The Mentors: “A Coach is a Teacher” 


The ideal coach not only teaches his/her players the fundamentals of the particular sport, but also remains a mentor or parent figure long after the player’s athletic career has ended. 

In 1997, while watching a Chicago Bulls game on TV with my oldest child Max, then four years old, I pointed to Coach Phil “the Zen Master” Jackson, and asked Max if he knew what a coach was.  Without contemplating too deeply, my son responded: “A coach is a teacher.” 

While successful coaches, like Phil Jackson, must perform many different roles, the most important quality that a coach must possess is that of being an outstanding teacher.   Being an effective, patient educator/mentor is critical to succeed at any level of coaching, especially when dealing with student-athletes.  

In my opinion, one which is shared by many others, the greatest coach in sports history – when combining both winning percentage and life lessons conveyed to players – is the late, great John Robert Wooden (1910-2010).   

Wooden is best remembered for his success as the coach of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) men’s basketball team.  During his 29-year tenure as a college head coach, 27 at UCLA (1948-1975), the “Wizard of Westwood” amassed an amazing .804 winning percentage.  Incredibly, in a 12-year span, Wooden’s Bruin teams won an unprecedented 10 NCAA championships, including seven consecutive titles (1967-1973).

The first of only four men to be inducted into the James Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player (1960) and coach (1973), not only was Wooden a talented player and a brilliant leader, but an outstanding student as well.  As a Purdue Boilermaker star guard and team captain, Wooden was awarded the Big Ten Award for Proficiency and Athletics.  Upon his graduation, John Wooden viewed the chance to coach young men as a golden opportunity to mentor not just winning basketball players, but also future leaders and upstanding citizens.  Beginning his professional career as a high school coach and English teacher (his college major was English), Wooden was able to launch a career intertwining his passion for sports and education. 

Upon his retirement from college coaching in 1975, Wooden remained active until his death at age 99, by continuing to teach and inspire through his writings, speaking, and by remaining a visible, influential presence in the lives of many of his former players by whom he was regarded as both a basketball coach and a life mentor.  The author or co-author of over a dozen books (including children’s books), Wooden, the educator, is perhaps best remembered for his “Pyramid of Success,”  a teaching tool comprised of 15 values (the “building blocks” of the pyramid) by which to lead one’s life.  Appropriately, on his website, he is identified as “John Wooden Coach & Teacher.” 

Regarded as an impeccably honest and fair man, Wooden was also known to be a strict disciplinarian who, early on each season, earned the respect of all of his players.  Although he was relatively straight-laced in his philosophical views, Coach Wooden garnered the support of his players even during the tumultuous 1960s.  Perhaps the player that presented the most challenges to him in this regard was Bill Walton. 

By chance, I had the opportunity to enjoy a quality 15-minute private conversation with Walton In 2006, while waiting for a flight to Los Angeles, I saw the Hall of Famer also waiting to board the same plane.  Already a well-known basketball analyst for ESPN, somehow the six-foot-eleven giant of a man went unnoticed, or at least was left alone, by other passengers – except for my children and me.  

Once my kids received autographs and our “team photographer” (my wife Marilyn) took photos with the former NCAA and NBA Champion hoopster, I found myself asking the question most on my mind:  “Are you still in contact with Coach Wooden?”  Walton replied that he was and that, in fact, he was meeting his former coach for breakfast the very next day.  After the chance meeting, I learned that Walton also regarded Coach Wooden as his mentor, teacher, and friend.  He even ensured that his children (all boys) got to spend time with and learn directly from the “Wizard of Westwood,” as well.   

Not only did Bill Walton attract media attention for his stellar play at UCLA (leading the Bruins to their sixth and seventh consecutive NCAA titles in 1972 and 1973), but he was also known for being involved in liberal political causes that were not ones embraced by his coach.  Nonetheless, in spite of their different outlooks on life, from his freshman year at UCLA until Coach Wooden’s passing, the player had the utmost respect for his beloved coach and teacher.   

In a tribute, Walton wrote a touching message on his website about his mentor. It is striking from that blog post that the most significant impact Wooden had on Walton was in his role as a teacher of both basketball and life lessons. 

