- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 7, 2002

A half-hour before his retirement news conference at DeMatha High School, Morgan Wootten sat in his surprisingly small office above the banner-festooned gym named in his honor and chatted up an old friend. In the old days, he would have sported a crew cut and a cigar, but these are more enlightened times sartorially and medically. So he smiled and gabbed away and let the cliches flow.

"All good things come to an end." "You have to know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em." "In the Book of Ecclesiastes, it says there is a time for every purpose under heaven."

Over the years, Morgan sometimes seemed to have more cliches than you can shake a stick at, but I've never minded. The guy was so sincere in fact, he reeks sincerity that it was hard to get mad when he described an opponent with a 5-15 record as "a really tough team that will give us a lot of trouble." And he deserves at least partial credit for never having informed a sportswriter that "we play them one at a time," even if his Stags did.

Speaking of cliches, there isn't very much original to say when someone like Morgan retires. Wonderful coach, good person, God-fearing man that's about it. When a person is a real jerk, that's what inspires innovation. If you don't believe me, ask Bobby Knight to show you some of his clippings.

Yet, I'd take another Morgan Wootten any day, if we were lucky enough to have one appear in our lifetime. Of all the coaches I've encountered over nearly five decades at this racket, I respect Morgan as much as anyone. You have to respect him, for a lot of reasons. Not the least of which is his instruction to players over the years to prioritize in this order: (1) God, (2) family, (3) school, (4) basketball.

True, we've been hearing this sort of thing from coaches since James Naismith finished the last couple of peaches and said, "Gee, I wonder what I can do with the dratted baskets." The difference is that Morgan means it.

A few years ago, in 1996, we almost lost him when his liver became so diseased that his life hung in the balance before a donor was found. Leaving the hospital after surgery, he was so gaunt that he still shudders when recalling that time. Yet a few months later, he was back at basketball practice. And a few weeks after that, he was winning games again.

Two years ago, he became only the third prep coach elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, after being presented by no less a basketball icon than Red Auerbach. The third prep coach? If he was third, the first two must have held the baskets for Naismith.

Every DeMatha senior who played for Morgan has gotten a college basketball scholarship, and one of them told me some years ago, "If you think he's a good basketball coach, you ought to see him teach World History."

When people ask him to list all the college and pro basketball stars he has turned out the Adrian Dantleys, Kenny Carrs, Danny Ferrys, et al Morgan is likely to mention instead some of the doctors and lawyers he has taught.

"That's the biggest thrill of all to see the progress kids make after basketball," he said. "Basketball is just a tool to a better life. You've got to use it; you can't let it use you."

Schmaltzy?

Sure.

Pretty wonderful?

That, too.

And humble. One day when he was complaining mildly about a piece I had written in the Washington Star, I told him he wasn't such a big shot. Besides, I added, the three most commonly misspelled names in local high school sports were Cardozo, Spingarn and Wootten.

Morgan didn't miss a beat. "I'm honored to be in their company," he said of the two D.C. public schools.

In explaining his decision yesterday, Morgan repeated several times that he wanted to depart at a time when the program was in good shape. With a strong team returning (is there any other kind at DeMatha?) and two fine assistants in Mike Jones and Neal Murphy, apparently he felt the time was now.

I didn't get a chance to talk yesterday with Jones, who will be the interim coach this season, but I don't envy the position he's in. Just think: If the Stags go, say, 25-10, it will be a bad season. Can any new coach successfully replace a legend? Ask Dave Lewis, who faces long odds in making Detroit hockey fans forget Scotty Bowman. Ask Richie Petitbon, Phil Bengtson or Tim Floyd.

I'm gonna miss Morgan, even though I've never had the pleasure of working with him day after day. And in case you're wondering why I've called him by his first name all the way through this column, it's because he's my friend. Only a friend would pull something like he did on me one day at Ledo's restaurant telling the waitress not to serve me because I couldn't hold my beer. Thanks a lot.

Morgan made only one mistake during the news conference, when he described the occasion as "a great day for DeMatha basketball." Nice try at spinning, pal.

In truth, it was a sad day for basketball at DeMatha and around the globe. The great ones don't come along that often.

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