Morgan Wootten, former DeMatha Catholic High School basketball coach, dies at 88
Morgan Wootten, a basketball coach for 46 years at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, who brought his school national recognition and produced dozens of college and professional stars, died Jan. 21 at his home in Hyattsville. He was 88.
The school tweeted news of his death but did not immediately provide additional details.
Wootten never aspired to be a coach until a nun appointed him to be one at a Washington orphanage in 1951. Five years later, DeMatha hired him primarily to teach world history - but also to coach basketball and serve as athletic director.
By the time he retired in 2002, Wootten had won 1,274 games and lost 192, for a winning percentage of .869. In 2000, he became just the third high school coach to be inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Wootten's most famous victory, in 1965, ended the 71-game winning streak of Power Memorial Academy of New York City and its 7-foot-2 Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The victory established DeMatha's national reputation and served as a forerunner of national media coverage of high school sports, particularly basketball.
Many of Wootten's players went on to play college and professional basketball, including Adrian Dantley, Kenny Carr, Danny Ferry, Sidney Lowe and Adrian Branch.
"He was the best at what he did," said Hall of Fame Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach, a longtime Washingtonian who died in 2006. "He knew . . . the game, and he was a fine disciplinarian. He was always in control without being a boisterous type."
Wootten wove advice from many top coaches into his system, including many of the practices of John Wooden, who won 10 NCAA championships at UCLA in the 1960s and 1970s.
"I know of no finer coach at any level - high school, college or pro," said Wooden, who died in 2010. "I stand in awe of him."
Wootten and his students accomplished as much off the court as on. He ranked basketball - or any sport, for that matter - behind God, family and education. For 31 straight seasons, every senior on his teams received a college scholarship offer.
Until Wootten reduced his class load in 1980, he taught every DeMatha freshman world history.
He often said he considered the basketball court an extension of his classroom. In a 2004 interview, he said he banned profanity and avoided screaming because it created "a hostile atmosphere" in which to learn. It is said that he cursed only once - when he tried to motivate his players by provoking a technical foul from a referee. The official refused to take the bait and told Wootten to stop trying, which he did.
"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," Wootten told USA Today in 2013, after a videotape showed Rutgers University Coach Mike Rice abusing his players.
James Brown, who played for Wootten before graduating from Harvard and beginning a career as a television sports broadcaster, said Mr. Wootten "could always inspire the best out of you without berating you. Oh, he'd give you sarcasm, but he would never belittle you."
Wootten was willing to share his knowledge of coaching when asked, but he never volunteered it. This was a lesson he learned from Auerbach in his early days at DeMatha. One summer evening, Auerbach watched Mr. Wootten coach an underdog team to a near-victory at a boys' club.
Auerbach attended Wootten's basketball camp the next day, and Wootten awaited a compliment on the previous night's game. When none was forthcoming, Wootten asked, and Auerbach criticized his coaching, saying it lacked a feel for the game.
"He's the kind of guy, if I didn't ask, I'd have never gotten that advice," Wootten said in the 2004 interview. "Of course, the biggest thing a coach has to do is have a feel of the game."
He considered Auerbach's advice one of the two most important tips he ever received. The other came from his father, who counseled his son to "be yourself."
Morgan Bayard Wootten was born in Durham, North Carolina, on April 21, 1931. His father was a career naval officer and his mother a third-generation Washingtonian. The family settled into a house around the corner from what is now the DeMatha campus.
His parents stressed religion and education, merely tolerating his interest in sports. After second-year Latin proved troublesome at Gonzaga College High, Wootten transferred to Montgomery Blair High in Silver Spring, Maryland, graduating in 1950.
He was an amateur boxer while attending Montgomery College, but his life changed in March 1951 when an uncle asked him to find someone to coach at the St. Joseph's Home and School for Boys, a Northeast Washington orphanage.
His first team went 0-16, but the kids believed in him. When Rocky Marciano, the undefeated heavyweight boxing champion, visited the orphanage after winning the title in 1952, one of the younger boys, aware of Wootten's collegiate boxing exploits, said, "Rocky, do you think you can beat Morgan?" according to "From Orphans to Champions," an autobiography Wootten wrote with Bill Gilbert in 1979.
Marciano politely demurred, saying it would be a great fight. The boy was insistent. "I don't think you can," he said. "I think Morgan will kill you."
"The incident told me something," Wootten wrote. "I was reaching those kids."
By the time Wootten graduated from the University of Maryland in February 1955 with a bachelor's degree in physical education, he was in his second year as junior varsity basketball and football coach at St. John's College High in Washington D.C. He went to DeMatha in 1956.
In his first meeting with DeMatha players, Wootten handed out printed materials, outlining athletic and academic expectations. He gave them a choice: Conform to his standards, or don't be part of the team. None quit. In his first season, the Stags were 22-10. Four seasons later, in 1960-61, DeMatha ranked No. 1 in the metropolitan area with a 27-1 record while winning the first of his 33 Catholic league championships.
Wootten also coached DeMatha's first football team, in 1957, and compiled a 79-40-2 record before relinquishing those duties after the 1968 season.
The basketball victory that brought DeMatha into national prominence was its 1965 win over Power Memorial and Alcindor before a capacity crowd of 12,500 at Cole Field House at the University of Maryland.
The Stags double- and triple-teamed Alcindor, holding him to 16 points and 14 rebounds in a 46-43 victory. During practice, Wootten had one of his tallest players, 6-foot-8 Sid Catlett, use a tennis racket to simulate Alcindor's reach.
Wootten's success helped turn the Washington region into a hotbed for college basketball recruiters. His innovations not only transformed the quality of play, but he also established the practice of recruiting at the high school level, drawing on players from the D.C. public schools.
"He was basically the first high school coach to recruit," said Sonny Vaccaro, a sports marketing force who worked for Nike, Adidas and Reebok and who originated the practice of staging national high school all-star games. "By bringing in all these kids, not only did he help DeMatha become acclaimed, he helped that whole area."
Wootten started one of the country's first basketball-only summer day camps in 1961.
To get his players recruited by colleges, he mailed season schedules and daily practice times to coaches and scouts, providing brief biographical sketches of his players.
Over the years, Wootten's name was tossed about for several major college coaching vacancies, especially at his alma mater, Maryland.
According to Jim Kehoe, Maryland's onetime athletic director, Wootten had agreed to accept an offer if Lefty Driesell did not. When Driesell accepted the job in 1969, Wootten said he made a career decision to remain at DeMatha. He was reportedly offered head coaching jobs at such prestigious colleges as Duke, Virginia, Wake Forest and North Carolina but turned them all down.
In addition to his induction to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000, Mr. Wootten was honored the same year by the Naismith Basketball Foundation in Atlanta as the boys' high school basketball coach of the century.
Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
Wootten's teams at DeMatha were declared the mythical national high school champions five times. During his career, he was at least as respected among the coaching fraternity as many of the well-known faces seen on the sidelines of major college games.
In 2013, he recalled to USA Today why he chose to stay at DeMatha all those years, rather than reach for a brighter spotlight.
As a young coach, he said, he had lunch with Joe Lapchick, a longtime college and NBA coach.
"He told me, 'They never forget their coach,' " Mr. Wootten said. " 'They may forget some of the teachers they had, they may even forget some of the players they played with, but they never forget their coach.' That's the beauty of coaching. You get to touch lives. You get to make a difference."
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Mark Asher, a longtime Washington Post sportswriter, died in 2006. Washington Post Staff writer Matt Schudel contributed to this report.
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