Behind the lines – The Pyramid of Success

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    It was a quote displayed above the blackboard (later whiteboard) of my classroom, and then my IT office for 32 years. It came from a man I consider the greatest coach that ever lived, the legendary John Wooden of UCLA.

    The “Wizard of Westwood” as he was often called had his act together, on the court obviously, but more so in how he approached life.


    Coach Wooden’s quote was this, “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.”

    Spot on as usual.

    Coach Wooden had dozens of other quotes worthy of hanging on a wall, but this one was special.

    He knew people, loved people and motivated his teams to levels of success that are unimaginable in today’s self-aggrandizing, self-esteem-driven, self-centered society.


    “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching,” is another favorite. This one ties to the court as well as the world outside. If you do the little things, the big things take care of themselves.

    In later life, he was a kind, gentle grandfatherly man, but in his prime, he was a taskmaster. How many hundreds of Bruins heard this after a lackluster effort at practice? “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have the time to do it over?”

    In the midst of the greatest run any basketball team had ever accomplished and will ever accomplish since the arrival of the “me first” era, he put his beliefs into an easily understood graphic design. Yes, easy to understand, but difficult to achieve.

    The Pyramid of Success – h/t John Wooden

    He called it the “Pyramid of Success.”

    I was privileged to hear Coach Wooden explain the pyramid at a Medalist Coaching Clinic at Smokey Hill High School in Denver back in 1990. There were other very successful coaches speaking at the clinic including Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, the well-traveled Lon Kruger, then at Kansas State, and Lute Olson of Arizona but Coach Wooden stole the show.

    I stood in line for over an hour to get a chance to shake his hand, exchange a few words and get his autograph. I’m not much into autographs so he is on a short list with Dick Butkus, and Pete Rose. I wasn’t alone, there were hundreds of high school and college coaches in attendance and nearly all of them stood patiently in line. The cajoling clinic director demanding everyone return to their seats was universally ignored.


    The pyramid of success begins with basic blocks and leads ultimately to competitive greatness.

    Coach Wooden defines success this way, “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”

    The five bedrock principles form the base layer of the pyramid, industriousness, friendship, loyalty, cooperation, and enthusiasm. Yes, they all have a hollow ring in today’s fractured society, but as life principles only a self-centered fool would argue against them.

    The second layer is self-control, alertness, initiative, and intentness. All great qualities to strive for, but qualities that Hollywood and social media choose to ridicule.

    The middle layer is condition, skill, and team spirit. Condition isn’t just a physical attribute but has elements of mental preparation, moral codes of conduct, and moderation in all things. Skill is more than raw talent, it is the ability to properly and quickly execute fundamentals when the time arises. Team spirit is perhaps the hardest pill to swallow for the pampered premier athletes being treated as gods today. Placing the team first, ahead of your own ambition is what Coach Wooden taught.

    Poise and confidence are the final blocks supporting the pinnacle of competitive greatness. Being at ease with yourself and your decisions creates poise, and confidence isn’t cockiness, it is respect without fear. Being prepared and keeping things in perspective are key components of confidence.

    That all leads to competitive greatness, but along the steps up both sides of the pyramid, Coach Wooden has added five attributes. On the left are attributes more attuned to athletics and on the right, more in line with your day-to-day conduct with other people.

    Start with ambition, then adaptability, resourcefulness, fight, and finally faith on the left and you reach the peak of the pyramid.

    On the right sincerity, honesty, reliability, integrity, and topping the list, patience.

    If you’ve read this far, you probably realized that the pyramid of success extends far beyond the hardwood at Pauley Pavilion and is a map for success in life as well.

    Pauley Pavilion was the facility Coach Wooden used to mold generations of young men into basketball players, but more importantly good citizens.

    He had another tenet he preached to these talented young giants, “Don’t mistake activity with achievement.”

    ‘When one of his Bruins began to take the fame and accolades a bit too close to heart, Coach Wooden reminded them of one of his most important personal beliefs, “Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.”’

    Coach John Wooden and his star player Karem Abdul Jabbar a 50+ year friendship – h/t UCLA

    Perhaps the greatest honor a coach can receive is the friendship of his or her former players later in life. Coach Wooden had that in droves.

    Lew Alcindor was the top high school prospect in America in 1965, coming out of New York City. He chose UCLA because of John Wooden.

    Jump ahead to just a year or so before Coach Wooden passed away in 2010 at age 99 and you can see the respect that Alcindor, who became Karem Abdul Jabbar after converting to Islam, had for his old coach. It was a relationship that extended to hanging out together at Wooden’s small home watching sports and old westerns together.

    There was genuine love between the greatest coach basketball will ever see, and arguably the best player to ever take the floor in the NBA in Jabbar.

    A final comment that succinctly describes Coach Wooden and his take on responsibility.

    “Never make excuses. Your friends don’t need them, and your foes won’t believe them.”

    It’s a lesson we should all take to heart.


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