How John Wooden changed my life: Exclusive interview with Steve Jamison

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Steve Jamison has co-authored five books with John Wooden, produced a documentary about him, and is consultant to his leadership program at UCLA. All this came about after one fateful meeting, for an innocuous interview.

Coach Wooden has influenced the lives of many, and he discusses his inspirational philosophy on personal success in today’s heartwarming TEDTalk. To understand why Steve got hooked by the story of this legendary basketball coach, read below the fold >>

An excerpt from the interview:
When I got back to transcribe the conversation, I realized that every single sentence was fully formed, enlightening and substantive. I just kept re-reading it. And it was about leadership and life, not basketball. He said things like, “Don’t forget, Steve, the most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.”What did Coach Wooden think about his talk being posted on TED.com?

He said, “Fine.” Well, he was delighted with TED when he was there. But he’s just come out of the hospital, and although his recovery is coming along fine, he was in the hospital for three weeks. And he’s currently on some very serious medication, so that’s all he could manage. But he is recovering, and was able to celebrate daughter’s birthday with her this weekend.

When we watched the video here at TED, we were all very impressed with Coach Wooden’s wit and public speaking prowess, especially considering his age.

He’s always had the ability to hold the attention of crowd. He’s got a sense of humor and a profound presence that is unique and probably brought on by his phenomenal experience and age. His presence is just riveting.

How did you first meet Coach Wooden and how did your relationship with him evolve?

It was totally unforeseeable. I interviewed him for another project I was doing that involved talking to the top performers in sports to understand their way of thinking and see how that could be applied elsewhere.

In my mind, he wasn’t a big deal. I was more impressed with his players. If you’re an average fan, like I was, you don’t talk to the bench. I knew he was good, but I didn’t go into the interview with any sense of awe. I actually took my dad along, because my dad understood and he was excited.

All of that changed when I met Coach Wooden. He has this combination of great inner strength and great inner youthfulness. As we went on, I got to see much more of what he was about.

When I got back to transcribe the conversation, I realized that every single sentence was fully formed, enlightening and substantive. I just kept re-reading it. And it was about leadership and life, not basketball. He said things like, “Don’t forget, Steve, the most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.”

So when I saw the transcript, literally I thought, “This is a book!” I called Coach with a great deal of enthusiasm to tell him about my intentions. He was polite, and said no. But I couldn’t get it out of my head, so I called him back in a week. And he said he had a lot of things on his agenda, and he was serious, even though he was in his 80s.

But I kept going back, and eventually wrote him a letter. I tried to convince him with all the usual arguments — money, visibility. He didn’t care. Then I remembered that he had said, “I am a teacher.” So I sent him a note that said this book is an opportunity to teach. He agreed to work on it.

Eventually we found a publisher, and created a small, blue book that started a real relationship in my life with Coach, that has turned into a great friendship. He views his team as an extended family, and we were a different type of a team, but we were a little team of two in writing this book.

I thought that was it. But the little blue book, “Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections,” became popular and the publisher asked if there were any other books we’d like to do. So we did another fabulous book together. We did a PBS show and I was the producer, called “John Wooden: Values, Victory and Peace of Mind.” We’ve also done a children’s book called “Inches and Miles” and other books since then.

Why do you think the books have had so much success?

These were all driven by John Wooden’s appeal. He talks about not just leadership, but his life and his father’s influence. A lot of young people get advice from their dad and just forget it. But he carried his dad’s advice with him all through his life.

His dad emphasized the golden rule and that was fundamental to his coaching. His definition of success comes from his father telling him not to compare himself to others, just do your best.

Coach was values-driven and character-based before those terms were coined. He understood how to treat people right, but he was also very demanding. His strategy is based on his dad, but also on his coach at Purdue, Piggy Lambert, who was another one of the greatest coaches of all time. He also had this “team as an extended family” idea.

I remember that first transcript, I sent it to my dad, and asked, “What do you think?” He sent it back with a note that said, “Everything that Coach Wooden says is pure gold. Don’t mess it up.”

It sounds like Coach Wooden was really influenced by his father and the idea of family. His father must also have been a tremendous man.

Yes he was. I once went to his father’s gravesite, actually — just to pay my respects to that kind of a man.

And the team is an extended family. All the players still contact Coach, and stop by for lunch or breakfast regularly. They send him letters, postcards and birthday cards from everywhere.

One of Coach’s first players, from his first high school team in 1932, contacted him while we working on a book. He hadn’t much longer to live, and wanted to talk to Coach. After they had spoken, I asked the player quickly, “How’d it go?” He replied, “Coach Wooden really cared about us boys on the team, and made us practice extra because of it.”

It sounds like Coach Wooden has an amazing philosophy.

Well, when he first started teaching he thought he was supposed to like all the players all the same. But then he started coaching, and he realized that he didn’t like everyone the same. He read something that Amos Alonzo Stagg had written, where he said, “I don’t like all my players the same. But I love them all the same.”

So, Coach changed his pre-season talk from, “I will like you all the same,” to “I will not like you all the same. I will love you all the same and I will give you the treatment you earn and deserve.”

He also liked when people paid attention to little things. I remember being at a game with him, where they sent in a waiter to serve his dinner. Now, this waiter didn’t know who Coach was, but he took his time making sure everything was done correctly, adjusting the cutlery and the flowers till they were just right. When the waiter left, Coach said, “Steve, if there’s a secret to success, it just might be little things done well. I love to see little things done well.”

He loved when people paid attention to perfecting the relevant details. And every season, he would show his players how to put on their socks. They had to learn to put on their socks properly to avoid folds, creases and wrinkles, because folds, creases and wrinkles could cause blisters. Blisters cause pain, and pain causes distraction, and that can come at the wrong time.

He also insisted that they double-knot their shoestrings. All of these nuts and bolts combined with the different elements of leadership — that’s what he was getting at. In my opinion he was the best at getting players to perform at the highest level they can.

How about the John Wooden Global Leadership Program at UCLA? How did that come to be? And to what extent are you involved with it?

I’m a consultant to that program. Coach sees over it and approves what’s done.

I was seeing from my results in book sales that there was a great interest in these skills in corporate America. So I got the idea for a program like this and I said, UCLA is the place for it. And so I set up a lunch meeting for Coach with Dean Judy Olian, and he had a great impact on her. She called me and said, “Let’s do it.”

Coach agreed to it because we have a banquet each year and the proceeds go to student scholarships. When you say scholarships for young people, you’re talking his language.

Right now, it’s still an award and a banquet with a distinguished keynote speaker. But in the future we’re hoping to get Coach’s teachings integrated into the curriculum.

Are there any other plans for the future?

Well, we would like to see the children’s book, “Inches and Miles,” animated. We’ve had a couple of offers on that, but not one I like yet. But you know, a child will watch “Winnie the Pooh” 400 times. Imagine if they did that with something that contained lessons that were this important.