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CBB: R.I.P. John Wooden (1910-2010)

Posted by Neil Paine on June 5, 2010

Note: This post was originally published at College Basketball Reference, S-R's brand-new College Hoops site, so when you're done reading, go over and check it out!

When the great John Wooden passed away on Friday at the age of 99, he left behind a staggering resume, arguably the most dominant winning legacy of any coach in any sport. Wooden won 10 championships at the helm of the UCLA Bruins during the 1960s and 70s, including an astonishing run of 7 straight titles from 1967-73; in the annals of basketball history, the only coach whose run of dominance is even on par with Wooden's is his NBA contemporary, Red Auerbach. Of course, Wooden was more than just a great coach -- and I'll leave the kind words about Wooden as a human being (of which there are many) to better writers than I -- but I did want to take a statistical look at just how amazing his coaching career was.

Exactly how impressive was Wooden's run in the 60s and early 70s? One measure of coaching greatness is the ability to resist the "pull of parity" -- since a .500 record relentlessly tugs at good teams and bad ones alike, drawing them inexorably toward the mean if given enough seasons, sustained greatness like Wooden's suggests a significant amount of skill. In the NCAA Tournament era (1939-present), we can quantify the pull of parity on any school thusly:

Expected Win % = 0.235 + 0.552*Previous Season Win %

This means that a team that won 88% of its games last year (for instance, Duke in 2010) should only expect to win 72% of its games next year, because parity wants to drag them toward .500. The assumption we're going to use is that if Duke ends up winning more than 72% of their games, it would be an indicator of Mike Krzyzewski's coaching skill.

So back to Coach Wooden... Here's his career coaching record, alongside his school's expected Win % every year, and the number of wins by which he exceeded that expectation:

Year School Conf G W L T WPct xWPct WAE
1947 INDS IND 25 17 8 0 0.680 0.649 0.8
1948 INDS IND 34 27 7 0 0.794 0.610 6.2
1949 UCLA PC10 29 22 7 0 0.759 0.500 7.5
1950 UCLA PC10 31 24 7 0 0.774 0.654 3.7
1951 UCLA PC10 29 19 10 0 0.655 0.662 -0.2
1952 UCLA PC10 31 19 12 0 0.613 0.597 0.5
1953 UCLA PC10 24 16 8 0 0.667 0.573 2.2
1954 UCLA PC10 25 18 7 0 0.720 0.603 2.9
1955 UCLA PC10 26 21 5 0 0.808 0.633 4.6
1956 UCLA PC10 28 22 6 0 0.786 0.681 2.9
1957 UCLA PC10 26 22 4 0 0.846 0.669 4.6
1958 UCLA PC10 26 16 10 0 0.615 0.702 -2.3
1959 UCLA PC10 25 16 9 0 0.640 0.575 1.6
1960 UCLA PC10 26 14 12 0 0.538 0.588 -1.3
1961 UCLA PC10 26 18 8 0 0.692 0.532 4.2
1962 UCLA PC10 29 18 11 0 0.621 0.617 0.1
1963 UCLA PC10 29 20 9 0 0.690 0.578 3.2
1964 UCLA PC10 30 30 0 0 1.000 0.616 11.5
1965 UCLA PC10 30 28 2 0 0.933 0.787 4.4
1966 UCLA PC10 26 18 8 0 0.692 0.750 -1.5
1967 UCLA PC10 30 30 0 0 1.000 0.617 11.5
1968 UCLA PC10 30 29 1 0 0.967 0.787 5.4
1969 UCLA PC10 30 29 1 0 0.967 0.769 5.9
1970 UCLA PC10 30 28 2 0 0.933 0.769 4.9
1971 UCLA PC10 30 29 1 0 0.967 0.750 6.5
1972 UCLA PC10 30 30 0 0 1.000 0.769 6.9
1973 UCLA PC10 30 30 0 0 1.000 0.787 6.4
1974 UCLA PC10 30 26 4 0 0.867 0.787 2.4
1975 UCLA PC10 31 28 3 0 0.903 0.713 5.9

For his career, Wooden eluded the pull of parity by 111.6 wins, which ranks him tied for 5th in the NCAA Tournament era:

