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Kentucky Road Show

Rupp: Baron of the Bluegrass
By Bob Carter
Special to

Doubts about his coaching ability or impact on basketball never existed. Not to the man himself anyway.

When Adolph Rupp, a 29-year-old high school coach, interviewed for the University of Kentucky job in 1930, he was asked why he should be hired. "Because I'm the best damned basketball coach in the nation," Rupp replied.

After his Kentucky team won national championships
Adolph Rupp
In 42 years at Kentucky, Adolph Rupp won 82 percent of his games and the Wildcats up-tempo style helped revolutionize basketball.
in 1948 and 1949, he was asked the secret of that success. "That's easy," Rupp said. "It's good coaching."

The Baron of the Bluegrass, known for quick quips and quick teams, received little argument. He coached 42 years at Kentucky, winning 82 percent of his games, 27 Southeastern Conference titles and four NCAA championships. Four times he was chosen the national coach of the year.

Rupp's teams set an NCAA record by winning 129 consecutive games at home. His up-tempo style helped to revolutionize the sport, and Kentucky's success moved the game toward big-time national exposure. When Rupp was forced to retire in 1972 because of his age (70), he had established a career record with 876 victories (he had 190 losses), which was broken by North Carolina's Dean Smith.

Rupp drew criticism late in his career for failing to recruit African-Americans and only one black ever played for him, 7-foot Tom Payne. Though Rupp talked of recruiting blacks during the 1960s, Kentucky was one of the last major basketball schools to integrate its program. Many branded him a racist, though others thought he was merely reflecting his environment.

On the positive side for Rupp, he started a black player in his first year of coaching high school basketball in Illinois and selected the first African-American player (Don Harksdale) for a U.S. Olympic basketball team.

On the other hand, Rupp reportedly didn't recruit Connie Hawkins, the nation's best high school player in 1960, when he learned Hawkins was an African-American. He supposedly once vowed that blacks would never play for him at Kentucky. But he did relent and Payne appeared in the coach's next-to-last season (1970-71).

Perhaps Rupp's most memorable game was a loss, a 72-65 defeat in the 1966 NCAA finals. Texas Western was the first team with five African-American starters to win the national title, and its victory over an all-white Kentucky team carried social significance, especially during the 1960s civil rights struggles.

It was reported that at halftime Rupp used the words "coons" in reference to Texas Western. And the Miners' Nevil Shed remembered that Rupp failed to shake hands with the Texas Western players after the game and didn't give the winners any credit for their victory.

This game was a turning point for the sport in the minds of many, who cast Rupp as a guardian of the establishment.

"Every morality play calls for a villain," wrote Pat Forde in 1996. "Although Rupp wasn't that so much as an old man anchored in the past, he would do splendidly."

Born on Sept. 2, 1901, in Halstead, Kan., Rupp grew up on a farm. His father Harry died when he was nine.

Rupp played on two state championship teams in Halstead, then attended the University of Kansas, graduating in 1923. Though he had a nondescript college career, he learned the game from his legendary coach, Phog Allen.

Rupp began coaching in high school at Burr Oaks, Kan., and later coached in Freeport, Ill., where he won 80 percent of his games. In 1930, Kentucky hired Rupp to replace John Mauer. A year later, Rupp married Esther Smith, and the couple had a son, Adolph Frederick.

Rupp won instantly at Kentucky. The Wildcats went 30-5 in his first two seasons playing in the Southern Conference before joining the SEC.

The Wildcats won the SEC's first title, in 1933, and ruled the conference under Rupp for four decades.
Adolph Rupp
Adolph Rupp coached Kentucky to four national titles and set an NCAA record by winning 129 consecutive games at home.
Though college basketball was low scoring when he arrived at Kentucky, his fastbreak style quickened the tempo of the game.

Rupp was known for stern discipline - his players always wore short hair - and attention to detail. "He was first and always a strict fundamentalist," said center Alex Groza, a two-time All-American. "I recall in practices we'd run a play and sometimes even when we would score a basket he would blow his whistle and say, 'Now boys, you didn't run it my way.' "

Though his players respected him, Rupp was never close to them.

"It takes six or eight years to get over playing for Coach Rupp," said Vernon Hatton, a star on the 1958 NCAA championship team. "Once you get over it, you get to like him."

Kentucky became a national power in the 1940s. From 1943 to 1954, Rupp's teams won 10 SEC titles, three NCAAs and one NIT. The "Fabulous Five" team won NCAA championships in 1948. The five starters - three-time All-American Ralph Beard, Groza, "Wah Wah" Jones, Cliff Barker and Kenny Rollins - also played on the gold-medal-winning 1948 U.S. Olympic team.

The Wildcats used their superior rebounding to rout Baylor 58-42 in the 1948 NCAA final in New York. "They got the ball every time we shot and missed," said Baylor coach Bill Henderson.

A year later in Seattle, Groza scored 25 points as No. 1 Kentucky - with four of the Fabulous Five still on the team - defeated No. 2 Oklahoma A&M 46-36 for its second title. Rupp danced on the sideline afterward, and 25,000 greeted the team in Lexington on "Wildcat Appreciation Day."

An unpredecented third title in four years for top-ranked Kentucky came in 1951 with a 68-58 victory over No. 4 Kansas State as 7-foot center Bill Spivey scored 22 points and grabbed 21 rebounds.

When a national betting scandal in college basketball shook the nation that year, Rupp pontificated, "Gamblers couldn't touch my boys with a 10-foot pole." He was wrong. Five Wildcats, including Groza and Beard, admitted being paid for shaving points in a game in 1948. The NCAA suspended Kentucky for the 1952-53 season.

In the first year back (1953-54), the Wildcats went 25-0, Rupp's only unbeaten season. The school declined an NCAA Tournament invitation after the NCAA ruled that three of its players were ineligible for the postseason.

Rupp's last national championship came in 1958 with the "Fiddlin' Five" team led by Hatton, Adrian Smith and Johnny Cox. "They fiddled around enough to drive me crazy," Rupp said of a team that lost three one-point games. In the NCAA finals, the No. 9 Wildcats forced Elgin Baylor, Seattle's All-American forward, into foul trouble and won 84-72 as Hatton scored 30 points.

It took another eight years before Rupp was back in the championship game. His "Rupp's Runts" - with no starter taller than 6-foot-5 - reached it against Texas Western. However, the No. 1-ranked Wildcats were upset by the No. 3 Miners.

Rupp endured his only non-winning season (13-13) in 1966-67. In December 1967, he became college basketball's all-time winningest coach when Kentucky beat Notre Dame, 81-73. That 772nd victory moved him past his former coach, Allen.

In that season and the next four, Rupp's final five, Kentucky won more than 20 games and took the SEC title. After retirement from Kentucky, Rupp was president of the Memphis Tams of the American Basketball Association and vice chairman of the board of directors of the Kentucky Colonels.

On Dec. 10, 1977, he died in Lexington of complications from cancer. Adolph Rupp was 76.

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