When you think about how these March Madness tournaments are single-elimination, meaning a single scant loss will count you out, and how variable a game can be - young college players, constantly changing roster as players graduate, emotional states, health conditions, play permutations - it's more than impressive that any coach could deliver that kind of performance over a 12-year span. It's almost magical.
But that wasn't why he was a hero of mine. It was the foundation of character that drove his success, the idea that if he could instill character and heart into his young players - teaching them how to put on their socks and tie their shoes, insisting that they never score without acknowledging who helped them, banning star players from games for ethics infractions - then success would follow as a result. Encapsulating his philosophy in his classic pyramid of success, where competitive greatness is grounded in industriousness, loyalty, self-control, and enthusiasm, he defined success as peace of mind derived from achieving your best potential as only you know it. The peace of mind of reaching your highest potential.
"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."
"Failure is not fatal but failure to change might be."
"The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team."
He set an example for them - his care for the team, his devotion to his family and wife (visiting her grave and writing love letters to her every month for decades), insisting that her name come first in the home court named after them - he never earned more than $35,000 all the way up to his 10th championship. He made them men first, champions second.
And I have to wonder, "What is clutch?" Wikipedia defines it as "performing well under extreme pressure." When I was younger (which might include last week), we used to use the term "clutch" when someone came through in the nick of time, e.g. "Man, that was pretty clutch." We used it to describe buzz-beating shots by Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, as well as a quick catch of a glass being knocked off the table.
But I have to go back to John Wooden, and wonder whether we have it all wrong. Maybe clutch isn't something you do, maybe it's something you are. Not something you were born with, necessarily, but the part of the non-genetic "DNA" of you that is honed over time through exercising that fundamentally human prerogative - to choose. Maybe clutch isn't about the drama of that arcing moment into the basket. Maybe it's about every day putting your socks on right so you don't get blisters, tying your shoes well, building loyalty amongst your teammates, so when success comes, you know it before the applause - you know it when there is no applause - because you know you achieved your highest and best potential.
I struggle with this every day, to make the right choices. At one point, I thought that I would get good at this and then it would be easy. Then later, I thought I was good at this and that it was easy. Now I think the struggle never ends, and it's a good thing. If life was too easy, it probably wouldn't be worthwhile or as fun. But I go and re-read the letter that I wrote my baby niece, where I advised her "you’ll feel bad or sad or insecure or fearful, and you’ll care what other people think, and the emotions and chemicals inside you will tell you one thing when you sort of know better. In those moments, take a deep breath and as you exhale, whisper to yourself who you are." When she's old enough, I'll tell her that you never stop doing that. But that's part of the fun of being here at all.