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John Wooden: The Man, the Coach, the Legacy

Kate Matwychuk, Christopher Sailus
  • Author
    Kate Matwychuk

    Kate has taught high school English and Social Science for over 20 years in Independent schools across the United States. She has an AB in English and American Literature from Harvard College and a Masters in Education from University of Pennsylvania, School of Education.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Sailus

    Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

Learn about John Wooden's Pyramid of Success. Study John Wooden's definition of success, and identify the fifteen values that make up the Pyramid of Success. Updated: 02/28/2022

John Wooden's Definition of Success

John Wooden, acclaimed former UCLA men's basketball coach, spent his career trying to define success. For John Wooden, success is "the peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming." The journey to success includes practicing more than a dozen common behaviors and values that work together. The John Wooden definition of success has no direct reference to basketball or athletics and can be used to achieve individual or team excellence.

Foundational to his coaching style are three basic rules he expected his players to follow:

  1. Never be late.
  2. No profanity.
  3. Never criticize a teammate.

John Wooden's success as a coach is unprecedented and can be traced, in part, not only to the respect he extended to his players, but also the respect he expected his players to show to everyone.

Who Was John Wooden?


Coach Wooden, 1972

Portrait of John Wooden


John Wooden was born in Hall, Indiana on October 14, 1910. He grew up on a farm without electricity and learned the value of hard work as a child. Along with his three brothers, John started playing basketball at a young age, using a homemade basketball hoop attached to the side of the family barn. After his family moved to Martinsville, Indiana, Wooden became a star on his high school basketball team and led his team to a state title in 1927.

Wooden attended Purdue University, where he earned an impressive array of accolades and recognitions as a guard on the basketball team. He was named All-Big Ten and All-Midwestern and was the first player ever to be named a three-time consensus All-American. He was also named 1932 College Player of the Year. He graduated from Purdue in 1932 with a B.A in English.


A young John Wooden, Purdue University.

John Wooden at Purdue


After establishing himself as a winning coach at small schools throughout Indiana, he took over a fledgling program at University of California, Los Angeles as the head coach for the 1948-49 season. Wooden's effect on the program was immediate. He earned the respect of his players through consistency, fairness, and instilling a strong work ethic within the team. Within a year, he turned the program around, and in 1949 the UCLA Bruins were Division Champions, with an overall record of 22-7. John Wooden was just getting started, however. He went on to coach the Bruins for 27 seasons, earning an unprecedented record of 316-68. Under Wooden's direction, the Bruins won 10 NCAA Championships, including seven in a row between 1966 and 1973. During this winning streak, the Bruins won 38 straight NCAA Tournament games.

John Wooden started crafting his Pyramid of Success as a young high school coach intent on defining success for his players. Over fifteen years, Wooden added to and revised his Pyramid until its completion in 1948, when he took over the UCLA program. Wooden hung the original drawing of the Pyramid in his UCLA office.

Wooden was the first person to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and a coach. After his retirement from coaching in 1975, Wooden was awarded the Reagan Distinguished American Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2009, Wooden was named The Sporting News Greatest Coach of All Time. His legacy runs deep, not only in the sport of basketball, but also for people everywhere who look to his philosophy of excellence for inspiration on how to live their lives.

Self-Help

Self-improvement is a normal and healthy impulse. Whether you're trying to eat a healthier diet or have a better outlook on life, you may look for guidance in improving your life. Some people look to self-help books, while others look to gurus. Still others, especially those with a sporting background, may look to a coach.

In this lesson, we will discover the important keys to success according to one such coach, the late John Wooden.

John Wooden's Pyramid of Success

The John Wooden Pyramid of Success offers a framework of specific behaviors required for achieving personal satisfaction. It includes 15 building blocks, organized into 5 interconnected levels. The first level is foundational and includes what Wooden refers to as the "cornerstone traits". These include Industriousness and Enthusiasm. Each level builds on the next, culminating at the top level: Competitive Greatness. Flanking coach Wooden's Pyramid of Success are important words such as Honesty, Integrity and Ambition, meant to hold the pyramid together.

