Mike Woodson has said he believes his father worked himself to death trying to take care of him and his 11 siblings on the near northeast side of Indianapolis in the ’50s and ’60s.
And when Chester Woodson passed away in 1971, a 13-year-old Michael Dean Woodson followed suit — he put his head down and got work. Just as he was starting to get serious with the game of basketball, a young Woodson also started to take on jobs to help keep the family afloat, all while trying to keep up at school.
The demands on Woodson’s time outside of school meant that he was in for a major adjustment when he arrived at IU in 1976. He played for a demanding coach in high school in Broad Ripple’s Bill Smith, but Indiana’s Bob Knight wrote the book on high expectations.
And part of what Knight expected from all of his players was academic success. Woodson had promised his mother and siblings that he would go to IU and get a degree, and he had the intellect to get that done. But he’d need another coach to help him learn how to navigate life as a college student.
Anitra House first started tutoring IU men’s basketball players when Woodson was a freshman in Bloomington. Today she watches him lead a high major college basketball program and deal with the media, but she remembers a much different side of him in 1976.
That Mike Woodson had his head down, focused on the task at hand. He was working himself to death, with no time for eloquence.
“He was a little different at that point in time than he is now,” said House on Monday evening to IU radio voice Don Fischer on Woodson’s show.
“He probably only said 25 words the first semester that I worked with him. He just wasn’t very verbal with people that he didn’t know.”
House’s area of focus at that time was language education, and her job at the time among other things was to help the hyper-focused Woodson blossom into a communicator.
“I kind of think I helped Michael find his voice,” House said. “He’s the ultimate multi-tasker now, and he tried to be (when he was younger). He lost his dad when he was 13, and he started working part-time, and going to school, and moving around to different schools, and playing basketball. That doesn’t leave a whole lot of time to go home and do your homework. And every time you change a school it’s a difficult transition.
“He needed to spend all that time on basketball, because look at what basketball has brought to him. So he didn’t know what he could do (academically). A good tutor figures out what you can do, and what you need to do better, just like a basketball coach, it’s not that different, and you try to make sure they improve. So that’s what we did, I helped him find his voice.”
With House’s help, Woodson became the first person in his family to earn a college degree.
And that House was telling the story of Woodson finding his voice on a radio show named after him wasn’t lost on her. In fact, it is one of many aspects of Woodson’s very public career she revels in.
Pulled out of retirement to assume the role of Assistant to the Head Coach for the men’s basketball program, House regularly sees a strong, confident Woodson take charge of a room, with all eyes on him.
“When I watch him do his (radio) show or press conference, I’m very proud to think about how far he’s come in articulating what he wants to say,” House said.
Woodson never forgot the role House played in his acclimation to college life and helping him to deliver on his promise to earn a degree.
“Anitra House, I know if you’re listening, boy, you were very instrumental in me getting through school. Want to thank you,” Woodson said in his opening remarks when he was introduced as the new IU head coach in March.
And now it has all come full circle for House. Woodson approached her to join his staff just weeks after taking the job.
House went from helping Woodson find his voice more than 40 years ago, to now often being his voice.
“Now I get to make people happy, by writing them a nice letter from coach, and showing them the side of him that I know,” House said. “I enjoy that. It’s nice.”
It might have been the only work House would have come out of retirement for.
Mike Woodson’s voice? She was a natural choice for the job.
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