WASHINGTON (CNS) — Morgan Wootten, the legendary basketball coach at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, died Jan. 21. He was 88.
Wootten led his teams to national prominence while teaching his players to prioritize God, family, school and basketball in that order.
“He lived by those priorities every day, and it drove every decision he ever made,” DeMatha said in an email sent the next morning, noting he “was surrounded by his family in prayer and passed away peacefully.”
Wootten’s funeral Mass will be celebrated Jan. 27 at DeMatha’s Brendan Looney Convocation Center in Hyattsville.
“Morgan, or Coach Wootten as many of you knew him by, was a loving husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle, friend, mentor and coach,” the school said. “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.”
Wootten helped hundreds of his players earn college basketball scholarships, and more than 12 of his players went on to compete in the NBA, including fellow Hall of Famer Adrian Dantley.
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. 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 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.
In 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 wife Kathy.
After a screening of the documentary about him, Wootten told the Catholic Standard, Washington’s archdiocesan newspaper, that his faith remained central to his life, and he reflected on how much he loved coaching and teaching history at DeMatha 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, 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.”
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 at practice.
The esteem with which Wootten is held in the sport of basketball also is 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.”
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.
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.
Wootten is survived by wife Kathy and the couple’s five children and their spouses — Cathy (Mike) Stamper, Carol (Steve) Paul, Trish Wootten, Brendan (Elizabeth) Wootten and Joe (Terri Lynn) Wootten; 15 grandchildren; his brother Angus (Batya) Wootten; his sisters Clare (Bob) Crawford-Mason, and Lee Wootten; and his extended family at DeMatha.
Copyright ©2020 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.