Morgan Wootten, who coached DeMatha High School’s boys basketball team for 46 years and touched thousands of lives along the way, died Tuesday. He was 88.
The school in Hyattsville, Maryland, announced Wootten’s passing overnight via Twitter, saying he died at 9:50 p.m. without announcing a cause of death. Earlier Tuesday, a tweet from the school’s account said Wootten was in home hospice care and called for prayers.
When he retired in 2002, he was the winningest high school basketball coach in history with a then-record 1,274 wins. His final record of 1,274-192 for an .869 winning percentage.
The litany of great players who played for Wootten at DeMatha included Hall of Famer Adrian Dantley, Olympic gold medalist Kenny Carr, former NBA player and general manager Danny Ferry and Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. Thirteen of Wootten’s former players reached the NBA.
The Stags came to dominate the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, considered one of the top high school leagues in the country. They won 33 WCAC titles in Wootten’s 46 seasons, along with five “mythical national championships.”
Wootten also worked as a history teacher at DeMatha. He was known for instilling priorities in his players in a particular order: God, family, school, then basketball.
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In 2000, he became the first coach to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame based exclusively on high school coaching. Legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach introduced Wootten at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
“He’s a friend, and I’m proud to call him a friend,” Auerbach said. “If anybody ever deserved to be enshrined in this Hall of Fame, it’s Morgan Wootten, and I’m proud to sponsor that.”
Further, John Wooden once said of Wootten, “I know of no finer coach at any level — high school, college or pro. I stand in awe of him.”
Wootten began coaching football, baseball and basketball at a Washington orphanage, St. Joseph’s Home for Boys, in 1951 while a college student himself. Upon graduating from the University of Maryland, he was immediately hired at DeMatha to serve as a history teacher and the football and basketball coach.
DeMatha went 22-10 in Wootten’s first season, and he helped integrate the school three years later. Two years after that, the Stags were the top-ranked team in the Washington area. What’s more, according to the school, from 1960 to 1991 every senior on DeMatha’s team earned a college scholarship.
Regarded as the Stags’ biggest win under Wootten, in 1965 DeMatha beat New York City’s Power Memorial Academy team led by Lew Alcindor, later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. DeMatha’s 46-43 victory ended Power’s 71-game winning streak.
“That game, I think, had the biggest impact in the history of high school basketball,” Wootten later told USA Today. “After we beat Lew Alcindor, high school basketball started to be recognized on a national basis.”
Wootten turned down several offers to coach at the college level. He once told Sports Illustrated that there was only one NCAA job he would have wanted — Maryland, his alma mater, up the road in College Park.
His final win came over Bishop O’Connell in Arlington, Virginia, coached by his son, Joe. He retired in 2002 and continued to live in University Park, Maryland, with his wife Kathy.
Reactions from around the basketball world poured in Wednesday, including from veteran sports broadcaster James Brown, who played for him at DeMatha. Brown called Wootten a role model and the “high school version” of accomplished college coaches like Wooden and Dean Smith.
Wootten’s Hall of Fame Class of 2000 also included Isiah Thomas, Bob McAdoo and Pat Summit.
“God’s been so good to all of us,” Wootten said at his induction, “and he’s allowed me to be a teacher and a coach, which I think is the greatest honor I’ve ever had, to work with our young people.”
This story is based in part on wire service reports.