- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 12, 2000

Borne on a torrent of respect and praise from nearly everyone who knows him, Morgan Wootten will enter the Basketball Hall of Fame tomorrow night in Springfield, Mass. Words, words and more words have prepared his way during the past week, but you really need only six to say it all:
He is a good human being.
Of course, Morgan Wootten also is a good basketball coach, perhaps as good as any who ever yowled at a zebra during the heat of battle. Consider: John Wooden, whose UCLA teams won 10 NCAA championships, says he knows of no finer coach at any level of hoops. And the man who will present Wootten for induction is Red Auerbach, whose Boston Celtics rang up eight consecutive NBA titles.
Over 44 seasons at DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Wootten has a record of 1,213-183, a startling winning percentage of .869 that represents an average seasonal record of 28-4. He has won more games than any other coach at any level, along with five mythical national championships, 31 conference titles and recognition as the nation's oldest and finest professor of hoops.
A high school coach, albeit one I have known and admired for 45 years.
Wootten almost died from liver disease four years ago before a transplant donor was found. Yet now he awaits his 45th season and, with undiminished eagerness at 69, harbors no thoughts of retirement.
What is his secret?
Does he have a secret?
Yes, he does, and it is stunningly simple: He is a good human being.
Of course, he also knows the game inside and out, he is a superb motivator and he pushes his players as hard as he deems necessary. But there is no Bobby Knight or Vince Lombardi in him. He does all this in a spirit of affection and mutual respect that his players return. Morgan is a senior citizen now, and a legend, but his players still call him by his first name. For a truly disciplined man and team, there is no need for rote formality.
During a pep rally this week, DeMatha alumnus Adrian Dantley probably Wootten's greatest player said Morgan was the best coach he had ever played for. And then the former Notre Dame All-American and perennial NBA all-star added, " … and he was an even better world history teacher."
Fifteen years ago, a visitor to the then-unfinished Hall of Fame found a DeMatha banner detailing the number of national championships Wootten's teams had won and the ball from the Stags' 46-43 victory over Power Memorial at Cole Field House in 1965 that ended a 71-game winning streak for the New Yorkers and Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) Wootten's most famous victory. Now, following his belated anointing by the shrine's secret electors, the architect has made it, too.
"I think he was mentally prepared that it might never happen," says Wootten's wife, Kathy. "But he's really excited."
Admits Wootten, the first modern prep coach to be inducted and only the third overall: "I doubted for awhile that a high school coach would ever get in, though I figured I had the best chance. This is important because it's a tribute to high school coaches everywhere, as well as for all my players, my assistant coaches and the school."
It's also a pretty good tribute to a guy who became a coach by accident.
In the early spring of 1951, Morgan Wootten was a 19-year-old student at Montgomery Junior College, as it was known then, and preparing for the University of Maryland and life as a lawyer. One day his Uncle Jack called to ask if Morgan knew anyone who could coach baseball at St. Joseph's Orphanage in Northeast. You bet, said Morgan, longtime buddy Tommy Clark. So the pair went to see Sister Batilde, the orphanage's mother superior.
When the three sat down, Wootten began his sales pitch for Clark. But suddenly his pal was double-crossing him and pouring it on for Morgan. Sister didn't care who was coach as long as she had one. "Fine," she told Wootten. "See you Monday …"
"I got sandbagged so hard and so fast I never knew what hit me," Wootten wrote in his 1979 autobiography, "From Orphans to Champions." "All of a sudden, I was a coach, absolutely unqualified … handling the one sport I knew nothing about. It was definitely not the formula for success."
Today Wootten says, "When I speak to groups, I use this story to illustrate the will of God. He has a plan for us all. Look at James Brown [another DeMatha product]: He was the last player cut by the Atlanta Hawks [in 1973]. If he had played 10 years in the NBA, would he have become one of the country's top sportscasters like he is now? Probably not. You just never know."
Wootten's first baseball team at St. Joseph's had a perfect record 0-16. But its hustle was impressive, and when Morgan took over football and baseball, too, his teams began to win in Catholic Youth Organization competition and impress coaches in the old Catholic League, who kept a close eye on CYO affairs. One day in 1955, there was a call from St. John's Joe Gallagher, who needed a junior varsity basketball and head baseball coach.
