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The Wisdom of Coach Wooden

It's been one of those years. One of those crazy, exhilarating, terrifying, liberating, stomach churning, sleepless kind of years. A year full of change, growth, emotion, achievement, mistakes and chock full of learning things the hard way. Seriously, I mean the hard way. Most of all, a year full of new adventures.

This year, more than ever, I relied on the wisdom of one of my favorite mentors and pen pals, Coach John Wooden. Here is the story of our unusual friendship. One I will treasure forever.

When I first started working in economic development in Stratford, Texas in the early 1990's, my Board Chairman at the time, B.A. Donelson, introduced me to the philosophies of Coach Wooden. As B.A. and I did then (and still often do) we decided "What the heck...let's ask Coach Wooden if he would come to Stratford and speak at our first Sherman County Development Annual Membership Meeting". I began the detective work of tracking him down and getting through all of his gatekeepers. (This was before cell phones and the internet, mind you!)

I finally got to him. I sent him a letter with my request. He personally responded back. I responded back to him. And he responded back again. A wonderful friendship was born. Letters, books, gifts and notes followed between us over the years as he became a very precious pen pal and mentor. Many of my friends and associates have seen the autographed poster of his leadership pyramid that I have had hanging in my office for more almost three decades. I have also proudly displayed his autographed books. But his notes and letters are tucked away in a fireproof box. For serious safekeeping.

I will always cherish these handwritten mementos of such a great man. I have read all of his books and have taken every sentiment he ever sent to me to heart. My biggest regret is that by the time I was introduced to him (he was 80 at the time and no longer traveling or doing speaking engagements), that I was never able to meet him in person. Over the years, I offered to go to him, but unfortunately his ailing heath prevented him from meeting with me. One day, after facing some unexpected hardships in my life, I wrote a letter to him to thank him for all of his words of support he had shared. To tell him what a bright light and rock he was to me. While my letter was en route to him, I received one from him. He was telling me the same thing. Thanking me for taking the time to correspond with him, how he loved hearing about my life in my small rural town in Texas. About my education. About my family. About my dreams. About what I wanted to achieve in my life. I loved hearing about his beloved wife, children and grandchildren. His years of teaching. How he was helping to rebuild his church that was damaged in an earthquake. How important his scholarship fund was to him. About leadership. About how he had more friends than anyone deserved, but how he sometimes felt lonely. He told me "Thank you for giving an old man the pleasure of my time, my enthusiasm for life and passion for my job". It was our last correspondence with each other. He was 94.

I will never forget the impact that Coach John Wooden has had on my life. When I get bogged down, confused or just plain overwhelmed, I would grab one of his letters or one of his books. He has always been there to remind me of my values, of the importance of goals and the need to have dreams. He would tell me to take a deep breath and take one step forward. And then another step. And then another. And he reminded me to enjoy and appreciate the journey and the people who supported me along the way. And he reminded me of the true impact teachers and coaches have on our lives.

One piece of advice I cherish..."Always be humble and willing to be coached". He believed all of us could and should continue to learn from those who have gone down a path before us. And that we should also share our experiences with others. That regardless of age, we should always be open to learning from someone else. To acknowledge that we never "know it all".

I truly hope that all people will continue to grow with his knowledge and experiences. Take a look at his Pyramid of Success. Faith, Honesty, Integrity, Character, Passion, Hard Work, Strong Ethics, Respect, Quality Education....all of those things our world can really use a resurgence of right now.

He was one of the greatest coaches in history. But more importantly, he displayed quiet leadership, influence and class. He was first and foremost, a loving husband, a wonderful father, an adoring son and a beloved grandfather. He placed faith, family and friendship at the top of his list of gifts received. Yes, he loved basketball, but more importantly he loved what basketball could teach us about teamwork, commitment, tenacity and practice. He was a teacher in the classroom, on the courts and in life.

I still give his books as graduation gifts. I have his words of wisdom forever etched in my mind. And I have the love and respect for a great man in my heart. I urge everyone to google him and enjoy the abundance of quotes that will resonate with each of you. Or grab one of his books on your next trip. You won't regret it.

We can all use his brand of common sense and decency in our lives. I may trip and fall on the way to achieving my dreams, but I know as long as I get up, dust off and move forward, true joy awaits. And that would make him very happy.

Thank you, Coach. You will never be forgotten.

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