This is a story about a brash young man who had the misfortune to run into the Old Master of tournament basketball, Adolph Rupp of Kentucky.
The brash young man was John Castellani, a peppery, fast-talking, sharp-dressing 32-year-old; half-Irish, half-Italian, he has all the loquacity and the fire traditionally associated with the blood that surges at high speed through his slender, crew-cut frame. These are qualities that threatened to wreck a career before it really got under way when, in this, his second year as coach at Seattle University, his fine collection of players lost four of their first eight games and he was twice hung in effigy in downtown Seattle for his pains. To his credit, Castellani kept his electric intensity, gained a measure of control over it and, more importantly, gained control over his players, which he hadn't earlier. He drove them relentlessly through the rest of the season with only one more defeat.
His leadership won Seattle entry to the NCAA championship tournament and three stunning preliminary victories over Wyoming, San Francisco and California. It won them entry to the semifinal round in Louisville last week and there another superlative victory over Kansas State, a team which appeared exhausted in body and spirit after a grueling season. It won them vast popular support around the country and, finally, the right to play for the title.
Then John Castellani met Adolph Rupp. On the coaching level, it was no contest.
March 31, 1958
Jowly, bulky Adolph Rupp, 56, and for many of those years probably the keenest basketball mind in the nation, had already won more tournament games of any kind than any coach in the history of the game. Since 1952-53, when Kentucky was obliged to cancel its schedule because of alleged violations of the NCAA code, Rupp has had one thought before him—through the long summers after poor (for him) seasons, through endless, sweaty afternoons of practice sessions, under the lash of a bitter, consuming ambition. "I will not retire until Kentucky wins another NCAA championship."
At the start of this season, Rupp, an open-eyed realist, could hardly have hoped for much more than his 18th Southeastern Conference title, if that. As he put it, he had a collection of "fiddlers" when he needed "violinists." They were the holdovers of what he had termed possibly his worst team in years. But the clue—for all who had eyes to see—was in that word holdovers. He had a starting five of four seniors and one junior. All had had three years of the rigorous Rupp discipline that makes and, let it be said, can break basketball players. It is a system of orders given and orders carried out—or else. This year's team played its games by rote, by strict patterns laid down by Rupp; with hardly a single free-lance move, they ran their patterns, getting better and better at them as the year wore on, and won the Southeastern title against competition which was far superior to that of many previous seasons. In the early rounds of the NCAA tournament theysimply overpowered Miami of Ohio and actually humiliated a strong Notre Dame by more than 30 points. In the semifinal against Temple they passed and ran and ran and passed until they found the tiniest chinks in one of the toughest defenses in the nation; that kept them even in a seesaw game until they made capital of a last-minute Temple error and won.
Rupp was within one step of the goal, but no one knew better what a big step it was. He could have had few real worries about his own attack against only a so-so over-all Seattle defense. But the problem of what to do about the offensive versatility and the apparently unstoppable rebounding of Seattle's Elgin Baylor was a problem that hadn't been solved by many another coach. (Portland Coach Al Negratti told Castellani after Baylor had scored 60 points against his team: "John, we almost had you. If we could have held Baylor to 54 points, we'd have won.")
It seems obvious now that Rupp decided there was nothing he could do about Baylor; he just didn't have the height or the skill. There was only one course open: get rid of Baylor. And that's what he did.
He did it through a young man named John Crigler, easily the most underrated player in this tournament. Rupp set up fast-moving patterns that forced Seattle into a continuous switching of defensive assignments until Baylor was left guarding Crigler and Crigler was left with the ball. So far so good and, actually, not too difficult to accomplish. But the crux of the matter was that at the moment Baylor was forced to switch to Crigler, Crigler had taken advantage of an intricate series of legal blocking maneuvers and was already a half-step ahead of him and driving on a cleared-out path to the basket. Baylor had to concede two points each time or try to stop Crigler without fouling him. In a tournament game players like Baylor concede nothing, and rightly so, of course. But he could not avoid the fouls, and before the game was 10 minutes old he had three. Two more and Seattle's key man would automatically be out of the game. The issue was decided with a full 30 minutes to go.
Thereafter, Baylor tried desperately to avoid committing himself on a defensive assignment until the last split-second, and his teammates ran themselves to exhaustion to help him. But Kentucky continued to get the ball to the man that Baylor was finally stuck with, and Baylor was obliged to choose between giving that man plenty of room for drives or shots or pressing him hard and running the risk of fouling out.
In the second half, Castellani tried to fend off the inevitable by putting his team in a zone defense. He had four men out front, running furiously to cover five Kentuckians and kept Baylor under the basket where, at least, he was of value in rebounding. But there always had to be a free Kentucky player outside and, whether it was the sharpshooting Johnny Cox in a corner or the excellent jump-shooting Vernon Hatton near the top of the key, he scored.
It must be said for Baylor that, handicapped as he was by fouls and by a painful rib injury, he still scored 25 points in streaks of brilliant offensive play, and passed off daringly and well to his teammates. But Kentucky won 84-72.
Adolph Rupp had his fourth NCAA title. The man dedicated to winning as the only reason for playing or coaching had his victory. Rupp deserved this as no other coach ever deserved a victory.
But it must be reported, unhappily, that among many of his peers, this was not a popular victory (SI, Dec. 16). Adolph Rupp has made it clear often enough: "I am not engaged in a popularity contest. I want to win basketball games." He has followed this principle with public displays of tactlessness toward fellow coaches, thoughtless immodesty and the poor losing spirit that must seek an excuse for defeat. His attitude has antagonized many another coach, many a player, many a mere spectator over the years. It is to be hoped that after this particular victory—after honors to sate any man—Adolph Rupp will at last strive for that real esteem, as a man and leader of young men, for which he has hungered all along without daring to admit it to himself.