Coach TotalG TotalWAE
Dean Smith 1133 129.7
Mike Krzyzewski 1107 127.6
Lute Olson 1060 117.0
Jerry Tarkanian 875 113.8
Adolph Rupp 863 111.6
John Wooden 826 111.6
Bob Knight 1273 108.1
Jim Boeheim 1087 103.9
Jim Calhoun 1121 103.2
Roy Williams 732 103.0
Rick Pitino 749 98.5
Eddie Sutton 1132 97.5
Lefty Driesell 1180 95.6
Lou Henson 1140 88.2
Bob Huggins 776 83.6
John Calipari 580 80.6
John Thompson 835 78.3
Ray Meyer 1078 77.5
Don Haskins 1072 72.0
Rick Majerus 632 71.8
Frank McGuire 785 71.7
Mike Montgomery 824 71.4
Denny Crum 970 71.2
Ralph Miller 1039 69.9
Nolan Richardson 716 65.7
Norm Stewart 963 64.9
Billy Tubbs 926 64.8
Lou Carnesecca 726 64.6
Bill Self 494 62.6
Jack Gardner 721 62.3

He also did it in only 826 career games, which is fewer than any of the coaches around him on the list. If you set a minimum of 500 total games coached, only 2 coaches have kept their teams above the pull of parity on a per-game basis as much as Wooden did:

Coach TotalG TotalWAE WAE/35G
Roy Williams 732 103.0 4.9
John Calipari 580 80.6 4.9
John Wooden 826 111.6 4.7
Rick Pitino 749 98.5 4.6
Jerry Tarkanian 875 113.8 4.6
Adolph Rupp 863 111.6 4.5
Mike Krzyzewski 1107 127.6 4.0
Dean Smith 1133 129.7 4.0
Rick Majerus 632 71.8 4.0
Lute Olson 1060 117.0 3.9
Bob Huggins 776 83.6 3.8
Everett Case 511 51.7 3.5
Tubby Smith 599 58.3 3.4
Jim Boeheim 1087 103.9 3.3
John Thompson 835 78.3 3.3
Jim Calhoun 1121 103.2 3.2
Nolan Richardson 716 65.7 3.2
Frank McGuire 785 71.7 3.2
Lou Carnesecca 726 64.6 3.1
Peck Hickman 626 55.6 3.1

And if you set the cut-off to 800 total games coached, Wooden is the best of the Tourney era:

Coach TotalG TotalWAE WAE/35G
John Wooden 826 111.6 4.7
Jerry Tarkanian 875 113.8 4.6
Adolph Rupp 863 111.6 4.5
Mike Krzyzewski 1107 127.6 4.0
Dean Smith 1133 129.7 4.0
Lute Olson 1060 117.0 3.9
Jim Boeheim 1087 103.9 3.3
John Thompson 835 78.3 3.3
Jim Calhoun 1121 103.2 3.2
Mike Montgomery 824 71.4 3.0

Furthermore, his sustained run of excellence from 1967-73 was the greatest 7-year period of dominance in the Tourney era:

Coach Start Finish 7yrWAE
John Wooden 1967 1973 52.3
Jerry Tarkanian 1985 1991 48.1
Mike Krzyzewski 1996 2002 47.1
Adolph Rupp 1946 1952 47.0
John Wooden 1964 1970 46.9
Jerry Tarkanian 1986 1992 46.6
Mike Krzyzewski 1998 2004 46.2
Roy Williams 2002 2008 46.0
Rick Pitino 1991 1997 45.7
Mike Krzyzewski 1997 2003 45.7
John Wooden 1963 1969 45.2
Ben Howland 2002 2008 45.1
Adolph Rupp 1945 1951 45.1
John Wooden 1966 1972 44.4
John Wooden 1969 1975 43.7
Jerry Tarkanian 1982 1988 43.6
Jerry Tarkanian 1983 1989 43.6
Roy Williams 2003 2009 43.5
Mike Krzyzewski 1986 1992 43.4
John Wooden 1968 1974 43.2
Jerry Tarkanian 1971 1977 43.1
John Calipari 2002 2008 42.7
Jerry Tarkanian 1984 1990 42.5
Mike Krzyzewski 1995 2001 42.4
Roy Williams 1992 1998 42.2
Adolph Rupp 1944 1950 42.2
Roy Williams 2001 2007 42.2
Rick Pitino 1990 1996 42.1
John Calipari 1990 1996 42.0
John Wooden 1965 1971 41.8
Adolph Rupp 1943 1949 41.8
Billy Tubbs 1982 1988 41.2
Mike Krzyzewski 1999 2005 41.1
Lute Olson 1988 1994 41.1
Mike Krzyzewski 1994 2000 40.9
Everett Case 1947 1953 40.8
Dean Smith 1981 1987 40.7
John Calipari 2003 2009 40.7
Abe Lemons 1972 1978 40.4
Roy Williams 1996 2002 40.3

Truly, basketball lost one of the giants of the game this week, and he will be sorely missed. RIP Coach Wooden.

