clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Big Ten expansion, Coach Wooden, and other miscellany.

There has been little specifically IU-related news over the last few days, but lots of news related to college sports in general.  A few items.

Big Ten expansion.  Big Ten expansion rumors have abounded over the last few months, and it's been hard to keep up with them all, and very difficult to separate actual sourced information from "word on the street" garbage that lives in the imagination of the writer.  I have to admit that when I heard to story a few days ago that the Pac-10 was going to make a big move, anywhere from offering membership to six Big 12 schools to even a full merger between the schools, I thought it was more of the same.  Surprisingly, while the details are up in the air, the essence of the story appears to be true.  The latest tidbit is that the Big 12 reportedly has given an ultimatum to Nebraska and Missouri, the Big 12 schools that seem most interested in the Big Ten, to make their stay-or-go decision by this Friday, or by June 15, depending on the source.  This is a bit hard to believe (what do the Big 12 institutions gain, when they may be trying to negotiate a new conference affiliation, by telling one of their greatest traditional football powers and one of their most populous states to get lost?), but in this story, the "hard to believe" tends to morph into the "probably true."  I'm not convinced that this "superconference"  move is good for college sports in the long run, but grabbing the short-term TV dollar seems to be the top priority.

John Wooden.  As everyone who has been within range of a TV or the Internet since Friday knows, John Wooden, legendary UCLA coach, Purdue All-American, and Indiana native, died at age 99.  Wooden led UCLA to ten NCAA championships in a 12-season span, and in the 35 years following, probably has grown his legend.  By all accounts, Wooden was a nice guy.  He was helpful with young coaches, generous with his time to fans and reported, and unfailingly polite to everyone he encountered. Wooden's hometown, Martinsville, is a town that does not have a reputation of being particularly hospitable to African-Americans.  Nevertheless, when coaching at Indiana State in the 1940s, Wooden refused a national tournament invitation because the tournament was not open to black players, and Wooden's ISU team featured a black player.  This move may have greased the skids for the integration of big time and Big Ten basketball by Bill Garrett  at IU (coached by Branch McCracken, another Morgan County native) a couple of years later.  His books on the coaching of basketball are popular even among coaches who weren't born when he retired in 1975.

But (and you knew there was a "but"), the level of reverence for the man makes me a bit uncomfortable.  I hesitated when I typed that Wooden was "a nice guy,"  as if that pedestrian term were somehow insufficient to describe the man,  the legend, the god who walked among us.  That's silly.  He was, after all, a basketball coach--the most accomplished in the history of college basketball, but still a guy who made his living teaching college students how to play a game.  He wasn't Gandhi or Father Damien.  Whether by design or by ignorance, the media has turned Wooden into a sainted, almost Christlike figure, and unfortunately, that coverage whitewashes the more unsavory aspects of Wooden's career.  I refer, of course, to Sam Gilbert, a UCLA booster who lavished gifts and financial assistance on players for years.  In 1981, the NCAA ordered UCLA to disassociate itself with Gilbert, who had been providing benefits to UCLA basketball players since the mid-1960s.

Now, it’s impossible to mention Wooden without bringing up the specter of Sam Gilbert, who turned into the UCLA program’s unofficial sugar daddy. Many years ago, the Los Angeles Times did an eye-opening multipart series on Gilbert, who took boosterism to a new level and helped Wooden procure the best basketball players in the country.

Wooden always professed no knowledge of Gilbert’s role with the program, and all these years later, it’s impossible for someone in my position to say whether that was true or a case of convenient amnesia.

If it is any kind of taint on his legacy, it is ultimately a minor one. Wooden still had to get the talent. Wooden still had to coach the talent. Wooden still had to bring those great players together and teach them to win, unlike any program ever won or ever will win.


No, Bob, it's not impossible.  Of the ten articles published in the Indianapolis Star about Wooden since his death, only the Kravitz column and Mark Alesia's obituary of Wooden made even a token mention of Gilbert.  Here's an ESPN article by Jim Caple, scolding modern coaches for making so much darn money, noting that Wooden sometimes worked part-time jobs on the side, and boy, we couldn't imagine John Calipari or Jim Calhoun working at Wal-Mart.  (Much has been said about Wooden's low salary and moonlighting.  Little has been said about whether his salary or second jobs were atypical of the era.  I'm guessing not).  While mentioning the name of two coaches whose programs have run afoul of the NCAA, does Caple mention Gilbert?  Nope. 

Kravitz, of course, absolutely lost his mind when IU hired Kelvin Sampson, and justifiably said "I told you so" when Sampson crashed and burned.  It's hard for me to imagine that Sampson's transgressions at IU won't be a central part of his obituary, or that John Calipari's vacated NCAA appearances won't be prominent in his, or that the chair throw won't be the lead image on the national news when Bob Knight passes on.  Yet, the Wooden phenomenon continues.  It is undisputed that the players on most of Wooden's championship teams were lavished with extra benefits from one of UCLA's most well-known boosters.  Yet, the mentions of Sam Gilbert, to the extent he is mentioned, are in nearly an apologetic tone.  Kravitz, in one paragraph, admits that Gilbert "helped Wooden procure the best...players."  Two paragraphs later, it's a minor issue, because "Wooden still had to get the talent."  What?  Whether with Wooden's knowledge or not, a high profile booster was buying players and paying them while they were at UCLA. 

Unquestionably, Wooden was a magnificent coach regardless.  Top talent doesn't guarantee ten titles in twelve years.  But those titles are somewhat tainted, and I don't understand why that fact hasn't been more prominent in Wooden coverage, not just since his death, but since 1975.  The reasoning seems to be circular.  "John Wooden is such a good man; therefore, he couldn't have known about Sam Gilbert's money; therefore, he is a good man."  I'm not saying he wasn't a good man, but it's amazing that some of our most sanctimonious sportswriters are willing to overlook the corruption in his UCLA program.  May coach Wooden rest in peace; may the reporting about his legacy become more balanced as mourning subsides. 

SB Nation regional.  SB Nation has launched a number of "regional sites" today, and by July 1, the number will grow to 20.  These sites will include material relevant to the professional and college teams of a particular region all available on one homepage.  No, neither Indianapolis nor Indiana is on the list of 20, but I know that some of you who live in or hail from other regions, or follow teams associated with those regions, will find these pages useful.