- The Washington Times - Monday, May 29, 2000

This is going to be a journalistic valentine, so if you're not feeling at least a little mushy this holiday morning, go fertilize your lawn or something.

In fortysomething years behind typewriters and computers, I've never met anyone I admire more than Morgan Wootten. And of all those "secret" voters who finally bade him enter the Basketball Hall of Fame last week, there is only one question worth asking:

What in the name of James Naismith took you so long?

It was bad enough when John Thompson had to endure a couple of disappointments before having his mug put on display in beautiful downtown Springfield, Mass. But at least we could rationalize that Big John was an often controversial and contrary sort unloved by a lot of people in and around his sport.

But Morgan Wootten on the bubble? What did he have to do to get in, die and be honored posthumously? He almost tried that four years ago, if unwillingly, before the doctors found another liver to stick in him. Now, though, he's more hale and hearty than any 68-year-old this side of his former Route 1 neighbor, Lefty Driesell.

I've known Wootten since 1955, when he was a crewcut squirt coaching the baseball team at St. John's High School in Northwest. When he went to DeMatha the following year as a teacher, coach and anything else that was needed, very few basketball buffs had heard of him or the Hyattsville school; in those days Bob Dwyer's John Carroll teams (on which Thompson played) were the hoop honchos hereabouts. My how times change when you're winning games by the carload.

The thing is, Wootten and his teams have always won games the right way. He is, with apologies to Little Bobby Knight and all the other walking ego trips in his profession, a modest man who puts his players first. I like the list of priorities Morgan gives his troops: (1) God, (2) family, (3) school, (4) basketball. That's the way it should be and so often isn't.

Another example of Wootten's innate humility: He tells his players to call him by his first name. How many others do that? Instead of developing a give-and-take relationship with your athletes, it's so much easier and safer to hide behind the title of "Coach," whispered in reverent tones.

And although Wootten takes his job very seriously you don't win 1,210 games over 44 seasons by goofing off, folks he never takes himself too seriously. Back in the mid-'60s, when he still coached football, Morgan had a quarterback named Steve Garrett who was named to the Washington Star's All-Metropolitan team. Accordingly, Star sportswriter Steve Hershey called Wootten and told him Garrett's presence would be required the next afternoon for a photo session.

"But, Steve, he'll miss basketball practice," Wootten protested.

Hershey was not impressed by this argument. "Listen, Morgan, Garrett has played four years of basketball for you, so what's he gonna learn in one more afternoon?"

Wootten laughed. "You're absolutely right. What time do you need him there?"

The other day, while Wootten was fielding congratulatory phone calls from all corners, a man asked him for a little self-analysis, if you please. How does a guy win more games than anybody else ever has in 110 years of aiming at peach baskets and their successors?

"Well, I hope I'm a good teacher and communicator. I like my players you've got to care about them. And you've got to be yourself. I'm an eager learner, and you have to be able to learn from your kids. Finally, you have to be the kind of person you'd want your child to play for. If you're not, you better change."

All this makes a pretty good checklist for men and women starting to coach or who dream of doing so. For some time now, the trend seems to have turned toward Knight clones who scream at players, officials and the media to prove how "tough" they are. Most don't last long, because you really can't be a decent coach over the long haul unless you're a decent person, too. Sooner or later, obnoxiousness will catch up with you in the won-lost column.

By definition, coaches and sportswriters can't be close friends if all parties are doing their jobs. When I used to cover Wootten's teams, I didn't believe everything he said, because he was one of the earliest and best spinmeisters. I wish, though, that I had been able to spend more time over the decades watching Morgan at work. He's a wonderful role model, and not just for kids.

When Morgan finally turns over his whistle to somebody else and he says he'll keep coaching as long as he feels good and has the desire we'll hear the usual comments about the end of an era, the passing of an institution and so forth. More importantly on that hopefully distant day, there will be one less good person devoting his life to others.

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