Faith came in first place for DeMatha's Hall of Fame Coach Morgan Wootten
Jan 22, 2020
Morgan Wootten, the legendary basketball coach at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, who led his teams to national prominence while teaching his players to prioritize God, family, school and basketball in that order, died on Jan. 21. He was 88.
DeMatha sent out an email the next morning, noting that he “was surrounded by his family in prayer and passed away peacefully.”
The Catholic high school’s statement went on to say: “Morgan, or Coach Wootten as many of you knew him by, was a loving husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle, friend, mentor and coach. While we mourn the passing of Morgan, we also celebrate his remarkable life. It was a life that touched so many other lives. Morgan cared deeply about his faith, family, his community, the DeMatha family and most of all his beloved wife of almost 56 years Kathy. Coach Wootten was known for many things, but when asked what was most important, he always talked about having one's priorities in order: 1. God 2. Family 3. School 4. Basketball. He lived by those priorities every day, and it drove every decision he ever made.”
From 1956, when he began coaching basketball at DeMatha, through his retirement in 2002, Wootten led the Stags to 1,274 victories, five national championships and more than 30 conference championships, and in 2000, he was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
“His DNA is all over the darn game,” said Duke’s “Coach K” Mike Krzyzewski, the all-time winningest college basketball coach, in an interview in the 2017 documentary, “Morgan Wootten: The Godfather of Basketball.”
The film also quoted John Wooden, who led UCLA to 10 national basketball championships, who said of Wootten, “I know of no finer coach at any level – high school, college or pro.”
The documentary highlighted how Coach Wootten was an innovator whose players pioneered the fast break on offense and taking charging fouls on defense and who helped start the nation’s first basketball camps. Over the past four decades, more than 200,000 boys and girls have learned how to play basketball at Wootten’s day and overnight camps in the summer. Many of his basketball players at DeMatha went on to become high school, college or pro coaches.
That film’s premiere fittingly was held in DeMatha’s Antler Room, where Wootten and his family were joined by a large crowd of his extended DeMatha family, including former players and fellow teachers and faculty members at the all-boys’ Catholic school, which is sponsored by the Trinitarian order.
In his retirement, Wootten continued to faithfully attend daily Mass at his longtime parish, St. Mark the Evangelist in Hyattsville, and volunteer at the food pantry there with his wife Kathy.
After the documentary screening, Wootten told the Catholic Standard that his faith remains central to his life and reflected on how much he loved coaching and teaching history at that Catholic school over the years.
“None of this would have happened without my Catholic faith,” Wootten said, adding, “…My faith has shown me the way, what I was supposed to do.”
In a 2007 talk to Catholic young adults at a Theology on Tap gathering, Coach Wootten said, “Successful people who can handle challenges generally have their priorities in the proper place. That is one thing that never changes. God is first. It will make you a better student. It will make you a better ballplayer. It will make you happier in life.”
The coach advised the young adults, “Never try to be better than anyone else, but try to be the best that you can be.”
Noting that “the Lord was, has been and continues to be very good to me,” Wootten said he hoped that someday “all of us would be in God's Hall of Fame.”
A special exhibit on Wootten in the coach’s wing at the Basketball Hall of Fame pointed out the irony of his putting basketball “no higher than fourth on his list of what is truly important in life,” after God, family and education.
But the exhibit’s commentary added that credo in his more than 45 years of coaching at DeMatha was “a formula that Wootten has used himself to become one of the most revered and treasured educators and coaches in the nation.”
That exhibit notes that Wootten helped hundreds of his players earn college basketball scholarships, and more than 12 of his players went on to compete in the National Basketball Association, including fellow Hall of Famer Adrian Dantley. Encased in that display is a banner showcasing DeMatha’s national championships in the 1962, 1965, 1968, 1978 and 1984 seasons, along with one of his sneakers and a simple white DeMatha polo shirt he wore when he was teaching players the sport of basketball at practices.
The esteem with which Wootten is held in the sport of basketball is also reflected in the Basketball Hall of Fame’s Morgan Wootten Lifetime Achievement Award, presented annually to coaches who have dedicated their lives to coaching high school basketball and “who exemplify the core values of the game.”
Wootten also coached the Stags in one of the most famous high school basketball games of all time, leading DeMatha in 1965 to a 46-43 win over Power Memorial, which was led by Lew Alcindor, the 7-foot-1 player who later converted to Islam and took the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and became the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. Power had defeated DeMatha one year earlier, but the Stags took the rematch, snapping the New York team’s 71-game winning streak. Before the game, Wootten had his players practice using a tennis racket under the basket to swat away shots, to get players used to Alcindor’s shot blocking ability.
DeMatha’s famous basketball coach summarized his top priorities in his 1979 book, “From Orphans to Champions,” co-written with Bill Gilbert. The coach dedicated that book “to my number one-team of all-time – my wife Kathy, and our children Cathy, Carol, Tricia, Brendan and Joey. And to God, for allowing me to become a teacher and a coach.”
In 2010, DeMatha Catholic High School dedicated its new gym, named the Morgan and Kathy Wootten Gymnasium in honor of the longtime coach and teacher’s family.
That evening, the coach's wife also received a standing ovation from the 1,000 people attending the ceremony.