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10 Responses to “CBB: R.I.P. John Wooden (1910-2010)”

  1. Scott Says:

    So much is often forgotten as to how great of a player he was. He was the first 3 time consensus All American and the Player of the Year in 1932. Wikipedia reports he was the 1933 National Basketball League Scoring Champion and I believe he was second in 1938 and 1939 in the new upstart NBL. He was nicknamed "The Indiana Rubber Man" for his hard-nosed defense and "suicidal dives on the hardcourt." He was regarded as a great ball handler and passer and his record for consecutive free throws made in competition still stands on all levels (134 or 138, despite "only" shooting 70% in college). His college teams went 15-2, 13-2 and 17-1 in his 3 years and he missed all losses in 1930 and 1932 (I don't know about 1931.)

    Additionally, although I can't confirm if I read this correctly since, but a few years ago (maybe 2005) at the basketball hall of fame, I saw some statistics in a book for what I think was his college days at Purdue. His scoring numbers were consistent with what I knew them to be for those years (low double digits), but amazingly, he also averaged around 7 assists and shot slightly over 47% from the field. These numbers may not seem great, but considering his team scored 40 and allowed 25, this is astounding if it is true. (I haven't been able to find the book or any other mention of these statistics online. I also have seen only a handful of statistics involving FG% and Assists before the NBA, which makes it more questionable.) Only 1 person averaged over 2.5 assists per game in either 1946 or 1947 and only 2 shot over 35% from the field. In the least he dominated his era, like only a handful of players have. At most, he is in the discussion of being the most dominating and incredible players ever (subject to the credibility of some of these statistics).

  2. Jeremiah Says:

    I'd be curious to see if there was less parity at some times in college basketball history than others. UCLA's achievements from 1967-73 feel unrepeatable today. I would think that has something to do with early entry - no team could keep Kareem or Bill Walton for more than a year now - but that's just speculation.

  3. Scott Says:

    I'm sure it was easier with fewer games in the tournament, but it is interesting to note that, upon inspection, only UCLA and Kentucky made multiple championships from 1964 to 1975. (Kentucky lost to Texas Western in 1966 and UCLA in 1975. UCLA won 10 times in these years.) The past 12 years: Duke (3), Florida (3), Michigan St (2), UConn (2), UNC (2) and Kansas (2). I think a lot of it had to do with luck really. He probably won a few more than his team would have won with normal luck and was probably lucky to have 2 of the greatest college players of all time for 6 years and 5 championships. Of course he was definitely a great coach and extremely smart (I think he graduated 19th in his college class of 4500), but its hard to even define what a "good college coach" is. Recruiter? Strategist? Mentor?...So much other possible criteria. Wooden clearly is up there in many of these aspects. Another stat that might exaggerate how dominate he was, but is interesting nonetheless: He won 7 Iba COY awards no one else has more than 2.

  4. Keith Ellis Says:

    Scott's stat showing Wooden shooting 47% in the late Twenties/early Thirties is interesting. About every pro boxscore I've seen from those days has both teams shooting in the 20% to 30% range. Most of the time FG% was not kept in pro nor high school games, which had more money backing them than the colleges did.

    As a player at Indiana's three levels -- schoolboy, college, pro -- Wooden Top Fives along with DeJernett, Big O, McGinnis & Bird. His greatest accomplishment was starring for the boys' State tournament champion in 1927, between losing the Finals of '26 & '28. Biggest regret may've been failing to coach South Bend Central to the title in '41, when the integrated Washington Hatchets won instead.

  5. jeremy Says:

    couple things popped to mind.

    1) tournament size - in 1948-1949 (wooden's first year at ucla), the NCAA field was only 8 teams. When he retired after 1974-1975, the field had expanded to 32. Wooden's first title year, the field was 25, so his teams either had to beat 4 or 5 teams each year throughout the 10 titles. Not sure if Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the 1st round would have made a difference.

    2) regions - back then, regionals were more aptly named. In their first title year, the West region consisted of UCLA, San Francisco, Seattle, Oregon State, Utah State and Arizona State. In 1973 (title #9), the West region was UCLA, Arizona State, Oklahoma State, Long Beach State, Weber State and San Francisco. Unlike today when you balance the bracket (for instance Syracuse this year being #1 in the west), UCLA did benefit from being on the West coast. This is not to take anything away from them, but most years they had weaker opponents to get through than the teams in the other 3 regions. They still dominated most years and would have probably done as well, but I imagine it would have been at least a little more difficult if teams were shipped like they are today.

