Chasing Ghosts: Adolph Rupp built Kentucky, and his legacy persists


Throughout the offseason, ESPN has taken a closer look at the college basketball programs that have faced the challenge of moving on from a single historically revered coach, evaluating the successes and failures they have experienced along the way.

This week, the "Chasing Ghosts" series concludes (for now) with the Kentucky Wildcats, who may have found their best candidate to challenge Adolph Rupp in the "multiple titles" category at UK.

History | Roundtable: Can John Calipari surpass Adolph Rupp?
Previously in Chasing Ghosts: UCLA | UMass | UNLV | Indiana | St. John's | North Carolina | Arkansas | NC State | DePaul | Georgetown | Georgia Tech | UConn | Houston

Kentucky Wildcats

Icon: Adolph Rupp

Seasons coached: 1930-1972
Key accomplishments: 876-190 (.822), 20 NCAA tournaments, 6 Final Fours (1942, 1948, 1949, 1951, 1958, 1966), 4 NCAA championships (1948, 1949, 1951, 1958), 1 NIT championship (1945)

"That's easy. It's good coaching." -- Adolph Rupp, when asked for the key aspect of Kentucky's 1948 and 1949 national championships

"I decided to let somebody else feel the pressure. That's a high-pressure way of life at Kentucky." -- Joe B. Hall, upon his 1985 resignation

"Once you're hired, there is a honeymoon. But then there's a constant downhill slide, because you're not going to please everybody. The angle of the slide is dependent on how much you win." -- then-Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton, to Sports Illustrated in 1985

"This [coaching at Kentucky] is like a coat you wear. It's 100 degrees, you got the coat on." -- John Calipari, to filmmaker Christopher Hunt for forthcoming Eddie Sutton documentary

Ranking the Adolph Rupp chasers

6. Billy Gillispie (2007-09), 40-27 (.597), 1 NCAA tournament

Kentucky fans wanted Billy Donovan, the former Wildcats assistant and Rick Pitino disciple who was fresh off back-to-back national titles at SEC rival Florida. Instead they got Gillispie, who had done a nice job turning around a dormant program at Texas A&M but was not nearly ready for the pressure cooker that was Lexington.

The clock was ticking as early as Game 2 of his tenure, when Kentucky got handled by Gardner-Webb 84-68 at Rupp Arena. UK would scratch and claw its way to a No. 11 seed in the NCAA tournament that season but missed the field entirely the next year. Beyond the losses, Gillispie alienated players with a relentlessly demanding coaching style and enjoyed a frosty-at-best relationship with both the media and a UK community that desired slightly more charisma from its coaches.

Gillispie (who reduced his leverage by opting not to sign his contract upon his hire) was fired after two seasons with relatively little liability to the university. He'd reemerge as the head coach at Texas Tech in 2011 before citing health problems as a reason for quitting after a single 8-23 season. Gillispie currently coaches at Ranger College, a community college in west-central Texas.

5. Eddie Sutton (1985-89), 90-40 (.692), 3 NCAA tournaments

Sutton is an 800-game winner and college basketball coaching legend, but the Kentucky chapter in his career was mostly a dark one.

Sutton (who took the job, legend has it, after Arizona's Lute Olson turned it down) reached the second weekend twice over his first three years after arriving from Arkansas but saw the Wildcats' season end on both of those occasions at the hands of heavy underdogs. Still, the enduring takeaway from the Sutton era at Lexington wasn't the Final Four misses but the NCAA violations that would cripple the program for his successor.

The discovery of an illicit payment by Sutton's staff to recruit Chris Mills, as well as a college entrance exam taken by player Eric Manuel that was determined by the NCAA to be a case of academic fraud, resulted in a two-year postseason ban, a one-year TV ban and scholarship reductions for the program. Before the hammer fell, Sutton resigned under pressure, subsequently coaching at Oklahoma State (where he reached two Final Fours) and briefly at San Francisco.

