John Wooden, 2005

John Wooden holds court at a ceremony to rename Aliso High School in Reseda as John R. Wooden High School. Wooden is sitting in front of a mural that outlines his Pyramid of Success motivational program.
See full story (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times / February 15, 2005)

John Wooden was a young high school teacher and coach in the 1930s when he first wrote his personal definition of success, searching for a way to assure his students — and their parents — they could be successful without earning all A's.

"I wanted to give them something to aspire to beyond higher marks in English classes or more statistics in sports," he told The Times in 2004.

Wooden tied success not to achievement, wealth or fame, but to how close a person came to their potential.

He spent another 14 years completing his Pyramid of Success, tinkering with 15 building blocks such as "Industriousness" "Enthusiasm," "Skill," and "Poise," before finishing the diagram in 1948, shortly before he left Indiana State for UCLA.

More than half a century later, the 10 national championship banners won by Wooden's UCLA basketball teams hang from the rafters at Pauley Pavilion — and his old-fashioned but still resonant Pyramid of Success adorns everything from classroom walls at Mariners Elementary in Newport Beach to books, websites, mouse pads, even a wall in a Torrance collection agency.

Even well into his 90s, Wooden used to mail out some 1,500 copies of his pyramid a year, many of them to high school coaches who wanted to distribute them to their teams.

Though others urged him to copyright the pyramid, Wooden said in recent years he never had, prompting a friend to tell him he didn't have a marketing bone in his body.

"I hope not," Wooden said.

Completed during the Truman administration, the Pyramid of Success has improbably stood the test of time.

Stephen R. Covey, the bestselling author of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" is an admirer of Wooden's who has called the pyramid and Wooden's other maxims "classic wisdom."

It resonates not only with nostalgic mid-career workers in motivational seminars, but with 21st-century schoolchildren.

In January 2005, at 94, Wooden visited the Newport Beach elementary school where teacher Pat McLaughlin, a UCLA graduate, created a character-education program based on Wooden's pyramid and his 2003 children's book, "Inch and Miles: The Journey to Success."

"It was fun. He was a good man," Mariners Elementary student Brandy Joyce said later that year. "He said something funny I didn't understand — it was only for the grown-ups."

After Wooden's visit, essays graced the walls of McLaughlin's Room 13.

"Self-control sounds like not yelling the answer when it's not your turn," Cole Chapin wrote.

Nick Meier described himself as someone who "has Skill in building forts with Legos, who has self-control when my brother breaks something," and Sydney Elliott-Brand considered herself someone who is "determined to pass division" and "has self-control when my sister pulls my hair."

Elementary school students embrace the values of the pyramid easily.

But on the protest-roiled UCLA campus of the 1960s, it at first seemed hopelessly out of date to players such as future NBA great Lew Alcindor, now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

"He has said when he first heard it he thought it was corny," Wooden told The Times in 2004. "It was not until he was out of school that it was meaningful."