The Wooden Pyramid of Success appears simple, but it's the culmination of more than a dozen years of careful observation of human achievement, strength, and weakness. His rules for living are simple, but they require attention, consistency and commitment.

Base Level

  • Industriousness: Very simply, this refers to hard work. Wooden believed there is no substitution for very hard work. Industriousness--hard work-- is a cornerstone of the Pyramid.
  • Friendship: For Wooden, friendship involves two important qualities: respect and camaraderie. A person will give a lot of themselves for people they respect and with whom they have a camaraderie.
  • Loyalty: Successful leaders have loyalty because they are known to be fair, respectful and considerate. Loyalty in a leader inspires loyalty from everyone on the team.
  • Cooperation: It is important to share ideas, responsibilities and creativity with others and recognize that people around you also have good ideas to share. Working together allows even the hardest task to be completed well.
  • Enthusiasm: The other cornerstone, Enthusiasm, injects hard work with the fuel it needs to increase its power and effectiveness. A person must enjoy what they are doing for their effort to be worth something.

Level Two

  • Self-Control: It is important to control oneself in all areas by being consistent with effort, avoiding temptation, and regulating emotion. Wooden advised his players: "Control yourself so others won't have to do it for you."
  • Alertness: Always be aware of your surroundings and learn from them. Be open to new ideas and opportunities.
  • Initiative: Simply put, initiative is the ability to take action. Wooden believed that "the failure to act is the biggest failure of all." One must be prepared and have the courage to act and try again in the face of failure.
  • Intentness: Do not quit, even when things are tough. Intentness is the ability to stay on track, in spite of obstacles. Wooden believed one must be persistent, determined and tenacious in order to reach the top of the Pyramid.

John Wooden's Biography in Brief

Wooden was born in a small town in Indiana in 1910. He grew up on a farm, but he proved his prowess on the court. A local basketball star, he went on to star at Purdue University, where he was a three-time All-American. After graduation he became a teacher and a basketball coach. Wooden eventually made his way to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) where he became one of the best basketball coaches of all time. During the 1960s and 1970s his teams won 10 national titles in 12 years. Wooden was renowned not just for his victories but for his signature coaching style, which emphasized hard work, a positive attitude, and teamwork.

Even after Wooden's retirement in 1975, he remained influential in the basketball and wider coaching communities. His teachings and maxims were - and still are - adopted by people in and out of sports.

Pyramid of Success

Perhaps one of Wooden's more popular creations is the Pyramid of Success. The Pyramid lists 15 values and attributes, with basic skills or qualities being used to build more advanced ones, leading to the end goal: competitive greatness. Below, we briefly detail each step and how each is important on the road to success.

Base 5

Industriousness

In Wooden's own words, 'this means hard work. Very hard work.' According to Wooden, only those who are willing to outwork their competitors and put in the time and energy to get better have even a chance at achieving great success.

Friendship

According to Wooden, this is not the affectionate friendship you may have for a close friend or confidant. Instead, friendship in a workplace or team setting is based on mutual respect and a sense of camaraderie. When both of these are achieved, individuals will go to great lengths to help one another.

Loyalty

Wooden considered this to be possibly the most important of all the base values. Loyalty to one another and toward an organization, both from above and below, encourages fairness and respect and is an important part of any team environment.

Cooperation

A willingness to cooperate by listening to others' ideas and being confident enough to share your own is an important part of any organization. A team can achieve far more through cooperation than by working against one another.

Enthusiasm

Making sure you have a passion for what you're doing, or at the very least, a passion for doing the job in front of you correctly, is incredibly important to personal and team morale.

Level 2

Self-Control

Being in control of one's emotions, whether in the workplace or on the court, is vital to ensuring you can keep a clear head with which to tackle the challenges before you.