    3) tournament selection - prior to 1975, only 1 team per conference was allowed in the tournament. this rule of course got changed due to a # of incidents in the early 70s including the classic NC State-Maryland battles, NC State beating a perfect South Carolina (ACC team at the time) to take the berth, and USC being #3(?) nationally and their only 2 losses all season were to #1 UCLA. I know a number of conferences back then gave their berths to their regular season champions, but I don't know off-hand when the phenomonen of giving your berth to your tournament winner started.

    Not sure if they have been done here or somewhere else on the net, but it would be interesting to see...
    1) what the quality of teams in the West regions were back when UCLA was mowing the field and going to the final four in 12 of 13 years.
    2) what the overall quality of the ncaa tournaments were prior to 1975 when only 1 team was allowed in per conference. I imagine that the overall quality is better due to allowing the 2nd-6th teams from the BCS conferences far outweigh the occasional fluke #7 or #8 seed that wins their conference. No idea how to measure this one off the top of my head.
    3) how UCLA would have fared if the NCAA shipped teams cross country to even out the brackets like they do nowadays.

  6. downpuppy Says:

    I've only seen one obit mention Sam Gilbert, the real difference maker for UCLA.

  7. Neil Paine Says:

    IMO, it would hardly have been appropriate in an elegiac piece like this to mention the Gilbert rumors. What was Gilbert's role in UCLA's dynasty, and how much did Wooden know? I have no idea. Balzac once said that "behind every great fortune lies a great crime"; maybe in the NCAA, behind every great dynasty lies a great crime as well. Or maybe Wooden was just that good of a coach and recruiter. I can only work with the data, and the data says Wooden is one of the best ever... The rest is merely rumor, innuendo, and supposition.

  8. downpuppy Says:

    I guess I have more of a Dan Jenkins take on things. The kids earn their keep, and have nothing to be ashamed of. There's no justification for paying the coach millions & the kids nothing, so it doesn't really happen.

    My question is, is how the competitive situation changes through the years as different enforcement & payment regimes pass through. Did UCLA have a Yankees type advantage in the 1960s? Is the current higher level of parity financial?

    With pro leagues, it's not too tough to follow the influence of money on competitive balance. With college sports, it's only when a coach gets on the bad side of the NCAA that anything comes out. A few months ago, there was some looking at coaches that "changed the culture of a program". It occurred to me later, that that probably meant they arranged funding to support continuing recruitment.

    It would be fun if somebody asks John Wall how much he was paid at Kentucky.

  9. Keith Ellis Says:

    "I don't know off-hand when the phenomonen of giving your berth to your tournament winner started..."

    Ironically, Johnny Wooden had something to do with it. When Wooden, DeJernett, & other early stars of Hoosier Hysteria were grabbing national headlines via their annual March Madness tournament (whose Regionals, Sweet Sixteens, and Final Fours the NCAA copied later on), they often competed against the powerful FrankFort Hot Dogs coached by one Everett Case. The CaseMen won four titles of their own during the Twenties and Thirties. After the War Everett Case was recruited to coach at North Carolina State. There he lobbied successfully for the ACC to adopt an Indiana-style tournament, on the basis of the excitement (& profits) such tourneys turn.

    For years the ACC was the only conference that sent its "tourney winner" to the NCAAs. In 1974 the NCAA experimented with something called the CCC, whose first & only championship Bobby Knight's Hoosiers won & Knight called a "loser's tourney," respecting even the NIT-option more than the CCC. The tag of a "loser's tourney" eventually stuck to New York's NIT itself, & the Indianapolis-based NCAA bought out NY's NIT to put it out of its misery.

  10. Jim Boatner Says:

    "I don't know off-hand when the phenomonen of giving your berth to your tournament winner started..."

    Actually, the old Southern Conference was the first to award their championship to an end of season tourney winner - Coach Case at NCSU and other ACC schools were in the SC in 40s and early 50s. The ACC was not formed until '53 and became the second - ACC excellence and excitement in 70s and 80s led to other conferences doing the same thing. I don't think Coach Wooden liked it at the time - but that may have been because UCLA always won the PAC 10 regular season title. But it does all go back to the Indiana tournament tradition, through Everett Case at NC State.