Morgan Wootten, who became synonymous with high school basketball during his legendary coaching career at DeMatha Catholic, died Tuesday, the school announced. He was 88.
Wootten coached from 1956-2002 at the Hyattsville, Maryland, high school outside Washington, D.C., and was the first person who coached high school exclusively to be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Wootten was behind many of the innovations that became common in high school basketball. His DeMatha team was one of the first to play powerhouses from other states, use full-court pressure defenses and employ a defensive technique that led to the offensive foul.
“We would step out and let somebody run over us, and they would call a foul and we would go down and shoot at the other end,” Wootten told USA TODAY in 2013. “The rules committee came down from Massachusetts and started watching us play. That little innovation of stepping in front of a player, getting your feet planted and taking contact in the chest became eventually known as the offensive foul. We made them change the rule five times before they called it the offensive foul. At first, it was just a foul and we shot it. Later, they said that’s delaying the game, so we’ll wait five fouls before we go down. And then they went to the line for one. And finally they said we’ll call it an offensive foul but we won’t shoot it.”
He went 1,274-192 at DeMatha, ranking him second all-time behind Robert Hughes’ 1,333 victories. Wootten coached 13 future NBA players (most notably Adrian Dantley) at DeMatha. He was USA TODAY’s national Coach of the Year in 1984, the year his Stags went 29-2 and were named national champions by the newspaper.
But it was a game in 1965 that pushed Wootten into national prominence. DeMatha took on Power Memorial Academy of New York, which boasted touted center Lew Alcindor (who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and entered the game with a 71-game win streak, including a three-point win against DeMatha a year earlier.
The Stags held Alcindor to 16 points and won 46-43 in front of a sellout crowd at the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House.
“I had Sid Catlett, who was one of our tallest players, use a tennis racket, and we would practice not being intimidated by the big shot blocker,” Wootten told USA TODAY. “That game, I think, had the biggest impact in the history of high school basketball. After we beat Lew Alcindor, high school basketball started to be recognized on a national basis.”
Wootten, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000, turned down opportunities to coach at Virginia, Wake Forest, North Carolina State and Duke to remain a high school coach.
“When I was a young coach, I was very fortunate to have lunch with Joe Lapchick,” Wootten said of the legendary coach of the New York Knicks and St. John’s University. “He told me, ‘They never forget their coach. They may forget some of the teachers they had, they may even forget some of the players they played with, but they never forget their coach.’ That’s the beauty of coaching. You get to touch lives. You get to make a difference.
“You get to do things for people who will never pay you back, and they say you never have had a perfect day until you’ve done something for someone who will never pay you back.”