Legendary DeMatha basketball coach & teacher Morgan Wootten dies

Former DeMatha Catholic basketball coach Morgan Wootten addresses the crowd in January 2015 in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Stags' 46-43 victory over New York's Power Memorial. His wife of 55 years, Kathy, is just over his right shoulder in blue. DeMatha has since 2010 played its home game in the Morgan and Kathy Wootten Gymnasium. Photo courtesy of Chris McManes.

By CHRIS McMANES— Today is a somber day for students and staff at DeMatha Catholic High School. They were greeted this morning with the news that Morgan Wootten, the first high school coach inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, had died. 

According to a DeMatha press release, Wootten passed away at his University Park home on Tuesday night at 9:50 p.m. He died “peacefully,” surrounded “in prayer” by his wife, Kathy, and family. He was 88. 

Wootten coached the Stags for 46 years (1956-2002) and compiled a record of 1,274-192 (.881). His teams won 33 conferences championships, 16 City Title games and five national crowns. He also taught history for 32 years. 

Forty-five of his clubs won 20 or more games. Nine won at least 30. Two were undefeated (1977-78, 1990-91). His teams finished No. 1 in The Washington Post’s final rankings 22 times. 

Mike Jones, who succeed Wootten in 2002, tweeted that he was “saddened and heartbroken,” but took consolation that his mentor was now “part of GOD’s Hall of Fame.

“We love you Coach and will always remember the lessons taught and the gentleman that you were. #RIP to the true [Greatest of All-Time]. You have meant so much to so many.” 

Wootten will be honored tonight prior to DeMatha’s 7:30 p.m. game against Archbishop Carroll at the LT (SEAL) Brendan Looney ’99 Convocation Center on Madison Street. The Stags play in the Morgan and Kathy Wootten Gymnasium. 

On Friday, DeMatha travels to Bishop O’Connell in Arlington, Va. The Knights are coached by one of Morgan and Kathy’s two sons, Joe. The Woottens always saw O’Connell play in Hyattsville but missed the contest Dec. 10, 2019 because of Morgan’s poor health. 

Wootten concluded his coaching career after winning the 2002 Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship. At season’s end, the Stags (32-3) were ranked No. 1 locally and eighth in the nation. His average record was 27-4. 

Wootten developed several All-Americans. His first, Ernie Cage in 1958, was also the school’s first. Many of his players, such as Adrian Dantley, Danny Ferry, Keith Bogans and Sidney Lowe, went on to enjoy long NBA careers. 

Dantley and Kenny Carr helped the United States capture the 1976 Olympic Gold Medal. Bogans is an assistant coach for the New York Knicks. Lowe is an assistant with the Detroit Pistons. 

Other prominent former players or coaches who went into coaching include, among others, Pete Strickland, Murray Arnold, Perry Clark, Terry Truax, Eddy Fogler and Jack Bruen

Notre Dame Head Coach Mike Brey and assistant Rod Balanis played for Wootten. Balanis first met Wootten as a child attending basketball camps. He later worked several camps for him.

“The way he articulated and communicated, he just had an easy way to get his message across,” Balanis said. “It just always seemed to stick. I got the chance to see that as a young kid, and it made an impression on me. 

“I could tell early on how special he really was.” 

Strickland (a 1975 graduate), Brey (’77) and Balanis (’88) each played on DeMatha’s former home court, the aptly named Wootten Gymnasium. The Stags won more than 90 percent of their games there and were undefeated from 1961 to 1976.

When the gym hosted its final regular-season game on Feb. 25, 2010, 38 of Wootten’s former players attended. They included Dutch Morley, who helped lead the 27-0 Stags to the 1978 national championship; Bo Robinson, who played on Wootten’s first conference champion in 1961; and Dereck Whittenburg, co-producer of the documentary, “Morgan Wootten: the Godfather of Basketball.” 

Whittenburg, who graduated in 1979, spoke on behalf of the players at halftime. More so than the myriad victories, he recalled the talks Wootten delivered on the bleachers after practice. 

“I remember Coach Wootten teaching us right over there how to be a better person and how to be a better student,” Whittenburg said that night. “He taught us to be champions on and off the court.”

DeMatha’s most famous victory came on Jan. 30, 1965 when it ended Power Memorial Academy’s 71-game winning streak. It was the only loss of 7-foot, 1-inch Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s prep career. The game was a rematch of Power’s 1964 win, 65-62. Both were played before 12,500 at sold-out Cole Field House. 

The victory not only catapulted the Stags to national prominence, it gave the school more positive publicity than it could possibly buy and helped boost enrollment. 

The 1965 game was so big that Washington’s three major newspapers – The Washington Post, Star and Daily News – all had front-page preview stories. Every TV station in town covered it pre- and post-game. Writers and photographers from Time and Newsweek magazines attended. Even The New York Times devoted space to it. 

“Up until that point, high school basketball wasn’t really that well known throughout the nation. Everything was kind of isolated,” Wootten said in 2015.  “But this game just jumped up so high, was so nationally covered, that all of a sudden high school basketball became more important.

“It took the game from a quiet locality and injected the great players and the great teams to national attention. So it was, in that way, the greatest high school basketball game ever played.”

Wootten was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000 and often wore the ring he was given. Red Auerbach, former Boston Celtics coach and general manager, introduced him. James Brown, a CBS sportscaster and DeMatha graduate, accompanied Wootten on stage. 

“He loved the game. He loved the kids. He was a teacher,” Auerbach said. “… If anybody ever deserved to be enshrined in this Hall of Fame, it’s Morgan Wootten.”  

In 2008, Wootten presented Dantley for his Hall of Fame induction. During his acceptance speech, Dantley said:

“My entire basketball career has been based on my coach, Morgan Wootten. He taught me the fundamentals of the game, respect for the game, and the right way to play the game. Morgan has been a teacher, a mentor and a friend.” 

Teaching valuable lessons

No one could have envisioned the success Wootten would enjoy when, in 1956, he left his assistant coaching position under Joe Gallagher at St. John’s College High School to come to DeMatha. The school hired him to be athletic director, head football and basketball coach and assistant baseball coach. 

He also had to teach five periods of world history and call Bingo every Tuesday night. For all of this, he was paid an annual salary of $3,200. 

In From Orphans to Champions, the 1979 book he wrote with Bill Gilbert, Wootten said his greatest reward from coaching was “the opportunity to teach – to touch people’s lives.” 

“People don’t believe this, but he’s a better teacher than coach,” former DeMatha Principal John Moylan told Dave Krider of Basketball Weekly. “The one reason he’s so successful is he’s a very fine teacher – the very best.” 

Wootten, born April 21, 1931 in Durham, N.C., also succeeded as the Stags’ football coach. During his 13-year tenure (1956-68), he led DeMatha to a record of 79-40-2 (.661). Three of his squads were Catholic league champions (1963, ’66 and ’67.) 

Wootten often told his players to use athletics for their benefit, not the other way around. He knew how the discipline necessary to perform athletically could carry over to the classroom and in life. The game allows players to travel on someone else’s dime and, if you’re good enough, to get a free education. More than 250 of Wootten’s football and basketball players earned college scholarships. 

Wootten taught his coaches, players and students that their top three priorities in life should be God, family and education. He was a devout member of St. Mark Catholic Church on Adelphi Rd. Until his health failed him, he and his wife went to Daily Mass. 

He dedicated From Orphans to Champions 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.” 

Chris McManes attended and worked at Morgan Wootten and Joe Gallagher’s Metropolitan Area Basketball School in 1977 and later participated in their coaching clinics. He is an assistant baseball coach at DeMatha. 

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