Q&A With Coaching Legend Morgan Wootten

Morgan Wootten is a former high school basketball coach who has won five national championships during his career. He coached at DeMatha high in Maryland from 1956-2002 and was inducted in the basketball Hall of Fame in 2000.

Wootten has been labeled by many as the Godfather of Basketball and totaled a record of 1274-94 in his illustrious career. In this interview Morgan and I discuss the origins of the McDonald’s All-American game, his close relationship with UCLA legend John Wooden and much more.

SHAFIN KHAN: Who were your basketball mentors growing up and how did your coaching career begin?

MORGAN WOOTTEN: Well, I was very lucky to have an excellent high school coach named Tony Cream. He was my coach at Montgomery Blair high school where I graduated from. He was a real good beginner for me. I thought I was going to be a lawyer after I graduated from the University of Maryland. In the spring of my first year at Montgomery junior my uncle called me and said the St. Joe’s orphanage needs a coach for their baseball team. I didn’t know much about baseball, I had played basketball and football in high school. I took my buddy Tommy Clark to go over and interview with the good nun. We got over there and she started talking about the job and all of a sudden my buddy Tommy starts getting cold feet and points at me and says “you know sister, he’s a great candidate for this job”. Before it was all over I walked out of there and the sister said I will see you on Monday, be ready to go at three o’clock.” I never applied for the job, I never accepted the job and the next thing I know I’m the baseball coach at an orphanage and that was the beginning of my coaching career. I fell in love with working with kids and coaching and teaching so that’s how I got started.

KHAN: Were there any coaches you specifically admired?

WOOTTEN: Joe Gallagher was the best coach in the whole Washington metropolitan area over at St. Johns high school. We played St. Johns when I was at Blair and he was a great football and basketball coach. In those days most coaches at the high schools coached two sports. I admired Joe a great deal.

KHAN: People call the 1965 DeMatha vs. Power Memorial game the greatest high school basketball game that has ever been played. Talk to me about that legendary game, what was the energy in the building like that night?

WOOTTEN: It was incredible. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a junior and of course he had never lost a game in high school yet. We had played them in Cole Field house which was where the University of Maryland played. Maryland had never been sold out for a game and it sat 12,500 people. That night we played Kareem when he was a junior and Maryland was sold out. 12,500 people. It was unbelievable, I mean everybody was stunned. We lost to them by three points and it was just an incredible game. Kareem was incredible. So, we agreed to play the game the following year. Well, they kept on winning, they never lost. We never lost after that game so when we hooked up with them they had won 71 games in a row. And it was sold out again three weeks in advance when Kareem was a senior and we beat them by three points. The reason I call it the greatest high school game ever is because at that point teams around the county did not really know what other teams were doing. They didn’t know all the details you have today, everyone knows who the great players are, who the great teams are, they rank them nationally. None of that ever took place back in those days. But that night Time magazine, NewsWeek was there, all the radio stations were there, everything was there. It was the game. And it was the thing that kind of turned high school basketball onto a national level and that’s why its really been called the greatest high school game ever played. It turned high school basketball around. The results of the game were on the front page of the Washington Post. Not the sports page, the front page. It was the beginning of high school basketball really becoming big and well known.

KHAN: Have you ever talked to Kareem in years after about that game?

WOOTTEN: Oh yeah, we have been on a couple television shows together and he’s a class guy all the way. He always kids around that he does not want to talk about that game. It was his only loss in high school.

KHAN: It is well known that you obviously never coached at the college level and it is said the only job you would have accepted was the job at the University of Maryland. Were there any other offers you seriously considered?

WOOTTEN: Yeah, I think I look back and say that is the only one. I was very honored to have college offers. In fact, Red Auerbach even wanted me to move onto the pros. He said that he would have loved for me to work with him. Red was one of my great mentors. You asked for mentors earlier and Red Auerbach was certainly one. John Wooden was a great friend just like Red was a great friend. Those were two of my great mentors that really helped me as I went through my coaching career. Coach Wooden and I were inseparable from the beginning of the McDonalds All-American game in the late seventies until coach passed away about nine years ago. Red and I were great buddies, we used to have lunch together every Tuesday. We spent a lot of time together. He used to come speak at my basketball camp. Those were my two great mentors. I certainly interacted with a lot of the college coaches as well. Dean Smith and I were very close friends. Dean was at my wedding. Coach Krzyzewski is a great friend. He and I went to Greece together with our families and did clinics over in Greece together. I was surrounded by a lot of really great coaches. Those four are probably the ones I spent the most time with on a real personal level.

KHAN: Did you keep in touch with Dean in his later years when he got sick and his memory started to fade?

WOOTTEN: Oh yeah. Almost right down to the very end. Dean was a magnificent person. He was the type of coach you would want your son to play for.

KHAN: Did you ever formally interview for the Maryland head coaching job or were you ever officially offered the job?