Alertness

This means being aware of your surroundings and being willing to learn from them at all times. Wooden often illustrated the importance of this value by saying 'The driver who's asleep at the wheel will crash. The same happens to organizations lacking alertness.'

Initiative

This means having the courage to act and the wherewithal to try again when you have failed. Inaction or inactivity, according to Wooden, only guarantees more failure.

Intentness

It is important not only to have goals, but to ensure that you have the single-minded tenacity to achieve these goals. Important or great achievements are usually not achieved overnight; therefore, it's important to make sure you stay focused on your goals regardless of any setbacks.

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Additional Info

Self-Help

Self-improvement is a normal and healthy impulse. Whether you're trying to eat a healthier diet or have a better outlook on life, you may look for guidance in improving your life. Some people look to self-help books, while others look to gurus. Still others, especially those with a sporting background, may look to a coach.

In this lesson, we will discover the important keys to success according to one such coach, the late John Wooden.

John Wooden's Biography in Brief

Wooden was born in a small town in Indiana in 1910. He grew up on a farm, but he proved his prowess on the court. A local basketball star, he went on to star at Purdue University, where he was a three-time All-American. After graduation he became a teacher and a basketball coach. Wooden eventually made his way to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) where he became one of the best basketball coaches of all time. During the 1960s and 1970s his teams won 10 national titles in 12 years. Wooden was renowned not just for his victories but for his signature coaching style, which emphasized hard work, a positive attitude, and teamwork.

Even after Wooden's retirement in 1975, he remained influential in the basketball and wider coaching communities. His teachings and maxims were - and still are - adopted by people in and out of sports.

Pyramid of Success

Perhaps one of Wooden's more popular creations is the Pyramid of Success. The Pyramid lists 15 values and attributes, with basic skills or qualities being used to build more advanced ones, leading to the end goal: competitive greatness. Below, we briefly detail each step and how each is important on the road to success.

Base 5

Industriousness

In Wooden's own words, 'this means hard work. Very hard work.' According to Wooden, only those who are willing to outwork their competitors and put in the time and energy to get better have even a chance at achieving great success.

Friendship

According to Wooden, this is not the affectionate friendship you may have for a close friend or confidant. Instead, friendship in a workplace or team setting is based on mutual respect and a sense of camaraderie. When both of these are achieved, individuals will go to great lengths to help one another.

Loyalty

Wooden considered this to be possibly the most important of all the base values. Loyalty to one another and toward an organization, both from above and below, encourages fairness and respect and is an important part of any team environment.

Cooperation

A willingness to cooperate by listening to others' ideas and being confident enough to share your own is an important part of any organization. A team can achieve far more through cooperation than by working against one another.

Enthusiasm

Making sure you have a passion for what you're doing, or at the very least, a passion for doing the job in front of you correctly, is incredibly important to personal and team morale.

Level 2

Self-Control

Being in control of one's emotions, whether in the workplace or on the court, is vital to ensuring you can keep a clear head with which to tackle the challenges before you.

Alertness

This means being aware of your surroundings and being willing to learn from them at all times. Wooden often illustrated the importance of this value by saying 'The driver who's asleep at the wheel will crash. The same happens to organizations lacking alertness.'

Initiative

This means having the courage to act and the wherewithal to try again when you have failed. Inaction or inactivity, according to Wooden, only guarantees more failure.

Intentness

It is important not only to have goals, but to ensure that you have the single-minded tenacity to achieve these goals. Important or great achievements are usually not achieved overnight; therefore, it's important to make sure you stay focused on your goals regardless of any setbacks.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the purpose of the pyramid of success?

The purpose of the Pyramid of Success is to provide individuals, teams, or groups of people with a framework of behaviors and actions to follow that will help them achieve personal satisfaction.

What were Wooden's three rules?

Fundamental to John Wooden's coaching style were these three rules:

1. Never be late.

2. No profanity.

3. Never criticize a teammate.

What is success according to John Wooden?

John Wooden defines success as "the peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming."

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