When it came to basketball, only one name was on the list: John Wooden. He immediately invited me to his house for a few days. In preparation, I decided I couldn’t waste this man’s time; I had to have something organized. So I went to the alphabet. I took a yellow legal pad and thought, What can I talk to him about that starts with the letter A? What does he consider achievement? The first thing that he told me was: We should never mistake activity for achievement. There is nothing worse than activity that accomplishes nothing. Next I talked to him about attitude—the attitude of his players, his attitude toward his assistant coaches, and the pressure of winning and dealing with the media and problems that might occur with his players off court. I took notes like a madman because I didn’t bring a tape recorder; I thought it would be rude.
Then I went to B. I asked about bulletin boards. Did he have them, and if so were they to motivate or to instruct? Did he put something up every day?
Then C. Which coaches did he admire and why? Correspondence: Did he handle all of his correspondence? Did he type it or did he handwrite it? Did he have a secretary do it? He told me he answered every letter that he received if he knew who it was from, and most of the time by hand. Occasionally when time was short, he had it typed.
The first day I arrived to his modest home at 8 in the morning. About 6 p.m. I felt like I was imposing upon him. So I said, “Coach, I have taken enough of your time. I am sure you are tired, so I will see you tomorrow.”
He immediately said, “No, Dale. Sit back down, I am not tired. We will continue.” We went to 10:30 p.m. He never seemed to tire.
I went all the way through to Z—notebooks and notebooks full of wisdom.
The last day I was there I wanted to thank him for being so gracious. He came out to my car and walked up to me. He said, “Dale, I am really glad that we had a chance to bond. It was a delightful time, but you could have saved LSU some money and yourself some time. All those pages of notes that you took… there are really just three secrets.” I had already closed my trunk and didn’t want to open it to grab a pad and pen, but I was desperate to do so thinking, Here it comes, here’s the magic.
He said, “The three things that I am going to tell you are fairly simple if you want to be successful. First, make certain that you always have better players than anybody that you play. Make sure you always get those better players to put the team above themselves; that is imperative. Finally, don’t try and be some coaching genius or guru. Don’t give your players too much information. Remember there are only five variables or players on the court. Always practice simplicity with constant repetition.”
As I began my career, I kept going back to those three things in my mind. Obviously we all want great players, but finding the ones who think team first—that’s a challenge. I had to remember that he said to practice simplicity. Most coaches want to be known for their genius, for some strategy that changed the game. But he wanted to be known for keeping it simple.