Commentary

Catching up with Morgan Wootten

Originally Published: March 24, 2008
By Christopher Lawlor | ESPN.com

MILWAUKEE -- Morgan Wootten is synonymous with the coaching of basketball.

After all, the living legend put high school basketball on the map at DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md., and is the only high school to be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

[+] EnlargeMorgan Wootten
AP Photo/Nick WassMorgan Wootten retired from DeMatha in 2002 with 1,274 career coaching wins.
He is the face of the McDonald's All American High School Basketball Games as the selection committee chairman. He's served the games since the inception (1978) and still found time to compile an outstanding 1,274-192 record from 1956-2002, often playing the nation's top competition.

Wootten is still on the go. He lectures CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, writes books on basketball, attends games regularly and runs his summer camp in Frostburg, Md. He has old-school values and is proud to say his faith in God and his family keep him grounded. Wootten will turn 77 next month but he has the energy and drive of men half his age. He loves to talk basketball and life. He'll be courtside at the Bradley Center Wednesday night for the games.

Wootten graciously took a time out from his responsibilities at the 2008 McDonald's Games to cover a potpourri of subjects.

ESPN: It's often noted that successful coaches are backed by great families. Does that hold true in your household?

Wootten: Absolutely. The MVP of our family is my wife (Kathy). She raised our family but also was great with our players over the years. She made them feel at home and gave them tremendous support. Without support from home, a coach can be out of business.

To be successful in coaching you have to treat your team like a family. The leader needs backing from everyone.

ESPN: So, you treated your DeMatha teams like a family structure?

Wootten: Yes and it was very successful. When things went wrong with the team or an individual on the team, it was addressed in private. It's amazing the things you hear from your players talking to them one on one. I never embarrassed player, I spoke with him alone.

Players would empty their souls to me; you cannot fathom the stories I've heard, everything from the good to the bad. I tried whatever I could to work things out.

ESPN: People don't realize you were a very successful head football coach at DeMatha. (Note: his record was 79-40-2 from 1957-68). What did you apply from the things learned on the football field to coaching basketball?

Wootten: You can never take a play or possession off. You never know when something which can turn the game around.

Again, we were a family. To be a winner this is something we stressed.

ESPN: For the last 31 years, you've been associated with the McDonald's All American Game. It sounds like a rewarding experience.

Wootten: You're right it has been rewarding. When I learned the proceeds of the game went to the Ronald McDonald House and other worthy charities it was slam dunk for me.

ESPN: Talk about the honor of being named a McDonald's All American.

Wootten: It means you have reached the pinnacle of high school basketball. All those years of working hard finally paid off. Any coach can nominate his or her player to be a McDonald's All American and that in itself is an honor.

When Danny Ferry (general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers and DeMatha alumnus) was selected for the game, he thanked his teammates. In most cases, players are playing for their family, school, teammates and state. You represent so many people by playing the game. You telling people that you didn't do it alone.

Playing in the games means you are a made man (or woman) in basketball.

ESPN: Do you advocate any rule changes in basketball?

Wootten: I'm glad the NCAA is pushing back the 3-point line a foot. I'm a big supporter of the 3-point shot; it's exciting. I hope the high schools adopt the same rule. I'm looking forward to how it works next season; I think it's a matter of time before the high school game does it.

ESPN: The summer basketball scene has run amok. How would you clean things up?

Wootten: Simply implement a certification program and do thorough background checks on these coaches. I'd like to see them list their basketball coaching credentials and attend at least three clinics per year.

I've had players who have had great AAU experiences and others who came back to school with major problems because he wasn't coached properly.

ESPN: What about summer leagues?

Wootten: Right up until I retired (in 2002), I was very involved in a league. One of our assistants would coach and I'd observe. It was a positive experience and gave a tremendous advantage once the season started.

We were representing our athletic director and principal and had to answer to these people. It built team unity.

ESPN: Two years ago, the NBA halted high school players from declaring for the NBA, what are your feelings?

Wootten: Bravo. I tell kids you are missing an opportunity at a young age to expand your mind and thrive in social settings. The ones which waited four years usually are more successful.

I don't like the stories that start "whatever happened to..." You can go right down the line of those players because they didn't make it. You're better off finishing what you started.

ESPN: Did a player ever approach you about bypassing college for the pros.

Wootten: Never. If they did, I'd tell them they could make the jump... the jump off the stage once they received their college diploma (laughing).

[+] EnlargeMorgan Wootten
Andy Altenburger/Icon SMIMorgan Wootten (left) looks on at the 2005 McDonald's Game along with John Wooden and Sonny Hill.
ESPN: John Wooden, the chairman of the McDonald's Games and the greatest basketball coach of all time, won't attend this year's game because of a recent accident. Have you spoken with John?

Wootten: I spoke with his daughter (Nan) and he's home doing well. He's still sharp as ever and will turn 98 in October. He really looks forward to the games every year; I'm looking forward to next year when he'll be back.

ESPN: In 2001, a girls game was added. That was a watershed moment for the girls basketball, right?

Wootten: The time was right. The idea was on the board for years but we wanted to right it first-class. McDonald's never does anything half-heartedly. With the girls, we changed the format of the game and the banquet. We've had some of the great females since 2001 and it's the game for all young women to aspire.

ESPN: What is the secret to you success?

Wootten: There's no one answer. You must surround yourself with good people, whether its managers, players, coaches in your operation. Good people will make it happen.

Additionally, I've always viewed myself as a teacher, not a raving, screaming coach. I realized that emotion is my enemy. The ancient Greeks had a saying: true wisdom is gained through adversity. Adversity be can your best friend; you really find out who your friends are when adversity sets in.

ESPN: Do aspiring coaches ever reach out to you?

Wootten: All the time. They ask to meet with me and I'll suggest staying involved with a school. Meaning, you should teach at the school and become a visible person if possible. Become of part of the school's community.

Sometimes I'll invite to work at my camp. They can network with coaches from all over the world and all 50 states. I'll encourage them to engage in dialogue with coaches and talk X's and O's.

ESPN: Who was your coaching influence?

Wootten: Without question Joe Gallagher. He hired me to coach junior varsity football and basketball in 1953 at St. John's College High in Washington, D.C. He was a mentor and role model and friend. He's a real classy guy.

ESPN: Do you have an advice for coaches?

Wootten: Be yourself. Don't try to be another coach like Red Auerbach or John Wooden. Kids will spot this a mile away.

ESPN: How did we lose our foothold on the global basketball scene?

Wootten: Years ago the world came to American coaches to learn about the game. We invited the game and back in the 1970s, I was doing clinics all over. I did a five-day clinic in Italy once. We went from 9 to 5, straight through. They were so passionate about the sport and learning about it. We were their best resources and it all happened right under our noses.

The Dream Team was good and bad. The world wanted to play our best and by doing so, they found out where they measured.

ESPN: What's your take on this year's Olympic Team?

Wootten: We're in good hands under Coach Mike Krzyzewski. The players are committed and he's assembled a great staff. I'm looking to watching the games.

Christopher Lawlor is the senior high school sports writer for ESPN.com.

Christopher Lawlor

High School Basketball
Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA TODAY, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys and girls basketball. He also ran the Gatorade national player of the year program for nine years.