What’s your name?” John Wooden asked.
“Cori Close,” the nervous 22-year-old responded.
“How do you spell that?” Wooden continued.
“C-o-r-i,” Close said, puzzled.
“That’s how my great-granddaughter spells it! Great! Come in!” Wooden said grinning.
It was the beginning of a dreamlike mentorship relationship between the iconic longtime coach of the University of California-Los Angeles men’s basketball team and an outspoken new UCLA women’s team assistant. Every Tuesday for a decade, Close would visit the legend’s home to learn life, basketball and everything in between from Wooden, a 10-time national championship winner whom many consider to be the greatest coach who ever lived.
“He honestly meant so much more to me than I did to him,” she says. “He taught me how to be a better coach and a better leader, but ultimately just a better person.”
Close applied Wooden’s simple, proven teachings to climb the coaching ladder. An assistant with the Bruins, at her alma mater, the University of California-Santa Barbara, and then Florida State University, Close returned to Westwood, California, as UCLA’s head coach in 2011.
Although Wooden died before seeing Close achieve her dream of becoming a head coach, she now carries out his legacy through her own mentorship, teaching his winning principles—including the famed Pyramid of Success—to her players today. Predictably, it’s working: Close’s team advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet Sixteen last year and is a favorite for a deep tournament run this spring.
“If I could see him now, I would just say, ‘Thank you, coach.’ ”
“If I could see him now,” she says, “I would just say, ‘Thank you, coach. Thank you for your example and your teachings. Thank you for spending time with me.’ ”
In this interview, Close recalls her relationship with Wooden and the mentorship lessons she implements today.
What’s the most important lesson Coach Wooden taught you?
The biggest lesson for me happened after he died [in 2010], after I didn’t have him in the day-to-day. Now I realize how deep all of his lessons go because I still haven’t forgotten them. I think about him almost every day. Obviously that’s accentuated being the women’s basketball coach at UCLA, but even if I coached somewhere else, after 15 years of having consistent contact with him, his lessons are forever etched in my mind.
Given your relationship with him—one coaches all over the country would’ve killed for—what attributes did you come to believe great mentors should possess?
Coach Wooden was a great mentor because he lived what he taught. He was a brilliant teacher. He knew how to communicate in a way that just really hit your heart, and then he just really loved you unconditionally. He was so kind, in spite of me sometimes just not getting the lesson right away.
When you’re trying to mentor, teach or invest in the lives of other people, it can’t be about whether it’s convenient, if they get it right away or if they are resistant at first. The reality is, it can’t be about you at all. When you’re trying to be a transformational leader, it has to always be about investing in the other person, regardless of whether they respond how you want them to. He did that so well. His principles were so sound and consistent that even if the receiver didn’t handle it quite right or made mistakes, it didn’t matter. That wasn’t the point. It wasn’t about him. It was about making a difference in the lives of others.
JUAN LAINEZ/MARIN MEDIA/CAL SPORT MEDIA
Mentorship is a two-way street. How did you, as a mentee, add value to the relationship?
The No. 1 way a mentee can add value is to truly have a teachable heart and be a person of gratitude. That’s what was so amazing about Coach Wooden. He was so wildly successful and yet so extremely humble, hungry to learn and eager to grow to his very last days.
My own mentoring experience fuels me. It refills my cup when I see a student or a mentee soaking it all in, absorbing what I’m trying to give to their lives. It energizes the teacher when you see a quest for excellence or a desire to learn, a proactive approach to grow. So having that unquenchable desire to learn and grow is vital.
Wooden emphasized the importance of becoming a well-rounded person first and foremost, that character should always come before wins and losses. How did that approach affect you?
I think one of the ways Coach Wooden modeled that was to stress the only things that held real meaning in his coaching career. His success as a teacher was measured by who his players became and who they impacted.
That’s something I’ve tried to get our players to think about. Because in 50 years, what are the only things that will still be around from these four years of college? Banners only hang in buildings, rings collect dust, but who you become and who you impact in these four years will be with you forever. Coach Wooden modeled that. You never heard him brag about what his players were doing in the NBA. But you heard him say, “One of my former players brought his kids over and it was so cool watching him be a dad!” or “I went to one of my former players’ churches,” or “You wouldn’t believe what this person is doing in business.”
The more you nurture the root, the more fruit you’re going to have. People do it in reverse order. They define success by points and rebounds, wins and losses, championships or not championships. But it’s in the wrong order. As I pour into people and help them build habits of excellence, a growth mindset, a gratitude mindset and to be a lifestyle giver, then they are going to become better basketball players. And we are then going to become a better team. That’s something I saw Coach Wooden celebrate all the time. And his teams won more national championships than anyone else at that time.
When you pour into the heart, the personal habits and the character, that also pours out onto the court.
When you met with Coach Wooden on a weekly basis, it was early in your career. Since then you’ve had great success. What did Wooden teach you about staying grounded?
