Brilliant Miller's Blog

The Integrity of a Champion

Born in Indiana in 1910, John Wooden grew up on a farm playing basketball with his brothers in a barn using a tomato basket and a ball woven from old rags. 

Wooden concluded his legendary 40-year coaching career in 1975. He spent the last 27 of those years at UCLA, where he won ten championships and cemented his place in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

But things might have played out very differently if not for a snowstorm, a phone call, and John Wooden’s integrity.

In 1948, both UCLA and the University of Minnesota were looking for a head basketball coach.

Wooden interviewed at both schools, and both promised to make him an offer.

He arranged for the schools to call him on the same day to make their offers: Minnesota at six PM and UCLA at seven PM.

Wooden intentionally scheduled the calls in that order.

Wooden and his wife were both Midwesterners and would have preferred to stay there. He planned to accept Minnesota’s offer, whatever it was, when they called at six.

Then he could apologize to UCLA when its representative called an hour later, explaining that he’d already accepted another offer.

But on the day of the calls, Minnesota was hit by a massive snowstorm that knocked out phone lines. Minnesota’s official was unable get to a working phone to make the call at 6 PM.

When Wooden didn’t hear from Minnesota, he thought that maybe the school had lost interest.

UCLA called with an offer at seven as planned, and he accepted it—a three-year contract for $6,000 per year.

Within minutes of hanging up with UCLA, Wooden’s phone rang again.

It was the official from Minnesota, explaining that the snowstorm had made him late and that the school was offering him the job.

But Wooden turned Minnesota’s offer down—despite the fact that it’s where he and his wife had wanted to go—because he’d already given his word to UCLA.

Asked about this years later, Wooden said, “If fate had not intervened, I would never have gone to UCLA.”

But Wooden could have just as easily answered, “If I didn’t have integrity, I would never have gone to UCLA.” (Though he was too humble to say that.)

Wooden built his life and career upon a set of values he called “The Pyramid of Success.”

He taught the Pyramid to his players, including lessons such as, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

He also taught, “Winning takes talent, to repeat takes character.”

And he proved it.

Want to know more about Wooden’s story? Read this write-up by ESPN.

Get the book! Wooden on Leadership: How to Create a Winning Organization at Amazon.

Brilliant Miller

I help achievers learn & grow, connect, contribute and have fun.

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