4. Tubby Smith (1997-2007), 263-83 (.760), 10 NCAA tournaments, 1 Final Four, 1 national championship (1998)

Smith won a national title in Year 1 and is the only coach in school history to lead UK to the NCAA tournament in every season of his tenure, yet he found it hard to shake the "underachiever" label during his time in Lexington. Kentucky would never get back to the Final Four during Smith's decade in charge, falling in the Elite Eight in 1999, 2003 and 2005.

The team's recruiting under Smith's watch was a frequent bugbear with the fan base -- losing out to UNC on both Tyler Hansbrough and Brandan Wright during this era helped the anti-Smith sentiment gain some momentum. Just after the team's loss in the 2007 NCAA tournament, Smith resigned to take the Minnesota job, subsequently coaching at Texas Tech, Memphis and his current spot at alma mater High Point. Smith returned to Lexington in 2013, for the first time since his exit from the school, when he was named to the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame.

3. Joe B. Hall (1972-85), 297-100 (.748), 10 NCAA tournaments, 3 Final Fours (1975, 1978, 1984), 1 national championship (1978), 1 NIT championship (1976)

Hall had the unenviable task of succeeding Rupp, and while he was perhaps not as consistent as the program's foremost icon, he did win a championship in 1978 and generally preserved Kentucky's basketball brand. Hall had played under Rupp and served as his assistant for seven years before being elevated to the top role (though Rupp continued to loom large by maintaining an office in the building and his own TV show in the state).

Near misses in the years following the '78 title bothered the fan base -- blowing a sizable lead to Georgetown in a 1984 national semifinal was a big one -- as did the growing share of the regional and national spotlight achieved by Denny Crum at Louisville and Bob Knight at Indiana.

The then-56-year-old Hall resigned in March 1985, saying, "I didn't want to be an old coach" (though the school was also facing scrutiny for alleged booster payments to players and other transgressions during this era). Hall has remained an in-state fixture, and at age 90 has largely become the beloved local figure he never completely became while an active coach in the state.

2. Rick Pitino (1989-97), 219-50 (.814), 6 NCAA tournaments, 3 Final Fours (1993, 1996, 1997), 1 national championship (1996)

Pitino's legacy at UK is obscured by the things he did that Big Blue Nation didn't like -- namely leaving for the NBA Boston Celtics in 1997 and (especially) returning to the state as the coach of their hated rival four years later -- but those with the luxury of objectivity recognize that Pitino took a program that had hit rock-bottom and restored it to the prominence it continues to enjoy today.

After walking away from the New York Knicks in the midst of a power struggle with GM Al Bianchi, Pitino returned to college and inherited a program in the throes of NCAA sanctions from the previous regime. It was Year 3 -- when Jamal Mashburn and "The Unforgettables" (John Pelphrey, Sean Woods, Deron Feldhaus and Richie Farmer) came within a Christian Laettner miracle of reaching the Final Four -- that UK was firmly back on the national map. The Wildcats would return to the Final Four in Pitino's fifth year and win their first national title in 19 years in his eighth season, a year before Pitino defected back to the NBA.

As much as Kentucky won during this era, it was the style of basketball that Pitino favored that had a ripple effect for the sport. He was the first coach of a blueblood program to unapologetically feature an offense consisting of relentless tempo and 3-point shooting, a style that would become ubiquitous in the modern college game.

1. John Calipari (2009-present), 305-71 (.811), 9 NCAA tournaments, 4 Final Fours (2011, 2012, 2014, 2015), 1 national championship (2012)

The world certainly recognized John Calipari as a great college basketball coach when he left Memphis for the Kentucky job in 2009. There was every expectation that he would thrive in Lexington, which he has. The surprising part has been his broader impact on college basketball. Calipari changed the game by aggressively branding UK as a sort of NBA finishing school -- not a new conceit, but one Calipari has been unfailingly honest about during his tenure. The approach has worked. No one has sent more players to the NBA in the past 10 years than Kentucky, and it isn't particularly close.