I think a big part of Coach Wooden’s ability to stay grounded was his faith. He would say, “Drink deeply from good books, first and foremost, the Bible.” I think he spent a lot of time there, and his faith was a grounding point. Jesus was the ultimate example of having all of the power in his mind and having all of the humility. For Coach Wooden, that’s where he found that consistent humility. Because compared to the sacrifice that Jesus made, winning some basketball games doesn’t seem like that much.
As a leader, I am tempted. It is so easy, not only trying to keep your ego in check, but wondering what people think about you. You’re going to be tempted by recognition, tempted to define your identity in terms of wins and losses or who you are as a leader. It’s easy to get your identity off track.
At the end of every day, we have our players write in a journal—their “what went well” journal. At the top, they write, “Basketball is what I do, not who I am.” Because it’s so easy to think I had a great game so I feel great or I had a bad game so I feel bad. It’s the same in leadership: If they approve of me, I feel good; if I get a lot of criticism, it’s hard. There is always going to be that healthy tension there, but Coach Wooden was so masterful because his identity was wrapped up in the right things.
AP PHOTO/MICHAEL OWEN BAKER
You’ve been working through the Pyramid of Success with your team and using it as a guide to build your program. Why do you think it’s so important and effective for achieving success?
I think it’s simple. It’s visual. It’s easy to teach through; it’s hard to live out. It took Coach Wooden 15 years to develop and tweak the pyramid. It’s not like he just sat down and wrote the book and sent it out there. This was hours and hours of thoughtful critiques, tweaking and fine-tuning. People forget that it took 16 years at UCLA before he won his first championship. This was not a quick fix. He developed this through tons of experience, reflection, trial and error, and self-evaluation. It’s something that came from a very wise man over a great period of time with a very high attention to detail. Why try to come up with something brilliant when I already have something that’s proven?
You’ve implemented many of Wooden’s most notable techniques, including bringing in a former player of his, Rafer Johnson, to show your players how to put on their socks and shoes, just as Wooden did at the beginning of every season. How do you, as a mentor, hope to keep your own legacy alive?
I don’t care about my own legacy, to be honest. Coach Wooden didn’t care about his either. That’s what made it so powerful. The legacy he wanted was just to pour into people. He wanted his legacy to be that he treated all people really well. And then hopefully they would treat other people really well.
He used to joke around, saying, “Why do people want me to sign my own name on things?” He thought that was the silliest thing. But he would do it anyway. Whoever would contact him or write him a letter, he would graciously respond, because it wasn’t about what he thought. It wasn’t about him. It was about making a difference in others.
So I can pay it forward by not making it all about me. Because it’s not about me, it’s about each individual life. It’s about the managers. It’s about the custodial staff at UCLA. And with the athletes, it’s person-student-athlete, in that order. It’s just not about me. And hopefully my legacy is that other people make it not about them.
COURTESY OF UCLA ATHLETICS
When you’re faced with personal challenges, how do you stay consistent, strong and available as a leader?
There is a myth that leaders should act like they have it all together and that they have to be strong all of the time for everyone else. I remember talking to Coach Wooden and having him tell me about some of his darkest days after his wife died.
When you’re having down days, you have to be authentic with the people you lead. Admit your own struggles. This generation needs to know that the leader is human. Coach Wooden, on his toughest days, was so far ahead of his time because he wasn’t trying to put on thick armor. He wanted to be consistent, but he also wanted to be organic and authentic. It’s important for leaders to feel the freedom to be honest and real.
Conversely, Coach Wooden was able and willing to be so real and authentic because he was also consistent with his principles. Although your feelings might be one way, you make the hard choice anyway. Your commitments have to be greater than your feelings. Because Coach Wooden’s commitments always trumped his feelings, it allowed him the freedom to be real, visible and consistent.
As a mentor to your players today, what gives you confidence that you’re doing a good job?
When you’re building something, moving up through the levels of the Pyramid of Success, you’re never going to stop investing in the bottom—the foundation. But as you continue to progress, it’s really fun when it’s not taught by the coaches. When the culture of the program starts to protect it and teach it themselves, then it becomes peer-taught as much as it is taught by leadership.
One of the most rewarding things about coaching this particular team at UCLA is I’ve really started to see that. They’re willing to protect the culture; they’re willing to hold each other accountable. They’re willing to teach it down. And then I become a facilitator as opposed to a teacher.
The top of the pyramid is competitive greatness. What does that look like for you?
When you coach at UCLA, it’s obviously to win more national championships than anyone else. We always start with habits and the byproducts are those wins. But that’s only one of the aspects. The definition of competitive greatness is really equipping our players to give their best when their best is needed. And that’s both in the games, to hopefully win a national championship, but it’s also how to balance their time, how to be an excellent student as well as an excellent athlete. It’s about building character habits that are going to allow them to impact their community and to feel like they’re contented individuals who know how to leave their own service mark on their own areas of passion.
This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.