"I liked him because he was so well-prepared he had a plan for every game," says the now-retired Gallagher, Wootten's oldest friend in coaching and co-proprietor of a highly successful summer basketball camp. "Yeah, I guess his DeMatha teams cost me a lot of wins and championships over the years. but that never bothered me. I like to see people do well."
One year later, there was another call, from the Rev. Louis Amico, athletic director at 10-year-old DeMatha, a small school tucked away just off an industrial strip of U.S. 1 in Hyattsville. Father Amico needed somebody who could coach football and basketball, be an assistant in baseball, replace him as AD and teach five history classes a day all for $3,200 a year. Wootten was 25, unmarried and willing to leap for the brass ring. He said yes.
"We were a relatively new school and most of our coaches were young, so I figured why not give him a chance," Amico now says. "Yes, I guess hiring him was a bit of a risk, but I knew he would work hard. There's no way you could have predicted the success he has had, though."
Soon after, Wootten met with about 50 boys who were interested in playing sports during the 1956-57 school year. "I know how bad DeMatha's teams have been," he said, "but that's going to change. We're going to win and build a tradition of winning. We're going to outwork every team we play… . I can tell you right now we're going to win a lot of games and have a lot of fun."
Guess what? He wasn't lying.
For longtime observers of high school sports in these parts, two DeMatha games linger longest. The Power game for which Wootten prepared his shooters by having 6-foot-8 center Sid Catlett roam the paint with a tennis racket over his head to simulate the 7-2 Alcindor is first. Next comes the championship game in the 1969 Knights of Columbus tournament at Catholic University.
This was a rather ordinary team by DeMatha standards, and it was playing top-ranked McKinley, considered one of the best teams ever in the District. Making matters worse, DeMatha star Brown, beset by pressure on the court and from dozens of college recruiters, had collapsed during the semifinals and was unavailable. A rout seemed certain and, indeed, a shocking one did unfold: DeMatha 95, McKinley 69.
"I was supposed to stay home, but I sneaked out and sat in the stands at the game," says Brown, who will represent all of Wootten's players at tomorrow's induction dinner. "Morgan had draped my warmup jacket over an empty chair on the bench to motivate the players. He always was an excellent motivator, and he did it without raising his voice or using profanity. But he used profanity very well.
"I remember one game in the Johnstown [Pa.] tournament when I had a terrible first half. In the locker room, Morgan was looking over the stats and said, 'I see Mary Brown has one point and seven rebounds. Do me a favor, Mary see if you can double that in the second half.' Of course, I went out and tore them a new one."
Joe Wootten, 27, has seen his father from more perspectives than anyone else, as a son, player, assistant coach and rival. Now in his second year as head coach at Bishop O'Connell High in Arlington, Joe has an even greater appreciation of his dad.
"Every new facet of our relationship has made us closer," says Joe, whose first O'Connell team improved 10 games to a 16-13 record despite two losses to DeMatha. "His enthusiasm is amazing after all this time I don't know if I could be a coach for 44 years. No, I didn't see much of a change in him after the liver transplant but he didn't need to change."
Morgan disagrees.
"The liver crisis and surgery gave me a new appreciation for everything a sunset, the air we breathe, life itself," he says. "Everybody I see is beautiful now because life can end like that snap!"
And tomorrow night, as Wootten receives his due in Springfield, the old question will be asked again: How much longer will he be able to help turn young men into model citizens as well as model basketball players?
"It's a little easier since Morgan stopped coaching football [in 1968] and history [in 1991]," Kathy Wootten says. "Now he doesn't have to get up and be in school early the morning after a night game, But every time I mention retirement, he says, 'Retire? What would I do? Nobody can play golf six or seven days a week.' "
Wootten has always said he would coach as long as his health and enthusiasm permit, and both seem about at the same level as in 1965, 1980 or 1994. When he does quit, the hole he leaves will be enormous at DeMatha, in high school basketball and in the ranks of those who devote their lives to others.
"Oh, I'm on the back nine now," he concedes, "but I'm not sure if it's the 10th tee or the 18th."
With all our hearts, let's hope it's closer to the 10th than the 18th. It's entirely appropriate to regard Morgan Wootten as a flag bearer for all that is decent and good in athletic competition. Long may he wave.

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