BILL DWYRE

John Wooden, the poet laureate of reason, kindness and decency

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* The time to make friends is before you need them.

Wooden's departure from UCLA was sudden, unlike his 1948 arrival and relatively slow march to a national dynasty that began with the first national title in 1964.

It was 1975, NCAA Final Four, San Diego.

"Ten minutes before I decided to retire, I didn't know I was going to do it," Wooden says. "Nobody believes that, but it is true.

"On Saturday night, we played Louisville in the semifinals. A beautiful game. Both teams had similar styles. Both teams played well. Neither team should have lost, but of course the right one did. We won it in overtime, and in many ways we were fortunate to win. There is always more satisfaction in a tight game than in one you run away with.

"I talked to Denny [Louisville Coach Crum] for a few minutes, and then, as I left him, I normally would head for the press conference. But for the first time, I didn't want to go. First time that ever happened to me. The lights were going to be flashing and microphones in my face, and I thought to myself, 'I don't want to do this.' Suddenly, I realized if I feel this way, it's time to get out.

"So I veered off and headed for the dressing room first, and I congratulated my players on the wonderful game they had played. I told them I don't know how we will do Monday night against Kentucky. I think we'll do all right because we are quicker than they are. They are stronger physically, but we are quicker.

"I think we'll be all right. I don't know, but I think so. But regardless of how the game comes out Monday, I want you to know that I've never had a team in all my years of whom I've been more proud. You haven't caused me a problem on or off the court all year long, and I'm just very proud of you. And that's nice to feel about the last team I'll ever coach.

"When I got to the press conference, somebody asked me what I felt about this year's team. Well, that gave the opening and I said what I had said to my players: that I've had more physically talented teams, but I've never had a team that gave me more satisfaction. Now I think we have an excellent chance to win it all, and if we do, no team has ever given me more satisfaction than this last team I'll ever coach."

Just like that, a shocker dropped in the lap of the press and public, moments after dropping it in the lap of his team. Wooden says that athletic director J. D. Morgan spent much of the rest of the night trying to get him to change his mind.

And Wooden says there were some mitigating factors: "Nellie wasn't feeling good, and she was also worried about me, because I'd had some little heart problems.

"And then something else had happened which I haven't really talked about. And I'm not proud of this. It is a weakness on my part. My feelings had been hurt.

"You probably disagree with me, and I understand that. You have a job, and I have a job. I never believed in letting reporters into the locker room after the games. Dressing rooms were small, and if you let one reporter in, you have to let them all in. I always let the press take players outside. You were welcome to take them outside. Players they want, just tell me.

"Well, there had been some conflict about that, and the tournament committee had just passed a rule that you had to let reporters into the dressing room. OK, so the tournament decides, so I'll go along with that. But then the chairman of the tournament committee says, after they pass that rule, 'That'll take care of John Wooden . . . . '

"Now, I don't think they ever had a coach more cooperative with tournament committees. I believe that in my heart. I never missed a meeting, and lots of coaches did. That one thing I disagreed with, but if they say you do it, then you do it. But for him to make that statement -- and it was in all the papers -- it hurt me. That's a weakness on my part. I let it hurt me, and I shouldn't have."

On March 31, 1975, UCLA beat Kentucky, 92-85. It was John Wooden's 10th national title, his last game. Retirement had begun and, as his father had advised years before, Wooden never looked back.

So who was the tournament committee chairman in 1975?

Wooden won't say.

The NCAA tournament record book from 1975 lists Tom Scott of Davidson as the Division I tournament chairman that year.

Wooden won't confirm any name.

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