Morgan Wootten, Acclaimed High School Basketball Coach, Dies at 88

Morgan Wootten, Acclaimed High School Basketball Coach, Dies at 88

Morgan Wootten, the first member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inducted solely as a high school coach and at one time the national record-holder for most schoolboy victories, died on Tuesday. He was 88.

His death was confirmed in a post on Twitter on Wednesday by DeMatha Catholic High School in Maryland, where he had been a basketball coach for more than four decades.

When Wootten became the head coach at the all-boys DeMatha in suburban Washington in the fall of 1956, it was only 10 years old and had a student body of fewer than 200.

Seeking promising athletes who were good students and preaching the need for strong work habits and a sense of discipline, he built a national basketball powerhouse.

When Wootten retired in November 2002 after 46 seasons at DeMatha, a Trinitarian school in Hyattsville, Md., where he also taught history, he had taken his teams to 1,274 victories with 92 losses. His squads were acclaimed as national champions five times, and he never had a losing season.

A dozen or so of his players, including Adrian Dantley, Danny Ferry, Kenny Carr and Sidney Lowe, went on to the National Basketball Association. Lowe, who also coached in the N.B.A., teamed with his DeMatha teammate Dereck Whittenburg on North Carolina State’s 1983 N.C.A.A. tournament championship team.

Wootten’s signature moment came in what is generally considered the greatest high school game ever played, DeMatha’s matchup in January 1965 with visiting Power Memorial High School of Manhattan. Power was led by the 7-foot-2-inch center Lew Alcindor, the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had established a national reputation for his scoring, rebounding and shot-blocking.

Power came in with a 71-game winning streak, while DeMatha was undefeated that season as well.

Wootten had his 6-foot-8-inch center Sid Catlett hold a tennis racket aloft during workouts so that DeMatha would become accustomed to Alcindor’s shot-blocking threat. From the game’s outset, Catlett guarded Alcindor from behind while DeMatha’s other 6-foot-8-inch player, Bob Whitmore, fronted him with help from Bernard Williams, a guard.

Holding Alcindor to 16 points, well below his average, DeMatha won, 46-43, before a sellout crowd of some 12,500 at the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House.

“We fronted and backed Lew the entire game,” Wootten recalled in “From Orphans to Champions: The Story of DeMatha’s Morgan Wootten,” (1979, with Bill Gilbert). “If they were going to beat us, they’d have to find somebody else to do it. We cut off the Power passing lanes, we trapped, we did everything you could think of to deny him the ball.”

“That game, I think, had the biggest impact in the history of high school basketball,” Wootten told USA Today in 2013. “After we beat Lew Alcindor, high school basketball started to be recognized on a national basis.”

Wootten was inducted into the basketball hall of fame, in Springfield, Mass., in 2000 and was also named the Naismith Scholastic Coach of the Century. The hall’s Morgan Wootten Lifetime Achievement award is presented annually to the most outstanding boys’ and girls’ high school coaches.

Upon Wootten’s retirement, Adrian Dantley called him “a father figure to everybody in the school, not only to the basketball players but the whole student body.”

“Morgan never had any problems with discipline,” Dantley told The Washington Post. “He had some of the toughest, roughest kids in the urban area, and when they got there and Morgan would say something, they would do whatever he said. He was like John Wooden at U.C.L.A. Everybody respected him.”

Morgan Bayard Wootten was born on April 21, 1931, in Durham, N.C., and grew up in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring, Md., one of four children of Charles and Claire Wootten. His father was a Navy officer.

Morgan played basketball and football in high school, usually as a substitute.

In Washington in the early 1950s, he was the head baseball, basketball and football coach at Saint Joseph’s Home for Boys, a school for orphans and children from broken homes, and later a junior varsity basketball and football coach at St. John’s College High School.

He was named DeMatha’s head basketball and football coach after graduating from the University of Maryland with majors in physical education and history,

In addition to putting DeMatha on the national schoolboy map, Wootten coached outstanding teams in his 12 seasons as football coach.

He also ran a summer basketball clinic with his son Joe, who played on DeMatha’s unbeaten national championship team of 1991 and who is the longtime basketball coach and athletic director at Bishop O’Connell High School of Arlington, Va.

Wootten’s 1,274 victories have been exceeded by Leta Andrews, who coached girls’ teams to 1,416 victories, and Robert Hughes, who coached boys’ squads to 1,333 wins, both at Texas schools.

Over the years, Wootten received coaching feelers from Division I teams, but he was happy to stay at DeMatha. He didn’t want to sacrifice his family life in exchange for a high-paying post in a pressure-packed college scene often known for coaching histrionics.

“He’s always in command without being loud or brash,” Red Auerbach, the architect of the Boston Celtics’ championship dynasty and a longtime friend of Wootten’s, said in introducing him at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

As Wootten put it to USA Today: “True basketball coaches are great teachers, and you do not humiliate, you do not physically go after, you do not push or shove, you do not berate, if you are a true coach. Coaches like that are not coaches. They don’t know how to coach the game properly, so they holler, scream and curse, and that’s to cover up.”


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