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Comparing Coaching Principles: John Wooden and Dean Smith

By: Joe Lato

Dean Smith’s practice philosophy and John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success have many similarities.  According to Smith and Bell (2005) Dean Smith’s practice habits were influenced by John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success.  Dean Smith shared identical views about practice with John Wooden.  According to Nater and Gallimore (2005) if Wooden’s UCLA team were not practicing with maximum effort he would send them home.  If a player arrived late, he would not let them practice.  Wooden believed practice was a privilege and his athletes had to earn their right to practice.  According to Smith and Bell (2005) that practice is a privilege and if a player was not willing to work hard and improve then he should leave practice.  Practice is where the victories happen.

Dean Smith’s practice habits and John Wooden’s pyramid were similar in character building habits.  According to Nater and Gallimore (2005) Wooden took punctuality and profanity very seriously. Wooden has left players behind who were late and sat players for the length of their tardiness.  For example, if a player was five minutes late for a practice, they would sit five minutes of the next game.  Punctuality was never really a reoccurring issue with his teams because of Wooden’s consistency with his philosophy and policies.  Players were clear on Coach Wooden’s expectations and knew he would follow through on consequence if such acts happened.   As far as profanity concerns, not a word of profanity was tolerated at practice.  A player would be sent to his dorm room if he swore during practice.   According to Smith and Bell (2005) Dean Smith was as passionate about punctuality as Wooden.   Dean Smith did not have many rules but being on time was one of them.  Smith believed tardiness was a sign of arrogance and it was a selfish act.  The Carolina Way can best be described as a team first attitude in all aspects of a Tar heels life and selfish acts of tardiness led to a consequence from Coach Smith.  Coach Smith did not allow profanity as well.  He felt there were better ways a person can express themselves when they are upset.  His teams ran sprints for any individual who used profanity in practice.

Finally, Wooden’s Pyramid and Smith’s practice routines were similar as there were a real world or outside of basketball connection.  According to Nater and Gallimore (2005) UCLA basketball players had to dress appropriately and maintain basic grooming.  Bill Walton was Wooden’s all time great players.  Walton was a legendary college basketball player.  However, Walton went to school during a time period where young men wore their hair extremely long as a way to protest and express themselves.  When Walton’s hair became too long, Wooden would not let Walton play until he got a haircut.  Walton tried to challenge Wooden but Walton realized he was going to have to get a haircut to play.  The message from Wooden was that the UCLA basketball players were representatives of not only the team but the entire UCLA community.   According to Smith and Bell (2005) Smith was concerned about appearance. UNC athletes had to have their uniforms tucked and wear identical sneakers and socks.  On the road, Smith’s teams had to wear suits with their ties tied neatly.  According to Nater and Gallimore (2005) and Smith and Bell (2005) both coaches check their athletes grades quite frequently and stressed being good people more than being great players.

If there were differences between Smith and Wooden, it appeared that Wooden was stricter when enforcing his policy.  According to Smith and Bell (2005) if UNC players used profanity the entire team would run sprints.  According to Nater and Gallimore (2005) if a UCLA player swore they were kicked out of practice for the day.  Both coaches addressed issues but Wooden believed the best teacher of all was the bench.  If there was difference in philosophies or styles it would be to the degree of the consequence but their messages were almost exactly the same.

Importance of Principles

I have accepted the fact as a coach I like winning better than losing.  I also feel like as a society we are stressing equity and sportsmanship to a fault.  I’ve heard too many times from youth teams and my Physical Education students that it doesn’t matter if you win or lose.  I’ve seen too many tears after meaningless park and recreation games and little league games by children who are eleven, twelve and even thirteen years old.  It makes me wonder by them being sheltered from keeping score in their early ages, is the reality of losing when they get older to difficulty to handle?  I just don’t remember seeing so many kids cry when I was growing up and we kept score in our earlier ages of Coach Pitch baseball and instructional basketball.  Winning and losing are part of sports.  Setbacks which are like losses are part of life and we all need to learn how to deal with them both.  Anybody can continue to give maximum effort after a win but the lesson sports teaches us is to continue to strive to be our best when things don’t go our way like after a loss.

The principles of Wooden and Smith are important to me as a coach.  I believe I am a kid first, win second coach.  I want to win with my teams.  I don’t want to be a coach who uses his players to satisfy a competitive urge to win.  As coaches, we are extremely powerful because we can impact our athletes far and beyond the playing court/field.  Coaches like John Wooden have helped shape my philosophy with my teams.  My teams have four simple rules: Be on time (10 minutes early); Eliminate excuses; Team First decisions; Communicate.  These policies help drive our team’s philosophy of being the best we can in all aspects of our life while striving for the goal of the team.  Our players are rewarded and held accountable for classroom conduct.  Our players participate in community service.  They are held accountable if they fail to make a “team first” decisions like drinking alcohol or getting in trouble in off campus scenarios.  Our athletes are required to communicate in game situations and with our coaches if there is a conflict that needs to be resolved.  The basis of these pillars is to reinforce the philosophy o f the program and to provide building blocks not just for our sport but for life.