The Wildcats won a title behind freshman Anthony Davis in Calipari's third season and have annually remained in the national title conversation during his tenure, even if the intersection of young players and the NCAA tournament's unforgiving format have inspired some earlier-than-expected exits. (Duke, which adapted its recruiting to keep pace with Calipari and Kentucky, has this same first-world problem.) Great coach? Yeah. Transformational figure in the game, in a way that rivals Rupp's contributions? If he's not there already, Calipari is certainly on that road.

Roundtable: Can John Calipari surpass Adolph Rupp?

Adolph Rupp has a complicated legacy in college basketball, the social aspects of which are important but can't be properly examined in a surface manner. (To find out more on the off-court elements of Rupp's life and career, click here and here.) On the court, there's no denying Rupp's brilliance -- Kentucky basketball is a name brand today because of what he established. Forty-two years since his death, what is Rupp's legacy in college basketball?

Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: It's a legacy that's certainly changed over the years. For millennial-aged college basketball fans, the movie "Glory Road" -- a dramatic account of Texas Western's 1966 all-black starting lineup winning the national championship over Rupp's all-white Kentucky team -- changed perceptions. While it was obviously a dramatized version of events, here's the truth: Rupp didn't sign a single black player until Tom Payne in 1970. The era played a factor, but Kentucky's football program signed Nate Northington in 1966, and he became the first black athlete to play in the SEC in 1967.

There are conflicting stories on whether Rupp actively recruited black basketball players before ultimately landing Payne (see links above). And that's not even looking at the point-shaving scandal or rules violations under Rupp's watch, leading to what the NCAA considers its first "death penalty." So, yes, "complicated" is certainly apt. I think as we get further away from his on-court accomplishments -- the four national titles and six Final Fours -- those begin to fade.

Joe Lunardi, ESPN bracketologist: Rupp was a product of his time and place, in many ways the Bear Bryant of college basketball. That characterization alone cements a legacy of unparalleled success, conflicted priorities and societal impact. Viewing that impact positively or negatively may depend on whether or not you are a Kentucky fan. What we know is that Rupp was a great basketball coach and his place in the Hall of Fame is secure because of it. What we can only assume is that Rupp's practices would not be tolerated today. The rest is a very personal, if not controversial, determination.

Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I get the numbers. I get the legacy. I get the history attached to his time at Kentucky, one of the greatest programs in college basketball history. But I see him as a man who wielded his power and influence to ban black players from one of the country's most influential programs and extending the widespread discrimination among elite teams. I don't reward Rupp or his peers for subsequently embracing the idea of integrated teams because I don't believe they made those changes for anything but competitive reasons. Their morals hadn't changed. They just wanted to win.

Per late Sports Illustrated legend Frank Deford, Rupp went on a racist rant at halftime of the 1966 title game against Texas Western. "You've got to beat those coons," he reportedly told his team. I don't care about the times. I don't care about the era. I don't care that other coaches held the same views. Rupp's legacy is simple: He won a lot of games but none of that can be disconnected from his ideas and perspectives on race and how those factors impacted the way he assembled his teams. He's not a hero to me.

Four different coaches (Joe B. Hall, Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith, John Calipari) have won national titles at Kentucky in the post-Rupp era, yet none has won a second title in Lexington. Three of the men above exited voluntarily rather than continuing in the pursuit of a second title. What does that say about the difficulty of the task of winning titles at UK, and of the job itself?

Medcalf: Everything is relative. The legacy has helped Kentucky recruit some of the top players in America, which has eased the pursuit of championships. But I covered Tubby Smith's tenure at Minnesota after he left Kentucky. One story he shared always stood out. After the 1998-99 season, Smith was doing his local radio show in Kentucky when a woman called and essentially gave him a pep talk, telling him that things would be better the following year. Smith had just led his team to the Elite Eight a year after winning a national title. That's Kentucky basketball.