WOOTTEN: That’s an interesting story on the Maryland job. [laughing] When the Maryland job had opened up I was actually at home babysitting and my wife was out shopping. The phone rang and Jim Kehoe, the Maryland athletic director, called. He who was one of my instructors when I was at Maryland actually. He called and asked me what I was doing and I said I was babysitting. He says “When your wife gets home, you come on over here, I need to talk to you.” So, I went over and it was about 10 o’clock at night. He pointed over at a table and the table is full of letters. He said “Those are applications for the job from all over the country.” He goes “I’ll be very honest with you. I offered the job to Lefty Driesell. Lefty has got 24 hours after his last game to tell me yes or no. If he doesn’t take it I’m going to offer it to you.” So, that’s the closest I ever got to being offered the Maryland job.

KHAN: What is the biggest personal challenge you have faced in life?

WOOTTEN: Well, the personal challenge was in 1996. I went down with a liver attack and I had to have a transplant. So, that was obviously the toughest physical challenge.

KHAN: What kept you at the high school level for so many years?

WOOTTEN: Vic Bubas and I were very good friends. N.C. State had come out with the headlines that offered me the head coaching job for 800,000 or something like that. I remember Vic saying to me “Morgan, there are some mountains out there that you got to climb that you have not yet tried to climb before you’ll be satisfied. If you have climbed the mountains and are climbing the mountains that you like to climb then you don’t want to mess with success.” I loved what I was doing and I loved the people I was involved with. I was so completely happy with what I was doing at that level that I saw no need to change.

KHAN: In the 30 for 30 film “Survive and Advance” your former players Sidney Lowe and Dereck Whittenberg mention that they wanted you to take the N.C. State job. Did you ever seriously consider it?

WOOTTEN: Well, I certainly thought about it. In fact they called me and they put the pressure on me. [laughing] I was highly honored without a doubt and it was certainly a wonderful offer but that was what my friend Vic Bubas was talking about with what mountains you wanted to climb. I was where I wanted to be and doing what I wanted to do.

KHAN: What is the biggest personal challenge you have faced in life?

WOOTTEN: Well, the personal challenge was in 1996. I went down with a liver attack and I had to have a transplant. So, that was obviously the toughest physical challenge.

KHAN: Do you still follow the basketball world?

WOOTTEN: Oh sure. Particularly collegiate and high school.

KHAN: Did you have a relationship with Bobby Knight?

WOOTTEN: Oh yeah, I knew Bob well. [laughing] We went to Red Auerbach’s camp together. I started a coaching clinic along with Joe Gallagher and Vic Bubas, we started a D.C. basketball clinic which still goes on today for a weekend right before the season starts. Bob Knight came and spoke at that clinic for me for three straight years. Bob and I were very friendly.

KHAN: Do you still keep in touch with him at all?

WOOTTEN: Not recently, I have not, no.

KHAN: How did your relationship with John Wooden begin?

WOOTTEN: Well, the Final Four was being played at Maryland and it was the year after he had just won his first national championship. But of course Kareem was a freshman and couldn’t play varsity and they didn’t win it that year. So, he was at our gym, watching us practice and we were getting ready for a tournament. The place was full of college coaches because in those days you could not go out and recruit while the Final Four was being played and it was right there in Maryland so he was one of like 400 coaches in the gym that day. I got to meet him that day and we started chatting and talking about basketball and so on. From that day on we became great friends.

KHAN: What is a specific memory of John Wooden you enjoy?

WOOTTEN: So many great ones. A great one is when the McDonalds people were calling me and they were talking about maybe having a national all-star game. They said they would have loved for me to be associated with the game and to be the person who would select the teams for them. They said we think we need to get another prestigious name as an advisor for the committee. I said “I bet coach Wooden would love to do that” they said “Nope, we already checked with him. He‘s not going to do it” and I said “Give me fifteen minutes.” And I called coach Wooden and I said “Coach, its for charity” and he said “Are you going to do it Morgan?” and I said yes and he replied “Then so am I.” So, I called the McDonalds people back and they all let out a big cheer over the phone and then the McDonalds All-American game was launched. Together, we worked side-by-side on that game for every year that coach Wooden was here.

KHAN: What was the most memorable game you were ever apart of?

WOOTTEN: Well I never want to compare, that’s not fair. Certainly, there were so many great ones. Think of the Power Memorial game, what a great one that was. I could give you game after game that stands out tremendously but I never like to pick or choose.

KHAN: I honestly thought you would say the Power Memorial game.

WOOTTEN: I can say this. There was none greater than the Power Memorial game. It’s like I don’t compare players but I’ll say this. I can’t think of a better player than Adrian Dantley. I’m not saying he’s the best but I can’t think of anybody better.

KHAN: Do you think college athletes should be paid?

WOOTTEN: That would be so different to everything that I grew up in and played with. That is just so different than anything I was ever associated with. I thought the game was such a beautiful game when it was like that so I would be in favor of the game continuing the way it has always been. They are not professionals yet, they are college players.

KHAN: What advice would you give to a young man about life in general?

WOOTTEN: Number one, be yourself. Don’t try to be someone else. I never tried to be Red Auerbach, I never tried to be John Wooden. I just wanted to be myself. You shouldn’t try be some other great writer over here or there. You learn from them but number one be yourself. Number two, surround yourself with good people. You surround yourself with good people and good things will happen. I think those are two pretty good things to follow.

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