Tony DeMeo

Tony DeMeo was a college football coach who has impacted me as a coach and as a person.  Coach DeMeo is best known for turning around struggling college football programs.   According to Demeo (2007) his philosophy is for a smaller program to beat a bigger program (David verse Goliath) a team needs an offense that will allow your team to compete against the biggest and best schools on the schedule.  The offense is based on simple in approach but complex for a defense to defend.  The simplicity of the offense allows more focus on fundamentals and details.  The details are what Coach DeMeo stresses the most.  The simplicity of his approach also allows for more formations and motions which “dress” the simple plays which makes it difficult for the defense to defend but simple for the offense to execute.  Coach DeMeo believes that he would rather run a lousy play great than a great play lousy which simply means run a system that allows you to perfect the details.

Coach DeMeo is also a master in leadership.  Coach DeMeo has simple and practical lessons that not only help build a program but impacts athletes’ lives.  His most powerful message that I use daily is about a sermon.  According to DeMeo (2014) Coach DeMeo would rather see a sermon rather than hear a sermon any day.  This lesson is powerful for a leader to apply.  Simply put, in order to be a great leader one must act out the words they preach.  If a Coach wants his players to be on time and not swear, then he/she better do the same.  If it looks important to the leader by his actions, the team will respond better and have more respect for the coach.  If the coach demands hard work, then the coach better work hard to have organized practices and coach hard in practice.

Elements from each coach

John Wooden, Dean Smith and Tony Demeo all were masterful practice planners.  Each coach may emphasize the same ideals as it relates to practice but there are certain aspects to their practice philosophy that I accredit more than the others.  According to Nater and Gallimore (2005) Wooden’s practices were extremely difficult.  What made them extremely difficult was the organization of the practice itself.  The pace of a Wooden practice was so intense that it conditioned his athletes while they were learning.  Wooden would structure practice with daily routines that would allow for familiarity which in turn would create more repetitions and higher tempo practices.  I think of Wooden every time I construct practice schedules as I’m searching for minimum transitions and increased repetitions, as well as a conditioning element.

Dean Smith created a culture of hustle with his teams.  According to Smith and Bell (2005) the Carolina basketball players always had to sprint in between reps.  This standard held true during games.  When a timeout was called, his teams had to sprint to the bench.  Likewise, his team had to sprint to the foul line when taking a foul shot.  Reinforcing these behaviors reinforce creates a culture of hustle.  This also reinforces a team’s mindset that effort wins games, not talent.  Teams that I coach are expected to hustle off the field during transitions in a football game like after touchdowns, end of a quarter and timeouts to reinforce our culture.

Tony DeMeo’s detailed approach to practice and law of simplicity are the lessons of his that have impacted me the most.  According to Demeo (2007) the key to great offensive football is keeping it simple but don’t confuse simple with easy.  His schemes are simple in design and there is tremendous “same as” coaching.  For example, his blocking patterns for Inside Veer have the same rules as his play-action pass game.  His Inside Veer play can be married to countless other plays which re-enforces his law of simplicity.  His offensive line can master one play while to a defense it looks like many different plays.  When building my offensive menu in an off-season, I always take a Tony Demeo approach.  I look to the simplest solution to accentuate our talents while not drifting from the core of our offensive philosophy.


John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success and Dean Smith’s practice routines were very similar and have impacted many coaches, including myself.  In addition to Smith and Wooden, Tony Demeo is a coach who has impacted my philosophy toward practice and leadership.  These great coaches all shared many similarities.  Wooden’s practice routines and practice tempo, Smith’s culture of hustle and Demeo’s law of simplicity have impacted me the most as a coach when planning practices for my athletes.


D, T. (2015).Common Sense Rules For Everyday Leaders Monterey, CA: Coaches Choice

DeMeo, T. (2016).Coaching the complete triple gun offense Monterey, CA, Coaches Choice .

Nater, S, & R. Gallimore. (2016).You haven’t taught until they have learned: John Wooden’s teaching principles and practices Morgantown, WV, Fitness Information Technology.

Smith, D, & G. Bell, & J. Kilgo. (2016).The Carolina way: leadership lessons from a life in coaching New York, Penguin Press.

About the Author

Joe Lato is currently the Head Football Coach at Masuk H.S. in Monroe, CT.  Lato was previously the Head Coach at Weston H.S in Weston, CT from 2006 -2013, where his team earned a state playoff berth in 2012.

Editor’s Note:  An extensive collection of material from Coach DeMeo is available in the Triple Gun section of this site, at, and at his own web site located at

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