How respected and admired was Hall of Fame basketball coach Morgan Wootten?
The Washington Post ran his obituary on Page One.
The New York Times also published a detailed obituary.
In addition, tributes to the longtime DeMatha Catholic High School boys basketball coach also appeared in numerous other media outlets and across the vast social media landscape.
Wootten, who died at age 88 on Jan. 21 in Hyattsville, Maryland, at his home, led DeMatha High’s hoop squad for 46 seasons before announcing his retirement in 2002.
As noted in The New York Times, Morgan Wootten’s teams never had a losing record.
He won 1,274 games and lost 92 at DeMatha High.
Perhaps Washington Post columnist John Feinstein is the most incisivee observer of Morgan Wootten’s career and coaching persona.
Feinstein spent a week shadowing Wootten in 1984, discovering what made the ultra-successful coach tick and how people responded to his extraordinary leadership skills.
In a remembrance column for The Washington Post nearly 40 years later, Feinstein shared some unforgettable memories from that unique newspaper assignment.
The compliment of a lifetime
Dean Smith, the great University of North Carolina coach, weighed in on Wootten’s coaching acumen. To preface the following remarks, Feinstein noted that Smith commended Phog Allen (Kansas), Bob Spear (Air Force) and Frank McGuire (UNC) and admired them all.
But, Smith insisted, as recounted by Feinstein, “The best coach I’ve ever seen, though, is Morgan Wootten. He’s always a step ahead of the rest of us.”
Feinstein’s week at DeMatha
“Wootten was never one to go out of his way in search of publicity, but he gave me total access for a week,” the columnist wrote. “I watched him interact with players and assistants, students and teachers, seemingly knowing everyone’s name in the hallways at DeMatha.
“I went to practice and games and went with him to Ledo’s in College Park, where he would go after every game to eat pizza and drink a Miller Lite or two before pulling out one of his ever-present flair pens and begin drawing plays and making notes on the paper place mats.”
Then he turned to Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, a former DeMatha player and assistant during the 20000 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee’s long reign, for a few revealing remarks:
“We’d come into work the next day and there’d be greasy place-settings filled with notes all over the office,” Brey was quoted as saying, “He was never more comfortable than in the little back room at Ledo’s, eating that pizza and doing postgame X’s and O’s.”
Feinstein’s dissertation of the coaching titan continued this way:
“But I learned Wootten’s secret by spending two days in the history class he taught. I was a history major in college. I had some very good professors. None could touch Wootten as a teacher. His style was unique. He didn’t lecture; he told stories. He kept the students engaged with humor and questions, not so much asking them for facts as for their opinions. Why did they think Alexander the Great sat down and cried after conquering the world?
“Or this, during a discussion of Napoleon: ‘How many of you think that there’s such a thing as a good dictator?’ Twenty-five of twenty-nine hands went up. Wootten nodded and then said, ‘Okay then, how many of you would want to live under a good dictator?’ Zero hands went up.
“I was ready to go back to high school, if only to sit in on Wootten’s history classes. When I watched him work with his basketball team, I realized he was doing the exact same thing: keeping his players engaged with storytelling, with humor and by asking for their input, although there was no doubt who had the last word.”
Oh yeah, Morgan Wootten’s methods worked. In fact, his basketball teams never lost three games in a row during his illustrious career, which included becoming the first high school coach to be enshrined at the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. When Red Auerbach, the Boston Celtics icon, introduced Wootten at the induction ceremony, he said, “He’s always in command without being loud or brash.”
Indeed, a real compliment from another coaching great.
Hubie Brown, a two-time NBA Coach of the Year and 2005 Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, weighed in on Morgan Wootten’s legacy this week.
“Coach Wootten’s contributions to this great game will live on for generations. He was one of the best high school coaches I’ve ever had the pleasure of being around,” the astute NBA commentator told Talk Basket.
Brad Greenberg, head coach of Israeli team Maccabi Ashdod, recalled crossing paths with Wootten during his college days in Washington in the 1970s.
“I do remember being among Morgan and my mentor Jimmy Lynam, who was the coach at American University at the time … and Jimmy asked Morgan what he thought was the most important trait of a really good player, and without hesitation Morgan responded ‘consistency,’” Greenberg told Talk Basket. “That has always stayed with me.”
Greenberg, a former Philadelphia 76ers general manager and a current Canada national team assistant coach, remembered observing the great DeMatha High teams and the impact that Wootten had on the program when he was still in high school.
“The first time I ever saw DeMatha play was when I was a high school player and they traveled to Long Island (New York) to play Lutheran High School, which had a powerful team. DeMatha had (future Hall of Famer Adrian Dantley) who was just a freshman or soph.
“(I) had the chance to visit DeMatha over the years while he was coaching and he was the epitome of a gentleman.”
More viewpoints on Morgan Wootten
Duke University coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has amassed more victories than any other NCAA men’s coach, once described Wootten’s impact this way: “His DNA is all over the darn game.”
Former NBA assistant coach Tom Newell, whose Hall of Fame father, Pete, guided the University of San Francisco, Michigan State and the University of California squads beginning at USF in 1946, offered a tribute to Morgan Wootten this weekend.
“I met Coach Wootten many many years ago when he was at DeMatha High School,” Newell told Talk Basket. “He was the John Wooden of high school American coaches … great teams, solid citizens, great teacher.”
Faith guided his life
Catholic News Service published a Morgan Wootten obituary and noted how his faith played an integral role in all facets of his life.
The article included comments that Wootten made during a 2007 speech at a “Theology on Tap” event for young Catholic students.
“Successful people who can handle challenges generally have their priorities in the proper place,” Wootten was quoted as saying. “That is the one thing that never changes. God is first. It will make you a better student. It will make you a better player. It will make you happier in life.”