What if…a snow storm hadn’t kept John Wooden from going to Minnesota?

This is the tenth post in our ongoing series of the Top 10 What Ifs in college basketball history.

The story is relatively famous in college basketball circles.  In They Call Me Coach, John Wooden wrote about a decision he had to make in 1948.

He had just finished coaching Indiana State all the way to the NAIB Finals where they lost to Louisville.  He was an up and coming coach that was desired by several schools.

What if…

A snow storm hadn’t kept John Wooden from going to Minnesota?

Legendary UCLA coach John Wooden...who almost wasn't a UCLA coach. (By Associated Students, University of California, Los Angeles via Wikimedia Commons)

Wooden narrowed his list down to two schools: Minnesota and UCLA.  Being from the Midwest, it’s not surprising that he wanted to go to Minnesota.  He had promised to give Frank McCormick (AD at Minnesota) and Wilbur Johns (AD at UCLA) an answer on an agreed-upon evening:

“I had decided to take the Minnesota job except for one problem—the retention of Dave McMillan [ sic ], the man whom I would be replacing, as my assistant. Even though I liked Mr. McMillan [ sic ], I wanted my own man, Eddie Powell. Minnesota had to get approval from its board that was meeting that particular day for me to bring Powell and not keep McMillan [ sic ]. As it was set up, McCormick was to call me for my answer at 6:00 P.M. and Johns would call at 7:00. There was a snow storm raging in Minneapolis that day and Frank got snowed in and couldn’t get to a phone on time. I didn’t know of the problem so when Mr. Johns called, right on time, I accepted the UCLA job. When McCormick finally reached me about an hour later, he told me everything was ‘all set.’

“‘It’s too late,’ I told him. ‘I have already accepted the job at UCLA.’”

Now, the details in this story have often been debated, but one thing is for certain:  John Wooden was very close to taking the job at Minnesota.

What if he had?

The reason this hypothetical lands all the way up at Number One is because no other “What If” would have directly affected as many championships as this one.

At a minimum, ten championships from college basketball history would belong to different schools.

John Wooden might never coach Bill Walton.

Had Wooden gone to Minnesota, it’s very possible that he could have still recruited Lew Alcindor.  The perfecter of the Sky Hook was from New York City, and he may have traveled anywhere to play for Coach Wooden.

One little-known fact about the Wizard of Westwood is how progressive he was in the Civil Rights movement.

In 1946, his Indiana State team won the Indiana Intercollegiate Title and was invited to play in the NAIB.  However, because of the NAIB’s stance that blacks couldn’t play, Wooden held his team out of Tournament play in support of Clarence Walker, an African-American from Chicago that played on his team.

In the past, many coaches had just chosen to play without a few players.  Not Wooden.  His team would stick together, and they refused to play in such a racist tournament.

The next year, the rules were changed, and Indiana State again received an invitation.  This time, they made it all the way to the final game where they lost to Louisville – the only championship game that a Wooden-coached team ever lost.

Wooden was somewhat of a hero in the black community, and Lew Alcindor traveled all the way across America to play for him.  It’s likely that he would have traveled to Minnesota, or anywhere, just to play for Coach Wooden.

However, Bill Walton was from Southern California.  He loved the area.  He was a hometown legend.

For him, it was easy to go to UCLA.  They had won several titles already, and he go on winning while staying at home.

Had Wooden been in Minnesota, there’s a great chance that he would have never coached Bill Walton.  How much different would both of their college careers be in that case?

Walton is hailed by many as the greatest collegiate player of all time.  That would almost certainly change without an 88-game-winning streak on his resume.

As for Wooden, part of me wants to say that it wouldn’t have mattered who he coached…but I know that’s not realistic.  Without Walton, Wooden may have only won 6 or 7 titles instead of the staggering 10 that he accumulated.

Dayton, Purdue, Jacksonville, Florida State, and Memphis State might have won National Championships.

