Teaching Profession

High School Coaching Legend Retires

By John Gehring — November 20, 2002 3 min read
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For Morgan Wootten, the legendary high school coach who retired two weeks ago with more basketball wins than any other high school or college coach in history, it was never just about the numbers.

Widely respected by fellow coaches and loved by loyal players, the gentlemanly 71-year-old—known as much for putting academics and character before win-loss records—retired from DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md., after 46 years as its head basketball coach.

Mr. Wootten’s storied DeMatha program produced hundreds of college players and about a dozen professional basketball players such as Adrian Dantley and Danny Ferry.

His teams also garnered the No. 1 ranking in the Washington area 22 times, and four times won the mythical national high school basketball championship based on the school’s wins, national rankings, and strength of schedule.

John Wooden, the former basketball coach at the University of California, Los Angeles, who won 10 national college championships and is regarded as one of the best coaches of all time, once called Mr. Wootten “the finest coach, at any level, I have ever seen.”

When a coach has won 1,274 games and lost only 192 over nearly half a century, it’s hard to pick one win that stands out as the biggest. But the victory that put DeMatha on the national map was the team’s 1965 win over New York City’s Power Memorial High School.

Power Memorial was led by Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and became a Hall of Fame professional player.

Power Memorial, a Catholic school, had a 71- game winning streak at the time.

Coach Wootten helped prepare his team for the Power Memorial star’s towering 7-foot-2 presence by having one of his taller players play defense during practice holding a tennis racket in the air.

Lew Alcindor was held to 16 points that night and DeMatha defeated Power Memorial, 46-43, before 12,500 fans at the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House.

‘Hall of Fame Teacher’

At a press conference held Nov. 6 at DeMatha announcing his retirement, Mr. Wootten remarked that while he had “mixed feelings” about stepping down, he would rather do so “on the way up than the way down.” Last year, Dematha won its last 18 games on its way to another No. 1 area ranking.

But Mr. Wootten, who taught world history at DeMatha until the 1990s, was in many ways as much a presence in the classroom as in the gym.

“He was a Hall of Fame teacher before he was a Hall of Fame coach,” said Daniel McMahon, the principal of DeMatha. Mr. Wootten, he said, has an infectious passion for politics and history.

“He was a big one for using the past to teach kids about the present,” he said.

Because two of the coach’s sons graduated from DeMatha, the principal said, Mr. Wootten also was a part of DeMatha as a parent and educator.

“He could be demanding on kids because they knew he loved them,” Mr. McMahon added.

A native of Durham, N.C., Mr. Wootten began coaching at DeMatha in 1956. Two years ago, he was the first basketball coach at any level to reach 1,200 wins, and that same year was inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

DeMatha has named Assistant Coach Mike Jones, 29, as interim coach and will name a new coach next year.

Dick Myers, the longtime basketball coach at Gonzaga College High School in nearby Washington, remembers both his friendship with Mr. Wootten and the epic battles his teams have had with DeMatha over the years. Mr. Myers said the respect Mr. Wootten had from players, parents, and educators was well-deserved.

“All you had to do was meet the man to understand,” said Mr. Myers, a former head coach at the Catholic University of America and Gonzaga’s coach since 1975. “He was always forthright. He always looked you in the eye.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as High School Coaching Legend Retires

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