Goodbye, old friend … We’ll miss you
MIKE BURKEAllegany Radio Corporation Sports
As a kid growing up in Cumberland, Maryland during The Wonder Years, likely the most anticipated weekend of your life came every March when the Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament was played at Allegany High School.
You somehow convinced your parents to allow you to leave school early on Thursday and Friday. Or not. But somehow you left school early anyway and worried about the consequences later. And then you walked downtown to experience downtown Cumberland at the finest it has ever been in our generation’s lifetime, including Christmas.
Shops and stores, restaurants and lunch counters were alive, seemingly always with bright sunshine and light air filled with the anticipation of the coming spring and with pure giddiness over all of our guests who were in town from Chicago, New York, Washington, Philadelphia and Baltimore. It was such a grand time in our lives and in our city.
And then, after you ate at Coney Island and hung out at the Fort Cumberland Hotel where the teams stayed in those days, you made the trek up the hills of West Side to set up camp at Campobello in the Allegany gym for three nights of the greatest in-person basketball experience of your life — all 12 games, all three nights, every single March for the rest of your life. Or at least in your mind’s eye.
You were a kid in Cumberland and the ACIT was the cherry on top of your Wonder Years, I promise you that.
You bought the ACIT souvenir program first thing (the famous Allegany pretzel second thing) and then you went to work, for you had come to Campobello armed with Flair pens for the sake of collecting autographs until your Flair pens dried up or until there was no more space on your program for anybody to scribble another single word.
It was hard work, yet it was exhilarating work, because these were the greatest basketball players we had ever seen, and having poured over the statistics and the records and the write-ups in the Cumberland News and Evening Times, we knew everything about everybody who was playing in the tournament each year.
We ran ACIT brackets for all 12 games of the weekend long before there was anything called March Madness. This was our March Magic and we were the luckiest kids in the world.
All of those days came streaming back to me Tuesday morning upon learning our friend Morgan Wootten, the basketball coach at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville for 46 years, was receiving home hospice care. On Tuesday evening, Coach Wootten died peacefully at 88 years of age surrounded by his family.
It doesn’t seem possible we won’t see him any longer when you consider the twinkle in his eye that you noticed the first time you met him and would continue to be drawn to every single time you were around him.
The first time I met Coach Wootten was in 1971, the first year the Stags would win the ACIT — the first of a record 25 years, in fact, with the first 18 coming under Coach Wootten.
My uncle Bill, who taught and coached in Prince George’s County at the time, introduced me to Coach Wootten, and he autographed my program and offered kind words. And that was always the characteristic about him I have long marveled over. He was never a, “Hi, how you doing?” walk-by person and he made certain he never met a stranger, for if a person took the time to introduce himself, Morgan Wootten took the time and the interest to get to know something about him.
As I continued to ask for and receive his autograph every March, I was taken, particularly for being a youngster, that he not only would sign his autograph, but would make conversation with you as well. When I asked him to sign his book “From Orphans to Champions” the year it came out, he A.) asked me if I liked the book and then B.) asked me what parts of the book I liked best.
I mean, who am I? Some kid who took the time to say hello, I suppose. So if doing so seemed to mean that much to me, Coach Wootten always let you know it meant that much to him, too.
He made every visit, every greeting, every chance meeting significant because he was kind, honest, generous and curious. He was truly interested in you; I’ve never seen anything like it. And it remained that way from the first time I met him as a young fan at the Allegany gym.
When I covered his teams in the ACIT for nearly 20 years, he always made himself available, providing his home number and his office number. And when the task at hand was complete, Coach Wootten then took time to ask how I was doing, how the job was going and how my family was.
I also heard from Coach Wootten through the mail. He wrote notes and letters — thank-you notes for something that may have been written about DeMatha, notes of congratulationsif the occasion so warranted and one time he even mailed me a commemorative Morgan Wootten National Basketball Hall of Fame basketball.
And always, those cards or notes were signed off with, “Thank you for all you do. God bless. Your friend …”
Morgan Wootten was likely the best and most accomplished basketball coach the world has ever known, at least that’s what John Wooden once said. Yet all of that is truly secondary to all he was as a person — a man of his faith and his family first, and a teacher, as he always said, “Coaching is teaching.”
Coach Wootten would not want anybody to say that he and his DeMatha Stags made the ACIT, because what has always made the ACIT — friendship and hospitality — is what drew Wootten and DeMatha to Cumberland and Western Maryland to begin with. So much so, that since 1967 when the Stags made their first ACIT appearance, Western Maryland has been, as the coach said many times, “our second home.”
The Stags once turned down a trip to Ireland because it would mean missing the ACIT, and the Wootten family even moved the nationally acclaimed Coach Wootten Basketball Camp to Frostburg State University where Morgan’s son Joe runs it every summer.
Matter of fact, it was during one of those camps when Joe and Terri Lynn Wootten’s third child, Jackson Joseph Wootten, was born Tuesday, June 16, 2009, at Cumberland’s Memorial Hospital.
For over 50 years the Wootten family has been coming to Allegany County, to compete, to coach, to relax, to enjoy, and to teach the great game they love so much, and Morgan Wootten even coached his final game here, calling his Hall of Fame career a wrap at Frostburg State, directing the Stags to the 2002 ACIT championship, his final game being against his son Joe‘s Bishop O‘Connell team.
The next three years it was Joe and his teams cutting down the ACIT nets.
Morgan Wootten always said that Western Maryland and Allegany County had been kind to the Woottens, but, truth be told, the Woottens have been so kind to us. There have been a lot of championships; a lot of love and friendship; a lot of wonderful memories here for the man John Wooden called “the best basketball coach there is — at any level.” Yet that love and friendship has been returned to us in kind by him.
Morgan Wootten, who became friends here with ACIT founder Joe Divico and then, really, never left, was the first high school basketball coach to become a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He retired from coaching with 1,274 victories and just 192 losses while competing against a national schedule and as a member of the most powerful high school basketball conference in the country.
No, Coach Wootten would not want to hear anybody say that he and his DeMatha Stags made the ACIT, but they did, in fact, make the ACIT the national tournament it’s been for over 50 years.
Thank you for all you do, Coach Wootten. God bless. From your friends here at your second home.
Mike Burke writes about sports for Allegany Radio and Pikewood Digital. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s County Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984. He was the sports editor of the Times-News for nearly 30 years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT
Goodbye, old friend … We’ll miss you