Now, the Purdue fan in me wants to get up and scream that, “Hey!  We won a national championship in 1932 with John Wooden playing!”  Unfortunately, nobody (besides Purdue fans) counts this as an actual championship since it came before Tournament play started in 1939.  The 1969 team led by Rick Mount and Billy Keller could have been one of the all time great teams.  Instead, they lost to Coach Wooden in the finale.

Because of John Wooden and UCLA, each of these five schools were kept from winning national championships.

Without him?  All of these schools might have a banner and a source of bragging rights over their rivals.

Of course, they may actually not have won a title, because…

Minnesota would be the legendary power, not UCLA.

A quick comparison of Minnesota and UCLA before Wooden is pretty telling.  Neither school had almost any history whatsoever.

Minnesota had actually won a few “Helms and Premo” National Championships before 1920, but it was hardly a basketball school.  UCLA’s past was even worse.  They had only had five winning seasons in the previous 21 years. To say that Coach Wooden turned them around instantly would be the understatement of the century.

I feel 100% confident making the statement, “Had Wooden gone to Minnesota, THEY would be the legendary basketball school today, NOT UCLA.”

Think about how different things would be.

If Minnesota was the basketball power, how different is life in the Big Ten?

Before 1975, only one team from each Conference was allowed in the NCAA Tournament.  Assuming Minnesota would have won the bid every season, that means the following accomplishments for these schools would have been lost:

  • Indiana – One Final Four and One Elite Eight.  (Even though UCLA was still great in 1976 in Wooden’s first year away, I think we can still assume that the 32-0 Hoosiers would have won the Big Ten…as much as the Purdue fan in me pains to say it, we can let them still have that one.)
  • Michigan – Two Final Fours and Five Elite Eights.
  • Ohio State – One Championship, Two Final Fours, Six Elite Eights.
No longer are IU, Michigan, and Ohio State the premier powers in the Big Ten.  Instead, we would be talking about the lore of the Golden Gophers.
Of course, this pales in comparison to what would have happened to UCLA.  Even if Walton had stayed at home and gone to school there, they would have been lucky to win one with him and lesser players – not to mention a lesser coach. And who knows, if UCLA doesn’t have Coach Wooden, maybe Elvin Hayes wins a championship for Houston.  Maybe the game of the century in the Astrodome never happens.
And all because of a random snowstorm in Minnesota.

What if…?


Top 10 College Basketball What Ifs of All-Time Series (All)

10. What if Hank Gathers hadn’t died in the middle of a game?
9. What if Christian Laettner had been suspended for stomping on Aminu Timberlake?
8. What if Houston hadn’t been upset by NC State?
7. What if the NCAA rules had been different for Pete Maravich?
6. What if Chris Webber hadn’t called timeout?
5. What if Gordon Hayward’s shot hadn’t rimmed out?
4. What if Coach K had been fired from Duke after 3 seasons?
3. What if LeBron had gone to college and the one-and-done rule was never instituted?
2. What if Kentucky had beaten Texas Western?
1. What if there wasn’t a snow storm to keep John Wooden from going to Minnesota?

About the Author

Jon Washburn

Jon Washburn grew up in Indianapolis, IN and as such, is a diehard Pacers, Colts, and Cubs fans. When it comes to college, he cheers for Notre Dame football fan and Purdue basketball. Yes, this sounds shady, but since he grew up without cable, he learned to love Notre Dame - the only team on TV. Glenn "The Big Dog" Robinson was at Purdue when Jon was in his formative years, so he latched onto them as well. Did that make him a fair-weather fan at the time? Sure. Give him a break...he was 8...and he has stayed with those teams ever since. Currently, he lives in Charleston, SC with his wife who grew up in Cleveland. Although he is no longer physically in the Midwest, his heart will always be there. Jon goes by the name "Twitch" because he has Tourette's Syndrome. Hit him up on his twitter @jwtwitch.