SEABROOK – In his 46 years as the DeMatha Catholic High School boys basketball head coach, Morgan Wootten lived by three words, none of which included basketball. For Wootten, who died on Jan. 21 at the age of 88, it was all about God, family and education.
As Wootten became more and more successful, that embodied not just him, but DeMatha Athletics. Bill McGregor, who spent nearly 40 years at the school as the head football coach, modeled his coaching philosophy after Wootten. As his coaching accomplishments made him seem larger than life, those who knew Wootten appreciated what he meant to so many.
“Just to have the opportunity to hear him speak, watch him coach was an incredible experience for me,” McGregor said. “You can’t measure the value it had in terms of my coaching career and handling things in my own life. Morgan was a tremendous man and always knew what the right thing to say was.”
Wootten’s accomplishments are jaw-dropping. He finished his coaching career with 1,274 wins and just 192 losses, the most wins for a high school basketball coach at the time of his retirement. His DeMatha teams won five national championships and 33 conference championships, and he coached 12 future NBA players.
In 2000, he was just the third high school coach inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. But the craziest note of all is that from 1960 to 1991, every senior that played under Wootten earned a college athletic scholarship.
It was a coaching career that almost did not happen. As Wootten told John McNamara for his book “The Capital of Basketball,” he was planning to be a lawyer until he felt the tug of coaching. In 1951, he accepted a job at the Washington, D.C. orphanage, St. Joseph’s Home and School for Boys, and his team struggled to a 0-16 record.
He fell in love with coaching after that. By the time he graduated from the University of Maryland in 1955, he was working as the junior varsity basketball coach at St. John’s College High School. He came to DeMatha a year later, though it took a little while to make the program from respectable to incredible. After going 84-38 his first four years, Dematha went 27-1 and was No. 1 in the D.C. area in 1960-61, then won it is first national championship in 1961-62.
But perhaps his most significant win came three years later. On Jan. 30, 1965, a sold-out Cole Field House watched DeMatha stop New York City’s Power Memorial’s 71-game win streak with a 46-43 win. That Power team featured Lew Alcindor, who would later become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. To prepare for the seven-foot-one Alcindor, Wootten had an assistant yield a tennis racket to simulate the big man’s length.
But despite all the accolades, Wootten was known just as much for what he did off the court. Wootten taught world history to DeMatha freshmen, and McGregor said he thought of himself as a teacher first. He recently attended a DeMatha alumni function with alumni going back to the 1960s who still remembered the project and topic he assigned them.
“So many people have come back and said the best teacher they had was Morgan,” McGregor said. “He’s a very special man, and I feel blessed to have learned so much from him.”
That impact spread to outside the DeMatha community, and eventually touched McNamara’s widow. Andrea Chamblee. McNamara was one of five killed at the office of The Capital Gazette in Annapolis on June 28, 2018, with his book “The Capital of Basketball” unfinished. A lot of the photos used for the book didn’t have any writings because McNamara knew who was in them, Chamblee said.
That’s where Wootten stepped in. David Elfin, who helped Chamblee finish the book, suggested she call Wootten. Though hesitant, Chamblee did call and was stunned at how helpful he was. Last summer, she spent a few hours with him, watching as he identified teams and players from local basketball lore.
“He was so gracious, and I was just floored,” Chamblee said. “I’ve talked to figures with huge egos…Coach Wootten had no ego to be stroked.”
That day, Chamblee experienced what thousands of others did during Wooten’s incredible life.
“I just experienced his patience and personal attention and sincerity,” Chamblee said. “He would definitely be a teacher you remember for the rest of your life.”
On Jan. 27, the DeMatha High School’s gymnasium hosted a funeral mass with hundreds of people paying their final respects to Wootten before a private burial. CBS Sports broadcaster James Brown, a former DeMatha player, performed the eulogy, saying that Wootten stressed the importance of being successful outside the court to all his players.
“He stressed maximizing the gifts and talents with which the Lord blessed us to become the best player, to become the best teammate, to become the best person that we could,” Brown said. “That’s the way Coach went about it, knowing that if we did the right things, the right way, we would be successful.”
Wootten survived by his wife Kathy, their five children and 15 grandchildren.