Their friendship was almost as legendary as their respective resumes. John Wooden and Valorie Kondos Field ’87, he the pillar of basketball, she the pillar of gymnastics — two icons in college athletics, two friends until the end.

“Almost,” of course, because it’s hard to compete with a combined 17 national championships and 30 combined conference titles. Pretty legendary. But Wooden and Kondos Field shared much more than just a list of titles and victories. Theirs was a deep and meaningful friendship, forged over long dinners and mutual affection, admiration and support. And there were deep conversations — about sports, about faith and, of course, about UCLA.

Here, “Miss Val” talks about the gift of their unusual and enduring friendship, Wooden’s larger impact on the world and the sofa she’ll never give away.

Talk about your road to a friendship with John Wooden. 

When I was asked to be head coach of gymnastics at UCLA, I knew nothing. I didn’t understand anything about what a team culture was like. I wasn’t good as a leader. You say connect the dots? I couldn’t see any dots. I was going to resign. I was walking through the UCLA student store and I walked by Wooden’s book, and it literally, magically opened to his definition of success. And when it said nothing about winning, it made no sense to me. Isn’t that the job? No. “Success is peace of mind, and knowing you’ve done your best.” I went back to my cubicle and asked myself: What do I bring to the table? Even though I hadn’t met him yet, that moment led me to sit and think, If you’re going to run a program and not focus on winning, what do you focus on? I learned athletics was a master class in teaching what you don’t learn in a classroom: how to shorten the difference between failure and recovery. I had this epiphany: I’m going to develop champions in life through sport. People treat sports like a religion. It’s only bragging rights. It’s ridiculous. There has to be more. I got that from Wooden.

In 1998, you and your husband [former longtime UCLA football coach and athletics administrator Bobby Field] invited Wooden to dinner. 

Bobby’s first day, he walked in, and there was this elderly man with gray hair — the great John Wooden. Bobby’s locker was right next to Coach. So they became very close. We get married, and I say, “Let’s invite Coach Wooden over for dinner.” So Coach came for dinner at 5:30, stayed until 11:30 — and we didn’t talk basketball or gym. We talked people and farming and everything else. But I had to get up at 5:30, so I went and got his cane. I think I’m the only person who ever kicked John Wooden out of the house.

Gregg Segal
Wooden, pictured at home wrapped up in his favorite scarf.

That first meal led to many. What was it like to break bread with the man, to just sit and chat with him?

Like a modern-day dinner with the disciples. My husband grew up Southern Baptist, and Coach grew up in a Christian home. It was a dialogue of goodness and kindness and gratitude. Coach shared stories of how hard it was to be raised on a farm. His father encouraged them to memorize Scripture and poetry. It was a badge of honor, to share and see that gleam in his blue eyes, to hear how much he appreciated his upbringing, and then hearing about him meeting Nellie and how that just solidified his faith. At his funeral, the pastor said, “One of his maxims was to make each day your masterpiece.” He lived a masterful life based on that.

So you invite him for dinner, and then another, and pretty soon you’re really close. How quickly did that happen?

The catalyst for me being comfortable with him, and not just being in awe of him, was that at the same time I met him, I met Nan, his daughter. Nan was a spitfire, and she and I hit it off immediately. When I saw this humorous side of Coach come out of him with his daughter, that made me comfortable to be myself around him. Nan became a second mom to me.

Tell me about just sitting next to him and knitting. What was it like to just sit with your friend in quiet?

I’ve never thought of that, the relationships that you have in your life that transcend a friendship. It’s peace and comfort and love in the quiet moments. You don’t have to be talking to each other or watching a movie. You can just be with each other. I used to call him and just sit next to him. Sometimes, he’d fall asleep. One of the last times I was at his house, after we had lunch, we went to his little kitchen. He insisted I sit at the table, and he brought over Ritz crackers, and he brought out the ham and it took him five or six trips. I said, “Let me help,” and he said, “No, you’re my guest, I’d like to do this for you.” We went back to his den. And this is something I’ll cherish the most: He picks out a folder of notes and poems he wrote to [his wife] Nellie. As he’s reading, he’s coughing a lot, trying to get through it. You know when you listen with every fiber of your being? With every ounce of energy, I absorbed the letters he’d written to his wife. He kept those letters, and he burned them before he died.

I have his sofa in my office. I had it in my office until I retired, and I still have it. When we moved to Arkansas, the foreman of the movers says to me, “Ma’am, I just need to tell you: I’ve done this for 40 years. And I’ve never moved something that gave me so much reverence as Coach Wooden’s sofa.”

How did your relationship change through the years?

The older he got, the more strength he got from stillness. I’d take him and Nan to football games, and he was in a wheelchair, and I’d say, “Oh shoot, I forgot a parking pass.” I’d drive up, he’d be in the passenger seat, and I’d say, “Do your thing.” I’d roll down the window, didn’t have to say a word, leaned back, showed them Coach Wooden: “Oh, oh, Coach.” We were as close to parking on the field as you can get. He’d immediately get mobbed. Autographs, handshakes, people would die to look him in the eye and say, “Thank you, Coach.” It wasn’t that he loved celebrity; he just loved giving back. As he became older, he didn’t become more frail. He became stronger through his stillness and convictions. You felt this energy radiate through him. His body was failing; his soul was not. When I was with him in the hospital in the end, the nurses needed to talk to Nan, and I’m left with Coach. Me and him. It was the day before he died. He says, “Honey, can you move my legs?” I’m trying to straighten out his legs, he’s writhing in pain. He says, “More, more.” I say, “Coach, I’m hurting you.” As clear as day, he says, “I asked you to move my legs. I didn’t tell you it wasn’t going to hurt.” The next day he died. Hundreds, maybe thousands, gathered for a candlelight vigil. Coach’s whole family was there, grandkids and great-grandkids. I had never been so proud to be a Bruin in all my life. This sea of UCLA students — they started the basketball roll call in a hushed whisper, then “Co-oach Wood-den,” clap, clap clap-clap-clap. They did the eight-clap. It was like the angels taking him.

Don Liebig
Miss Val waves to the crowd at the conclusion of her final gymnastics meet at Pauley, 2019. Learning there was more to life than winning, she says, I got that from Wooden.

Why do you think he’s remained such a legend at UCLA?

I’m very proud to teach a class at UCLA on coaching and leadership, because I’m doing what I can to keep his memory and legacy alive. With every class, they know of Coach, they know of the Pyramid. But they don’t know why he was revered as this phenomenal human

We’ve all heard a million Wooden-isms. Tell me some that resonated with you.

Anybody who was around him will tell you he didn’t give advice. He shared what he knew, but no advice. The morning of 9/11 was our first team meeting of the 2001 season. I’m driving to work, and everything I planned went out the window. So I call him. “Coach, I’ve got nothing, I need help here.” Coach said, “Honey, just follow your heart.” I said, “No, you don’t understand. I’ve got nothing.” He took a pause and said, “Honey, just trust your heart.” That’s all he would give me. I go to work, and I’m supposed to have a team meeting? One of the [gymnasts] looks me in the eye and says, “Miss Val, I don’t think I can go into the gym. I don’t think I’ll ever want do it again.” She asks, why would we ever go back in the gym? In that moment, my heart knew what was authentic for me to say. I said, “Because we can. Because we live in a country that’s protected our freedom, especially as women. Not only are we going in, but we’re going to go in with more respect than ever.” We started every workout from then on with gratitude. The brilliance of John Wooden had given me the words to say.

Read UCLA Magazine’s Winter 2024 issue.