By Chris McManes
Morgan Wootten’s influence on people’s lives extends beyond those he coached or taught at DeMatha Catholic High School. He left such an impact on the world that even U.S. presidents honored him.
Morgan, who died peacefully Jan. 21 at his University Park home surrounded by his wife, Kathy, and loving family, was 88. His obituary in The Washington Post ran on the front page. Mark Asher, a Post sports reporter, wrote it prior to his own death in 2006 because the obituaries of prominent people are usually written beforehand.
Those attending Morgan’s viewing and funeral at DeMatha’s Morgan and Kathy Wootten Gymnasium could see photos of the beloved coach at the White House with Presidents Reagan and both Bushes. Pictures of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were signed and personalized.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) and David Falk, the agent who represented Michael Jordan, attended the funeral. Award-winning sportscaster James Brown delivered the eulogy.
I knew Morgan for 42 years, and despite the presence of such luminaries at his funeral, don’t know if I — or any of us — truly appreciate his preeminence. Brown, a 1969 DeMatha graduate, said the story of his coach’s life requires a “supernatural explanation.”
Mike Jones, Morgan’s successor and current Stags basketball coach, said, “He is the greatest father, the greatest husband, the greatest teacher and the greatest coach I’ve ever been around.”
When he concluded his 46-year head coaching career in 2002, Morgan’s 1,274 victories ranked first in basketball history — high school, college or pro. His .869 winning percentage among those with at least 1,000 wins is third all-time. He led the Stags to 36 Catholic league championships, including three in football. His basketball teams were declared national champions five times.
Fourteen of his charges played in the NBA. More than 250 earned college scholarships.
In 2000, Morgan became the first exclusively high school coach inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Red Auerbach, a friend who coached the Boston Celtics to nine NBA championships, introduced him at the ceremony.
“If anybody ever deserved to be enshrined in this Hall of Fame,” Auerbach said, “it’s Morgan Wootten.”
That same year, the Hall named Morgan the Naismith Scholastic Coach of the Century. It continues honoring him by presenting the Morgan Wootten Lifetime Achievement Award in Coaching High School Basketball each year to a boys and girls coach.
Despite these prestigious honors, Morgan remained a humble man. Numerous times in DeMatha’s alumni lounge, I saw people approach him and say something like, “I was a student in your history class,” or “I never went to school here, but I just wanted to say hello.” He greeted each with a smile and receptive ear. They left with a lifetime memory.
Jones succeeded Morgan in 2002 after playing for him and coaching with him.
“When I first got the job, he didn’t say, ‘Don’t try to live up to me’ because he’s too humble to say that,” Jones said. “But he did say to make sure that I did things my way, and don’t try to just do what he did. …
“It took me a while to truly understand what that meant, but I thank him so much. He almost gave me permission to do things my way. Without that, who wants to change what’s worked for 46 years?”
Morgan’s humility and happiness coaching the Stags led him to turn down several much higher-paying college coaching jobs. It would have meant uprooting his five children from their home and schools. Plus, he didn’t want to give up teaching world history, which he did for 32 years.
“His genius as a coach” sprung from “his genius as a teacher,” DeMatha Principal Dr. Daniel McMahon wrote in 2002. “His students and players could think for themselves in the classroom or on the court, and they gave themselves to something bigger than themselves. What a gift.”
Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Mike Brey, another of Morgan’s former players and coaches, called him the “ultimate educator.”
“I was so fortunate that I was around him as a young person,” Brey said. “I draw on those experiences every day. He was a positive guy. He was a great confidence giver of young people. One of the good guys.”
Silvia Hill, who along with her husband, John, were close personal friends of Morgan’s, said, “We are blessed to have been in his path of life.”
Although we might never fully appreciate Morgan’s legacy, we can benefit from the life lessons he taught. Discipline, hard work, focus, determination and team unity, combined with putting God, family and education first, are good guidelines for us all.
Thank you, coach, for helping me keep my priorities in order. Your teachings will live on for generations.
Chris McManes (mick-maynz), an assistant baseball coach at DeMatha, first met Morgan Wootten at the Metropolitan Area Basketball School in 1977.