Dynasty and dissent: UCLA basketball, John Wooden and the Sixties

John Matthew Smith, Purdue University


In twelve seasons, from 1964 to 1975, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) men's basketball teams won ten national championships, including seven in a row. In the process of winning more championships than any other program in history, the UCLA dynasty reflected and shaped college basketball's transformation from a regional campus sport to a national commercial spectacle. UCLA's unprecedented success and a confluence of economic forces—America's postwar affluence, the rapid growth of universities, expanding television audiences, and the transformation of Southern California—reconfigured college basketball's import in American culture. As Los Angeles evolved into a national media center, the Bruins emerged as a national sports attraction in America's entertainment capital. UCLA's dominance created a compelling narrative that produced wider fan interest, national media attention, and lucrative television contracts. ^ During a period of intense social conflict and campus unrest, UCLA basketball further symbolized the cultural tensions of the Sixties. The Bruins' greatest basketball stars—Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton—shaped the ways in which black and white college athletes challenged the sports world's conservative values and political boundaries. In his refusal to play in the 1968 Olympics, Alcindor symbolized "The Revolt of the Black Athlete" on campus. Walton embodied the protest ethic of America's youth by demonstrating against the Vietnam War and adopting New Left political values and countercultural attitudes. Their activism and UCLA's visibility in the popular culture produced considerable public debate over the politicization of college athletes. The Sixties, therefore, were a significant period in American sport history not only because of the politicization of college athletes, but also because conservative coaches, administrators, fans, and commentators resisted the social and cultural changes taking place within college sport. ^ For the "Silent Majority"—Middle Americans outraged by student protests, antiwar demonstrations, violence, sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll—college athletics were supposed to represent an escape from youthful rebellion. In an age of youthful dissent and campus demonstrations, UCLA coach John Wooden personified the virtues of the Silent Majority. For many Americans, he represented an ideal leader whose unquestioned authority and moral values reminded the public of a nostalgic past when America was a winner, strong, unified and committed to order. ^ The history of the UCLA dynasty reveals the paradoxes of Wooden's moral leadership and the contradictions of college basketball's amateur ideals and commercial realities. While Wooden projected an image of moral rectitude, the drive for success distorted his ethical responsibilities as a coach. During the dynasty boosters provided players with improper benefits and gifts, but Wooden ignored these violations, forfeiting his moral authority. The abuses at UCLA revealed the rise of commercialism in college basketball and a larger culture of corruption that pervaded big-time college athletics. ^




Randy W. Roberts, Purdue University.

Subject Area

History, United States|Education, History of|Recreation

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