|UCLA women’s basketball coach Cori Close|
I was an assistant coach at UCLA in 1994, when one of the men’s team assistants, Steve Lavin, reached out and said, “Let’s go see Coach Wooden.” I remember being so excited, but scared, too. The idea of seeing him face to face was intimidating. I tried to make every excuse that I could to avoid going.
I’m glad Steve didn’t let me miss that moment. We walked in and Coach greeted Steve, then looked up and very politely said, “Who are you?” I said, “Hi, I’m Cori.” He stopped, looked at me and asked how I spelled my name. When I sheepishly told him, he said, “I want to show you something.” He walked me around the corner to his den, and there in front of us was a little stool with his great-granddaughter’s name carved in it. He said, “You are the first person I have ever met who spells your name like my great-granddaughter Cori.”
From then on, I joked that he wouldn’t have invited me in if my name was spelled traditionally, C-o-r-e-y. Of course he would have been that gracious no matter how my name was spelled, but that was one of my great early lessons from Coach Wooden: Find a way to connect to everyone. He found a way to make everyone feel comfortable in his presence.
From that point on, I pretty much went back every other Tuesday for the rest of my time as an assistant at UCLA, and then I continued to come back once a month, even after I went to coach at the University of Santa Barbara. That went on for nine straight years. I was just really thankful that he let me in.
During our time, I asked him so many questions about our profession. One of the most profound things he taught me was how he made really complicated things very simple. Many of us, myself included, overthink things. Sometimes I’d bring what I thought were problems to him and he’d ask a couple of simple questions, and then ask me, “What are you committed to? Know who you are. Stick to your principles, make choices that are in line with your principles, and deal with the results.”
I remember saying to myself, Can it really be that simple? But in the end I know that is exactly how he became the greatest coach of all time. He knew what he was committed to, and he brought everything back to what he stood for—that became a lesson I aspired to model.
Another lesson he offered was to not try and be someone else. I sometimes would ask how he would handle something I was dealing with and he would say, “I don’t want you to do it like me; I want you to find what works for you and do that.” Many of us want to find someone successful—mine was John Wooden—and try to copy that person. He said that was a huge mistake. Study their principles, he said, but build your own.
What strikes me most about Coach Wooden was that, besides winning games, what he really did was help build amazing men. We once had a visitor who was part of a charity we supported. I didn’t know who the guy was, but he said to me, “I’ve been married for 38 years because of what Coach Wooden taught me. I have opened three successful businesses because of what he taught me. I have conquered cancer three times because of what he taught me. I even survived the death of my 12-year-old daughter because of the tools that he gave me. I am the man I am because of UCLA Basketball and what Coach Wooden taught me, and you now have this chance to shape young women. I’ll be cheering for you.”
The man was John Vallely, starting guard on two of UCLA’s championship teams, who went on to play two years in the NBA. He shared that Coach stayed invested in him for many, many years after he was no longer playing at UCLA. Lots of coaches talk about staying in touch—John Wooden did it. Coach taught Vallely what true loyalty was. He reminded me it was just not enough to have trophies and win championships; we have to shape others.