DeMatha High School. When you say that, if you know anything about basketball, one thing springs to mind: supreme excellence.
That’s because of its long-time coach, Morgan Wootten, who built the Stags into one of the two greatest high school programs in history (Dan Hurley’s St. Anthony’s, now closed, was its only real rival for that).
Wootten, whose death was announced this week, was arguably, the finest coach in the history of the game. You can look at Red Auerbach, John Wooden, Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski as maybe the four best coaches on the collegiate or professional level. You could toss in Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich for argument’s sake.
Wootten was every bit their equal and probably better than several. As Coach K said several years ago in a different context, and we paraphrase liberally, just because you choose to stay at a particular school at a particular level doesn’t mean you’re not great. And Wootten, legitimately, was great.
He was great because of his record and his accomplishments and the long list of celebrated players who went there: Adrian Dantley, Kenny Carr, former Blue Devil Danny Ferry, Sidney Lowe and Derrick Whittenburg.
He was great because for something like 35 years, every player he coached became a scholarship player in college.
You could say a lot of those things about Bob Knight though. And as much as we respect his immense intelligence and his unquestioned brilliance for the game, Knight will be remembered for his inability to control his emotions and his at times brutal treatment of his players.
And even John Wooden said that he handled Edgar Lacey, who quit the team after being singled out for criticism, very poorly.
No one ever said that about Wootten. He treated his players humanely. He never belittled or humiliated anyone. He was only known to curse in public once.
Quite simply, he understood how to deal with young men and how to help them become very fine grown men, and he learned how to apply that to his coaching career.
He saw coaching as an extension of teaching though and the chance to have the greatest impact on a young life.
This is particularly noteworthy when you look back at the years he coached at Catholic DeMatha and realize that around the country, deviant priests and on occasion nuns were destroying the lives of young men and women. One has only to watch The Keepers on Netflix to realize how far astray many in the Church went during Wootten’s lifetime.
Wootten by contrast was and is perceived as an exceptionally good man who felt a deep responsibility to take care of his young charges and to lead them to become decent and responsible men.
When Maryland was looking for a new coach in 1969, it hired Lefty Driesell, and Driesell had a great career there.
The backup choice however was Wootten and it’s a shame that he didn’t get the job because he would have been superb. All the issues Maryland has had over the years, he would have perfectly addressed. He would have been their Smith or Krzyzewski and might have indeed made Maryland the UCLA of the East.
After that disappointment, he chose to stay with DeMatha and the rest is legend. He was a good and great man who made the game he loved, and the players who played for him, better. Godspeed.
One small thing we didn't know about him: he was born in Durham in 1931, presumably at old Watts Hospital but possibly at a very young Duke hospital. Durham’s history with basketball is no joke. Wootten was born there, Red Auerbach was a Duke assistant, John McClendon was the NC Central coach and a Hall of Famer, and Duke can boast of Vic Bubas and Mike Krzyzewski.
And that’s just college.
As Wootten proves, you can’t overlook greatness at schools like Hillside and Durham High, both of which are programs of historical significance.