Commentary

UCLA remembers past, moves ahead

School honors its tradition through Pauley renovation and Wooden statue

Updated: October 27, 2012, 1:07 AM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- The statue itself is a few feet taller than the man. And yet 8 feet of bronze hardly seems enough to celebrate the life and career of John Wooden.

Even as his body grew frail in his last years, Wooden cast a towering presence in Westwood. His words were teachings to live by, his record as a coach set an impossible standard of excellence.

For the past 37 years, UCLA has lived in that beautiful shadow. Defined by its glorious past, by Wooden and his legacy; always trying to live up to it.

But there is a fine line between celebrating the past and living in it. And for the past decade or so, that has been a difficult line for UCLA and basketball coach Ben Howland to walk.

Pauley Pavilion wasn't just "The House That Wooden Built," it was the same house Wooden built in 1965. Charming and historic, but also dated and drab. Howland didn't even take recruits into its old locker rooms anymore.

[+] EnlargeJohn Wooden
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillThe statue of John Wooden, unveiled outside Pauley Pavilion on Friday, stands about 8 feet tall. Wooden's daughter, Nan, stares up at her father's likeness.

Like the program itself, Pauley needed to find a way forward that both paid homage to Wooden's legacy and appealed to a modern audience. Over the past two years, UCLA has taken on a massive $136 million renovation of the old house. This week the Bruins have started opening her back up.

But it wasn't until Friday afternoon, when Wooden's children and grandchildren helped UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero pull the cover off the 8-feet-tall bronze statue of Wooden outside the revamped Pauley Pavilion that it all seemed real.

Wooden wasn't just a shadow anymore, he was a statue. Always keeping an eye on things in Westwood, always serving as a moral touchstone for coaches like Howland to walk past and stop for a moment of self-reflection, but now and forever fixed in a moment in time.

Sculptor Blair Buswell has elegantly captured Wooden as he always was on the UCLA sidelines: with a stern gaze, arms crossed and a rolled-up program in his hand.

Wooden won because that gaze never wandered and his expectations never compromised.

At the foot of the statue, it reads: "Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable of becoming. -- John Wooden."

In making the financial commitment to upgrade Pauley Pavilion, UCLA has finally done that. The old Pauley wasn't the best UCLA could do. It put Howland at a disadvantage in recruiting. It sent the message, both symbolically and aesthetically, that the Bruins were content to live in the past, in Wooden's beautiful shadow.

Howland captured it best Friday when he said, ''This [renovation] takes us back to having a modern facility, like when Pauley was first built. When this was first built, it was the state-of-the-art building in the country for college basketball.

"I think we're back there again."

There are a thousand reasons why Wooden won 10 national titles at UCLA, but at least one of them is that UCLA became the school the best players in the country wanted to play for.

But UCLA hasn't been that in a while. For every Kevin Love whom Howland successfully recruited, there were 10 elite players who went to Kentucky or Duke or Kansas or North Carolina.

The college game was passing UCLA by, and everyone in Westwood seemed to know it.

Guerrero said he first approached the Pauley and Wooden families in 2005 when Howland still had the program humming, saying simply, "We need to do something about this."

It was an easy sell at first. Howland had the program on the rise, making the first of his three straight Final Four appearances, in 2006. The economy was robust and donors were flush with cash.

But by the time the project took shape over the next few years, everything was different. Howland's Bruins were bounced out of the NCAA tournament in the second round in 2009 and 2011. They didn't even make the field of 64 in 2010 and 2012.

The downturn coincided with a wicked economic recession, making fundraising difficult and the entire project a much more complicated sell on a campus where fee increases have become painful to the student body.

"It made it quite a bit harder," Guerrero said of the economy's impact on the Pauley renovation project. "But in another way, we benefitted from the actual cost of construction. The original estimate for the project was $185 million, but we actually built it for $136 million."

That's the kind of thing Guerrero can say after everything is at the finish line and it's time to cut the ribbons. The truth is it was a grind. And it took determination and stubbornness to push the project through.

Guerrero and his team of administrators did it because of one core belief: "We think a rising tide lifts all boats. After [Wooden's] success, you saw tremendous success across the board, not just in athletics, but across the entire campus."

There are those who will step inside the new Pauley Pavilion and think it has lost a bit of its charm. Sadly, as the years go by, there will be even more people who will step inside and not think that because they weren't around to remember how it was.

Teaching those future generations about Wooden is Howland's job now. Friday, he brought this season's team to the unveiling of Wooden's statue. They took pictures and asked questions about the man from those who knew him best.

"He set the tone for this university," Howland said. "Not just basketball. Not just athletics. But for the university as a whole. We have so much to be thankful for."

SPONSORED HEADLINES

MORE MEN'S COLLEGE BASKETBALL HEADLINES