DeMatha’s Morgan Wootten remembered as legendary basketball coach and teacher who helped students excel
Jan 27, 2020
While a student at St. Margaret’s School in Seat Pleasant, Maryland, during the late 1970s, Paul-Sean Gray remembers watching a local television program featuring legendary Boston Celtics Coach Red Auerbach along with high school basketball Coach Morgan Wootten breaking down the game and offering tips and pointers. When it came time to choose a high school and after learning Wootten coached at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Gray’s decision became clear.
“He’s the reason I came to DeMatha,” explained the graduate of the school’s class of 1983.
Gray returned to the all-boys’ Catholic school last Saturday and waited in line for two hours to say goodbye and honor the Hall of Fame coach who died on Jan. 21 at the age of 88. Gray never made Wootten’s team during high school, but was still impacted by the coach’s philosophy and faith. “I was happy to see him in the halls,” Gray remembered. The alumnus noted that he eventually attended Wootten’s coaching clinics in an effort to become a better player and coach.
Those lessons paid off for Gray who in turn became a youth football and basketball coach of more than 300 young people and now cheers for his daughter, a Division I basketball player at Towson University in Maryland.
“The best way to honor a person is to imitate a person” said Trinitarian Father James Day, president of DeMatha, as he witnessed the line of former players, students, and friends wind their way through the Morgan and Kathy Wootten Gymnasium to pay their respects to Kathy Wootten, Morgan’s wife; the couples’ five children; Cathy, Carol, Trish, Brendan and Joe; their spouses; and 15 grandchildren.
Framed photographs of the coach with former players, the aforementioned Auerbach, as well as a portrait of Morgan and Kathy Wootten with President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush were displayed side-by-side with personal photos of family weddings, Baptisms, and family vacations. The tables containing all the photos lined the exterior of the gym pushed up to the bleachers marked off for DeMatha fans, DeMatha students and DeMatha Pep Band.
During the scheduled two-day viewing on the weekend of Jan. 25-26, Maryland State Police, Prince George’s County Police and Hyattsville Police provided parking assistance and crowd management as the line for the first session snaked around the gym and outside around the Lt. (SEAL) Brendan Looney '99, Convocation Center which houses the gymnasium. Members of the Bishop O’Connell High School Basketball from Arlington, Va. wore their basketball jerseys over their dress shirts to visit with their head coach, Joe Wootten, Morgan’s youngest son, who also serves as the school’s athletic director.
Earlier the boys from the current DeMatha team also joined in honoring Coach Wootten. “This was Morgan’s wish,” noted Father Day of opening campus for the viewing where one visitor could be overheard remarking, “It’s like coming home.”
For Wootten himself, as he told the Catholic Standard and other news outlets over the years, “Every coach is a teacher – the gym is the classroom.”
Father Day explained that although the current students did not personally know Coach Wootten, more than one-half of the current faculty worked with him during his 46-year career at the school as a world history teacher, athletic director and coach on his way to compiling a record of 1,274 wins against only 192 losses.
The priest said after receiving the news of Wootten’s death, the school held a moment of silence for the coach and his family during morning prayers. Father Day also noted that the faculty and staff “spent time comforting each other.” Father Day said he personally thanked the coaches who showed their emotions – “for allowing our students to see that men can feel and can cry.”
Sandra Duffy, DeMatha’s assistant librarian said she felt privileged to have known and worked with Wootten for the first half of her 37 years at the school. “He was wonderful – the most, gentle gentleman I ever knew,” she said.
Former student Kirk Alexander also remembered Wootten’s kind and calming demeanor. “He was my very first teacher at DeMatha – in world history, I was so nervous, (but) he was so down to earth,” said Alexander who graduated in 1989, and played football at Virginia Tech. Now a member of the U.S. Secret Service, Alexander said Wootten was gifted at “putting you at ease so that allowed you to excel.”
That ease and demeanor could be seen on the court as well, said local high school referee Mike Davis. “Wootten was always decent. He was always fair with me,” Davis said.
Officiating games for the past 37 years, Davis described Wootten as the “guru” always “looking for the edge.” Although Davis agreed that the game style has changed since Wootten first headed out to the hardwood, but “basketball is basketball, and kids are kids. We lost an ambassador of the game,” added Davis. “He will be missed.”
Mark Bruce recalled playing on Coach Wootten’s first undefeated national championship team. Wootten’s teams would go on to be named national champion four additional times, but in none of the other championship teams were undefeated.
“He taught me how to be a good person – how to be a good teacher – how to be a good father,” Bruce said.
The member of the class of 1978 also recalled with a grin how one day he saw Wootten being photographed with a couple of players from the team, and he jumped in the photograph behind his coach and teammates.
The image later ended up selected as the cover of Wootten’s 1979 book, “From Orphans to Champions.” Despite being one of the first-ever “photo-bombs,” Wootten did not seem to mind. “He was a great coach and a great human being,” Bruce added.
“Morgan was so devoted to his Catholic faith and family,” Father Day added. He and his wife were daily communicants at St. Mark Parish in Hyattsville, and he always put God first, the priest said.
“One of his gifts, a gift of Morgan’s was when you were in the room with the coach having a conversation, you felt you were the only one who mattered” – a gift needed more in this world today, said Father Day. Coach Wootten “was a man who had values that he spoke about clearly but lived it daily – a genuine man, who you knew when he was talking to you it was the truth.”
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