I think it's difficult to win a national title at any school, but when it's coupled with the spotlight and pressure at Kentucky, it can become an unbearable responsibility. But all three coaches mentioned above left for different reasons. Hall retired, Pitino wanted that NBA money and prestige, and Smith knew he'd risk getting fired if he didn't take Minnesota's offer. But I just don't think Kentucky is a job you want for 15, 20 years. If Kentucky's championship "drought" hits the 10-year mark during the 2021-22 season, the pressure could swallow Calipari, too.

Borzello: Well, I think it says something about the Kentucky job in itself that we're talking about coaches who exited before winning their second national title. Essentially, winning one national championship is the baseline for being the boss in Lexington, which just goes to show the expectations for the job.

I think Joe B. Hall and Tubby Smith were better examples of the pressures than Pitino. Pitino wanted to get back to the NBA. Hall had the growing regional rivals and was coming off the second-worst season of his tenure, but he also said at the time that he didn't want to coach past 55 anyway. (He was 56.) And Tubby, well, Tubby was certainly a victim of the expectations. He won a title in his first year but never got back to the Final Four and didn't consistently land elite prospects in the way Kentucky fans prefer. Despite going to the NCAA tournament every season, he earned the nickname "10-loss Tubby."

Winning one national title is hard enough, and it also heightens the expectations moving forward. But I think the fact we're even talking about coaches that failed to win multiple national titles says everything we need to know about the Kentucky job.

Lunardi: Like golfers and major championships, generally only the true greats win multiple NCAA titles. Few would argue Hall or Tubby Smith as "true greats" among college coaches, while Pitino and Calipari clearly belong in that category. Pitino has a second title (at Louisville, ironically) and Calipari should get at least one more unless another Mario Chalmers intervenes. The all-timers will find a way, even at Kentucky.

To borrow a parallel from another sport, it might have felt unthinkable 10 years ago that there could be a real debate over whether Nick Saban has surpassed Bear Bryant in stature or accomplishments at Alabama. What would John Calipari need to do to approach Adolph Rupp at Kentucky? Is it just about winning titles, or is there more to consider?

Borzello: In terms of strictly on-court accomplishments at Kentucky, Calipari can never pass Rupp. Rupp was there for 42 years; he won four national championships. That simply doesn't happen in modern-day college basketball, although Calipari's recent quasi-lifetime contract with the Wildcats makes it more plausible that he finishes his career in Lexington. And he's already been to four Final Fours in 10 years, making it likely he at least catches Rupp's six Final Fours.

The other thing to consider is that Rupp's successes came at a time when college basketball was a fraction of what it is now. Calipari is coaching in a far more competitive era. But I think there's more to Calipari's legacy at Kentucky than just wins and losses and banners. He brought the Wildcats back to the top of the sport. He brought back the prestige. It had struggled toward the tail end of Smith's time in Lexington, and Billy Gillispie's two-year tenure was a disaster, but Calipari made it to four Final Fours in his first six years on the job.

Perhaps more important, he immediately had Kentucky outrecruiting everyone in the country. Right after taking over, he landed DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall and the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. Calipari landed the No. 1 class his first three years at Kentucky and in four of his first five. In fact, he landed the No. 1 or No. 2 class in the country every single season since taking over at Kentucky ... until the 2019 class (where the Wildcats are currently No. 3). Kentucky went back to having the target on its back under Calipari, and I think that factors into the Cal vs. Rupp debate.

Lunardi: It's not apples to apples. Kentucky for most of Rupp's time was among the few state schools to really care about basketball. The competition was nowhere near where it is today, with the sport heavily concentrated among urban, and in many cases, private schools. Given that, Calipari won't surpass Rupp in NCAA championships. He may already have exceeded the Baron, however, in terms of impact on the game. He is the perfect man to thrive in and survive the Kentucky crucible. And "Calipari Court" at Rupp Arena sounds like the perfect ending.