The Mentors: Spiritual Insights:

Yehoshua ben P’rachaya v’Nitai HaArbeli kib’lu m’hem.  Yehoshua ben P’rachaya omer:  Ahseh l’kha Rav  

Yehoshua the son of P’rachya and Nitai from Arabel received [the tradition] from them [i.e., Rabbi Yossie ben Yoezer and Rabbi Yossie ben Yochanan].  Yehoshua the son of P’rachya says: “Provide for yourself a rabbi [teacher] (Ethics of our Fathers 1:6).

One of the key ingredients of success, according to the Sage Yehoshua ben P’rachaya, is to have a relationship with a teacher who can help guide you through life.  Rabbi Yehoshua’s teachers were his rabbis, who are mentioned in an earlier Mishna (Pirkei Avot 1:4– – Rabbi Yossi ben Yoezer and Rabbi Yossi ben Yochanan. 

Committed Jews do not fly solo in life.  Rather, they have an inner-circle of support.  Along with one’s parents, spouse, and other family members, some of the key members of this “advisory council” are rabbis and other teachers.  For many, their teacher/mentor is the rabbi of their synagogue who has officiated at all of their family’s life cycle events.  They have been there to teach, inspire, and guide them through the highs, lows, and “routine” days of life.  For others, their mentor is a beloved teacher (not always an ordained rabbi) with whom they feel a special connection.  

In addition to inspiring through Torah education, the ideal rabbi/teacher, is one who can also serve as a mentor.  This mentor should be a person who can provide comfort, support, direction, and inspiration on how to lead a productive, meaningful Jewish life. 

Throughout history, there have been many famous rabbi/teacher-student combos which can also be classified as mentor-mentees. 

Here are a few: 

  • Moses and Joshua. Known as Moshe Rabbenu (Moses our rabbi/teacher), Moses was the Rabbi to two generations of Israelites and to all Jews throughout history.  His most famous student was Joshua, who succeeded him in his role as the leader of the Israelites.
  • Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai (30 BCE-90 CE) and Five Students in Particular.  As cited in (Pirkei Avot 2:10) these students were: Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, Rabbi Yossi HaKohen, Rabbi Shimon ben N’tanel, and Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh.  In the very next Mishnah, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai sings the praises of each one of these elite disciples.

A famous story (Gittin 56a-b) about Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai is that, realizing that the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans was imminent, he asked his students to take him from Jerusalem via a coffin, as this was the only way that a Jew could leave (i.e., dead, to be buried outside of Jerusalem).  Once outside of the walls of the holy city, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was able to meet with the Roman General Vespasian from whom he requested: Ten li Yavneh vaChakha-meh-ha – – “[Just] give me Yavneh and its scholars!” His request was granted to establish a new Torah center in Yavneh, paving the way for the spiritual survival of the Jewish people post-destruction. 

  • Rabbi Akiva and Seven Students in Particular.  Along with Moses, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai and Hillel the Elder, it is believed that Rabbi Akiva also lived until the ripe old age of 120.  After the death of his 24,000 students who did not treat each other with proper respect – – Sh’lo nahagu kavod zeh la-zeh  – – Because they did not treat each other honorably (Y’vamot 62b), the Midrash (B’reisheet Rabba 61:3) states that Rabbi Akiva then taught seven of his students who had survived.  He prepared them to become the educational/spiritual leaders of the surviving and future generations.  Rabbi Akiva strongly cautioned his new students to learn from his earlier students’ mistakes of not treating each other well (i.e., acting jealous towards each other – – Sh’hayta einehem tzara ehlu l’ehlu – – literally, because their eyes were narrow), and then stated: Ahm’du umilu kol Eretz Yisrael Torah – –“Stand up and fill the entire Land of Israel with [the study and performance of acts of] Torah.”

The 20th century witnessed the birth, brilliance, and deaths of many prominent Torah scholars.  Two of the most prominent – both of whom had students of all backgrounds, including non-Jews – were Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson and Professor Nechama Leibowitz.  Both of these luminaries had thousands of students who, although they could not have “private time” with their beloved teacher/mentor every day, were inspired by their teachings, scholarship, and exemplary acts of kindness. 


Rabbi James M. (Yaakov Moshe) Gordon, JD, is the author of PRAY BALL 2!! Spiritual Insights Into Sportsmanship which can be purchased at Rosenblum’s World of Judaica, Kesher STAM and  Five or more copies can be purchased at a deep discount at: .