College basketball
8:20 am
Wed March 19, 2014

WSW: WMU Alumnus Discusses "Dynasty That Changed College Basketball"

Larry Farmer, now an assistant Western Michigan University Basketball Coach, played for John Wooden at UCLA
Larry Farmer, now an assistant Western Michigan University Basketball Coach, played for John Wooden at UCLA
Credit UCLA Yearbook, Wikicommons

Georgia Tech History Professor John Matthew Smith's book examines the UCLA basketball dynasty under head coach John Wooden. 

Smith's book The Sons of Westwood: John Wooden, UCLA and the Dynasty That Changed College Basketball was published last fall. Smith is a Western Michigan University alumnus and spoke with WMUK's Gordon Evans in February when he was in Kalamazoo to discuss his book. 

In response to the question about why he wanted to write the book, Smith says he started out wanting to write about UCLA superstar Lew Alcindor, who is now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Smith says he was interested in Abdul-Jabbar's racial conscience and activism during the civil rights movement. But then Smith said he started to consider how Abdul-Jabbar and coach John Wooden came from different backgrounds. He says it was an opportunity to examine the intersection of sports and racial politics. 

Credit University of Illinois Press
"Walton more than anyone else tested John Wooden in practice and off the court because of his social and political views."

The book also examines some players' desire to get involved in political activism. Bill Walton was one of the greatest players of the Bruins' dynasty. But he was also arrested as part of a student protest that shut down at the UCLA administration building. Smith says there was tension between Wooden and Walton. He says "Walton more than anyone else tested John Wooden in practice and off the court because of his social and political views." 

Smith says the clashes between Wooden and his players represent what happened between many parents and their children in the 1960's and 70's. He says Wooden was popular with the public who saw him as a representative of moral authority. But Smith says behind the scenes, players did test Wooden and questioned their coach about how he ran the team as well as social issues. Wooden wanted his players to avoid protests and demonstrations. Smith says the coach represented what President Richard Nixon called "the silent majority."

College basketball has grown since John Wooden coached his last game in 1975. But Smith says UCLA's success was a big factor in the rise of the popularity of college basketball. While Wooden complained about the commercialization of the sport, his teams were a big part of it. That included playing the University of Houston in the Astrodome in 1968. Smith says many people tuned in to watch UCLA lose, and they did by two points. That ended the Bruins 47-game winning streak. But Smith says the game was more important because it showed how popular college basketball could be. He says it helped drive up the price for televising the NCAA tournament. Smith says "If you want to understand the origins of March Madness, you have to know that it started back in January, 1968 in the Houston Astrodome." 

"If you want to understand the origins of March Madness, you have to know that it started back in January, 1968 in the Houston Astrodome."

Wooden's teams won ten national championships in 12 years, including seven in a row at one point. Since Wooden's retirement in 1975, the school has won one national title. Several coaches have come and gone, including current Western Michigan University assistant coach Larry Farmer. Smith says the game has changed, and made it more difficult to have a dynasty any more, much less one like UCLA had under John Wooden. 

Also: Smith's interview with The Daily Bruin