“I wouldn't be here tonight if it wasn't for my wonderful wife Kathy,” Coach Wootten said.
The Woottens’ youngest son Joe, the athletic director and basketball coach at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia, who also played for DeMatha’s 1991 championship team, said that while others regarded his father as a “legend,” to him, he was a dad. In 2006, Joe Wootten donated his kidney to his dad when he needed a transplant. Morgan Wootten, who had a liver transplant in 1996, credited his faith with helping him face those health challenges, and he became a national advocate for organ transplants.
After the screening of the documentary on Morgan Wootten, Dan McMahon, DeMatha’s principal, told the Catholic Standard that the movie shows Wootten’s genius as a teacher: “While he is famous because his ‘subject’ is basketball and his ‘classroom’ is a gym – Morgan was, and still is, a teacher. The great truth of Catholic education is that Jesus came as a teacher, and we imitate Him best when we teach.”
Wootten’s players attending the screening reflected afterward on the lasting lessons they learned from their coach.
“He always taught us to do the right thing,” said Johnny Jones, one of DeMatha’s first two African-American players, who graduated in 1962 and went on to win a championship with the Boston Celtics. “…When we came to DeMatha, it was like a family. When I left DeMatha, I was a man.”
Sidney Lowe, who played on championship DeMatha and North Carolina State teams and served as an assistant coach for the Washington Wizards and now coaches for the Detroit Pistons, said Wootten taught his players the importance of dealing with adversity and working hard, and “how to be a good person, how to be loyal, have faith, have discipline (and the importance of) being on time.”
In a 2019 interview with Washington's WTOP radio, Coach Wootten said that it was meaningful to him that while some of his players went on to play in the NBA, many others went on to successful careers in medicine and other fields and are making a positive difference in people's lives.
Wootten, a native of Durham, North Carolina, began coaching baseball, football and basketball at a Washington orphanage then operated by the Holy Cross Sisters, St. Joseph’s Home for Boys. He then served as a junior varsity basketball coach for three seasons at St. John’s College High School in Washington, mentored by its legendary coach Joe Gallagher.
From humble beginnings, Wootten embarked on a coaching career that led to his induction in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000, where the inscription honoring his enshrinement notes, “Coaching success is synonymous with the name Morgan Wootten. No other coach in basketball history combined a love for the game with a passion for coaching young men more than Wootten…”
When Coach Wootten announced his retirement in 2002, he quoted from the Bible at a press conference crowded with media, former DeMatha players, his family, and members of the school community.
“The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us there is 'a time under the heavens for everything,'” he said. “With that in mind, I have decided this is the time to step down as head basketball coach at DeMatha High School.”
At his retirement announcement, Wootten noted, “No coach could ask for a more wonderful group to share the experiences of a lifetime with. To the players, managers and to all the members of the DeMatha basketball family, I thank them so much for the love and devotion. Each and every one of you will be in my prayers and thoughts always.”
One of the documentary film’s final scenes shows Wootten speaking at his Hall of Fame induction, where he said, “As coaches, we get to work with America’s most important resource – its young people.”
The “Godfather of Basketball” was produced and directed by Bill Hayes, president of Figure 8 Films and Thunder Mountain Media.
Morgan Wootten is survived by his wife Kathy; their five children and their spouses -- Cathy (Mike) Stamper, Carol (Steve) Paul, Trish Wootten, Brendan (Elizabeth) Wootten and Joe (Terri Lynn) Wootten; their 15 grandchildren -- Stephen (Cameryn) Paul, Bucky Paul, Kiersten Paul, Nick Stamper, Ryan Stamper, Charlie Paul, Greg Stamper, Megan Wootten, Kevin Stamper, Micky Wootten, Ally Wootten, Caitlin Stamper, Alexa Wootten, Reese Wootten and Jackson Wootten; his brother Angus (Batya) Wootten; his sisters Clare (Bob) Crawford-Mason, and Lee Wootten; and his extended family at DeMatha.
People can pay their respects on Saturday Jan. 25, from 1-3 p.m. and 6-8 p.m., and on Sunday Jan. 26 from 4-6 p.m. The Funeral Mass for Morgan Wootten will be held on Monday Jan. 27 at 10 a.m. All services are being held at DeMatha Catholic High School's Brendan Looney Convocation Center, 4313 Madison Street, Hyattsville, Maryland.
In the statement from DeMatha, the school said the Wootten family expressed thanks for all the prayers and support they have received, and they asked that in lieu of flowers, people make a contribution to the Morgan Wootten Scholarship Fund at DeMatha Catholic High School (www.dematha.org).
And DeMatha’s statement about the death of their legendary basketball coach closed by noting, “whenever receiving an honor, Coach Wootten would often close his remarks with excerpts from the poem, ‘God's Hall of Fame.’ Though we are extremely sad to see him go, we are incredibly joyful that he is now in the hall of fame that matters most to him and all of us.”
God's Hall of Fame
This crowd on earth they soon forget
The heroes of the past,
They cheer like mad until you fall,
And that's how long you last
But God he never does forget,
And in His Hall of Fame,
By just believing in his Son,
Inscribed you'll find your name.
(This article includes reporting from previous Catholic Standard by writers Lynnea Pruzinsky Mumola and Moira McLaughlin.)
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