Medcalf: I think a lot of this conversation is generational. And the bottom line is that Rupp's name is on the arena because he's a legend to a lot folks within the fan base. In their eyes, you can't top Rupp. The boosters who crash Calipari's postgame press conferences are in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. I think those folks appreciate Calipari for making Kentucky a national player within the one-and-done era. But Rupp is their hero.

Still, I think folks 40 and under will talk about Calipari the way their parents talk about Rupp. Calipari told me that he always thinks of something Kelvin Sampson once told him: "Every year, you have a chance to win it all." It's true. And that's why few programs have rivaled this run under Calipari. Most years, you have to go through Kentucky to get to the top. Rupp died more than 40 years ago. His name is still important at Kentucky. With another national title at Kentucky, however, I think Calipari will be the undeniable No. 2 to Rupp, if he hasn't already earned that status.

In 50 years' time (assuming college basketball exists in its current state), which of these three men will we have judged to have the biggest impact on the game -- Adolph Rupp, Rick Pitino or John Calipari?

Medcalf: I just think coaches will mimic Calipari over the other coaches on the list. There wasn't a blueprint after the NBA changed its age limit in 2006. At the time, it seemed as if players might choose to be like Kevin Durant and find a program that would give them the green light and a proper audition for NBA execs. But Calipari convinced players to join forces and enhance their odds of both reaching the next level and competing once they get there. Even if the NBA changes its rules, Kentucky will get the Trae Youngs and other players who will treat college basketball like the G-League before entering the draft.

I also think he's changed the TV product. Who else could get ESPN to televise a practice or an exhibition trip to the Bahamas or an NBA combine he'd arranged for his players, which was attended by more than 30 scouts and executives? Calipari is a player's coach. He's given his players a platform and showcase to reach the next level. We're entering a world where college basketball will have to compete with the G-League, international basketball and other routes to the NBA. The product's entertainment value and access have always been its advantages. You'll see more programs offering an "exclusive" televised or streamed product in the future. Calipari has been doing this for a decade. His influence will last.

Borzello: I'll go with Pitino. Given that Rupp's accomplishments will be 100-140 years old in 50 years, combined with his integration and racial controversies, I think he's probably out of the conversation come 2069. Calipari's biggest legacy is undoubtedly his recruiting ability, dominating the one-and-done era and changing the way programs recruit. But assuming the one-and-done rule goes away at some point in the next few years, I think Pitino will get more long-term credit for his impact on the college game. He helped change the way the game was played, centered around a reliance on the 3-point shot. He helped bring the full-court press back in style and was ahead of the curve on analytics. Pitino certainly has his controversies and black clouds, from the stripper scandal to the FBI, but in 50 years, I think some of his innovations will stand out. And even right now, if you ask college coaches to pick someone else to coach one game and win, they're picking Pitino.

For me, it boils down to this: The 3-point shot is the biggest thing in the sport right now, and Pitino was at the forefront of that movement in college basketball with Providence in 1987. He wrote in his book last year that an exhibition game before the season against the Soviet Union made him realize his team had to shoot 20-plus 3-pointers per game. This was just a few months after the NCAA universally implemented the 3-point line, so very few other big programs were catching on and shooting even half that many. Providence making the Final Four in '87 thanks to the 3-point shot was unprecedented and helped bring it into the mainstream.

Lunardi: Calipari over Pitino, if only because of his probable longevity in the college game and at Kentucky. As a program builder and marketer, Calipari is an even greater innovator than Pitino as a tactician (which admittedly is saying an awful lot). Calipari may be the greatest salesperson of his generation in any endeavor. If you don't believe that, take a look at UMass before and after his tenure there. The marriage of his self-promotion and brand-building skills with Kentucky are somehow understated, as are his abilities in player development. Whatever the next iterations are in terms of recruiting and rules, Calipari will find and exploit an advantage. He always has.