A Love Story So Unbelievable, Snopes.com Investigated

UPDATED: March 22, 2024
PUBLISHED: March 25, 2023
figurines of a man and a woman on top of a stack of pennies to represent the gender pay gap
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The late UCLA coach John Wooden once said, “Passion is temporary. Love is enduring.” Indeed, Wooden’s love for his wife Nellie Riley is the stuff of romantic legend. As the story goes, Wooden wrote a love letter to his beloved every 21st of the month. In them, he say how much he missed her and couldn’t wait to see her again.

“Then he’ll fold it once, slide it in a little envelope and walk into his bedroom,” Former Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly wrote in a March 2000 article about Wooden. “He’ll go to the stack of love letters sitting there on her pillow, untie the yellow ribbon, place the new one on top and tie the ribbon again. The stack will be 180 letters high then, because Tuesday is 15 years to the day since Nellie, his beloved wife of 53 years, died.”

Reilly was one of many writers who documented Wooden’s enduring ritual long after his wife died. But the story peculiarly reemerged years later as popular lore, Snopes.com’s Barbara Mikkelson reported: “We can’t fathom why the article quoted above suddenly became a hot email forward in 2004.”

Coach Wooden’s enduring love for Nellie Riley

In the Sports Illustrated column, Reilly described the widower’s daily ode to his late wife: “In her memory, he sleeps only on his half of the bed, only on his pillow, only on top of the sheets, never between, with just the old bedspread they shared to keep him warm.”

Because Snopes.com bills itself as “the internet’s go-to source for discerning what is true and what is total nonsense,” site co-founder Mikkelson set out to investigate. “So often the stories we classify as glurge have precious little factual basis to them, existing primarily as parables meant to inspire rather than inform,” she wrote. “Yet that is not the case here—this item paints an accurate portrait of John Wooden, the renowned basketball coach.”

“The coach’s monthly letters to his deceased wife Nellie are also a matter of record; they are mentioned in any number of articles about the man, often by reporters who have themselves seen them,” Mikkelson wrote. “On the 21st day of every month, after visiting her grave at Forest Lawn, Coach Wooden writes her a letter, which he leaves on the pillow on her side of the bed. Each of those letters ends with his telling her he misses her every day and looks forward to the time he can be with her again.”

This article was published in February 2017 and has been updated.