, [his] 2-2-1 press ... was one of the more beautiful things to watch in basketball."
And now Krzyzewski is in his own 12th Final Four.
"I think you’re a modern day Wooden," Izzo said to Krzyzewski on Thursday.
Well, almost. But there might not be anyone out there who appreciates Wooden’s feats more than the man who is closest to them.
The first thing Mike Krzyzewski said when asked about John Wooden?
"It’s an honor to answer that question."