Full Q&A with Dan Guerrero, Pt. 5: On John Wooden

JG: OK, let’s wrap this up with a tough subject…tell me about your first John Wooden experience, as someone who played at UCLA when he coached…DG: What resonates the most for me was not that I was going to Pauley Pavilion and watching the basketball team win. I can remember watching practice there, too, because they were open. All of those things are still very clear in my mind. But what stands out for me even more is when Coach Wooden came to our baseball practices. Baseball was his first love, and it remained a love for him throughout the years. When we were undergraduates, after they were done with practices, he would come out because he was a good friend of our head coach, and he would come out to Sawtelle Field – which is now Jackie Robinson Stadium and was then just basically bleachers – and he would sit up in those bleachers and watch us practice. Whenever he was there, we knew he was there, and I can remember just wanting to make certain I turned the double plays a little bit quicker. The bat speed was a little better, the arm got a little stronger. My first step was quicker. You just wanted to do things that would make him say, ‘Well done.’ It was always that way. I know he had that kind of influence on everyone he met through the years. But I can remember that very clearly.

JG: And your favorite moment?DG: I had the rare opportunity to be able to go to his home quite a bit, and I would often take guests. Other athletic directors, coaches, individuals who wanted to speak to Coach, and he was always very welcoming. We invariably had this sort of deal we played off each other – Coach used to like to tell his guests who is all-time favorite baseball team was. But he never wanted to offer it up first. Dan’s role was to get the conversation into baseball. I would ask you, Jon Gold, what would be your all-time team. You would give me the lineup, and then I could say, ‘Hey Coach, why don’t you tell Jon what your all-time team was?” Coach, and of course this was from 92 to 99 years of age, at that age he could actually say, ‘Well, Ruth would be in the outfield and Gehrig at first,’ and he’d mean it. He saw it. He’d give his team, but whenever he got to catcher, he would kind of waffle a bit. When I say waffle, he had two – and I did this probably 50, 60 times, and he probably picked one guy 28 times and the other guy 28 times – and it was always between Johnny Bench and Mickey Cochrane. Well, the last time I talked to him, I said, “Coach, you gotta tell me. Is it Bench or is it Cochrane?’ He had this big smile on his face, and he nodded and said, ‘Mickey Cochrane.’ That was the guy. It was pretty special to me. We had a lot of fun with that.

JG: Last question, finally: Tell me about your thoughts on the love that was shared for John Wooden not just after he passed, but as he fought at the end? What does it mean to you to be the caretaker of the program so closely associated with him?DG: I have the opportunity to travel throughout the year, and all of my colleagues and contemporaries – coaches, administrators, those in various organizations associated with our business – to the person, would always ask about Coach. What is he like? How is he feeling? He is always in the minds of people. Of course, the common bond was UCLA in many respects. If there was ever an individual who you wanted to live forever, it was Coach. And I’ll tell you what, he made a pretty darn good run at it.

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