For at least 487 years—or so it seems—canny, cantankerous and superb old Adolph Rupp has been coaching University of Kentucky basketball teams to conference titles and national championships. Rupp has become a Kentucky institution, winning has become a Kentucky tradition, and around the blue-grass and university town of Lexington there has developed a tendency to appreciate Adolph's teams without being so gauche as to get ecstatic about them.
Last week, however, Lexington was ecstatic. While 12,100 people sat, stood, strained and tiptoed for a look at the action, while the state's present governor roared and its ex-governor exhorted and while several hundred of Lexington's famed horsey set cheered, the most amazing Kentucky basketball team Adolph Rupp has ever had dispatched Mississippi 83-60. "I can't explain it," said Adolph, a man not generally given to modest confessions of ignorance. "This team isn't worth a damn, but it just doesn't know it."
The victory brought the Wildcats' record to 17 and 1 and solidified their new ranking as one of the nation's best teams. It also made Rupp's 20th Southeastern Conference championship highly probable and set up the likelihood of an interesting Kentucky-Ohio State battle in the NCAA regionals at Iowa City next month. All this is being achieved with a team that has only one starter back from last year, that has no player who is 6 feet 6 or over, that is using a starting guard who scored 11 points all last season and a starting forward who didn't even get off the bench last year. "When you went to see our great championship teams," says a Lexington attorney, explaining the local furor, "you expected they were going to win. Every time you watch this one you think it is going to lose. That's why it is so exciting."
The day before the Mississippi game last week Adolph Rupp was sitting in his office deep in the caverns of Kentucky's huge Memorial Coliseum and musing about how this team fits in with others he has coached in 32 years there. He is 60 now, and eight years past the heart attack that, it was feared, had ended his career. He is sometimes crotchety and blustery, in the impulsive manner of a Casey Stengel or a Leo Durocher, but being 60 and the most famous man in his profession gives him the right to be crotchety, his friends point out. He was, of course, crotchety at 40, too. At his worst, with his round build and round face and wrinkled frown, he is as approachable as a walrus with ulcers. "How is Adolph today?" is a question to be timidly considered by Coliseum employees each morning.
Yet, on the other hand, he is just as often charming and folksy and has mellowed much in the past two years. His rages need no longer be measured in megatons. He got through the worst season of his career (19-9) last year in almost peaceful fashion. He is devoting much time and thought to his rural avocation, the raising of prize Herefords on his 1,083 acres of Kentucky farmland, and is striving for another kind of national champion. "I had a runner-up once," he says, "but I've never won the Hereford NCAA."
He enjoys fame as much as he enjoys winning, and nobody enjoys winning more. The walls of his office are covered with pictures: Adolph with Truman, Adolph with Barkley, Adolph with Hope, Adolph getting the Kentucky Governor's Medallion for meritorious service from the state's former governor—and an avid candidate to be its next—Happy Chandler. Adolph and Chandler are such close friends that Rupp considered mixing basketball and politics by running for lieutenant governor on Chandler's ticket in 1955.
Chandler, meanwhile, is Adolph's lieutenant coach. He is in his first-row seat at every game, and his cheering is so loud and pointed that a referee once stopped a game, walked all the way around the press table, handed Happy his whistle and said something like, "Here, Governor, use it yourself awhile." Coaches who perpetually stagger out of Lexington in defeat—Rupp has lost only 12 home games in 20 years—always recall the band's blaring swing version of Dixie and that second-loudest thing, Happy Chandler.
"You ask about this team," Rupp was saying last Friday morning, fresh from seeing some Hereford bulls off to a sale. "It's got more spirit than any squad I have ever had, and it's causing more fuss. We'll have a record attendance this year. People are frantic. I've never had anything like this happen to me in all my life, and that covers a good many years." It also covers four NCAA championships, including one in 1958, with another improbable team.
A good morning
Like all Rupp teams, this one relies on intense discipline and an offense of 10 set plays. These involve a series of passes culminating in a slashing cut to the basket that frequently ends with a lay-up. "Are you using the same plays now?" Rupp was asked. "Oh, no," he said as if he had abandoned his whole offense. "No. 9 has been redesigned."
Just then the phone rang. "I'll be damned," said Adolph to his caller. "Who bought him? Well, I'm tickled pink." He hung up happily. Farmer Rupp had sold a bull. The word went out around the Coliseum that this was a good morning.
At a practice that afternoon, conducted in monastic quiet and secrecy with green canvas curtains cutting off all entrances to the floor, Kentucky showed the three reasons why it is winning for Rupp. The first is Charles (Cotton) Nash, a native of New Jersey and present resident of Lake Charles, La. who is likely the best sophomore in the land. Six feet 5,220 pounds and a handsome blond with wavy hair, he plays center, guard or forward with equal ease. He is an adept outside shot and a magical ball handler, especially for his size. He averages 22 points a game as pivot man, and this is the position he plays least well. His sole flaw is an occasional impulse to try a too-fancy pass. The developer of 18 All-Americas, Rupp calls Nash "the best sophomore I ever had."
Then there is Larry (Chigger) Pursiful, a 6-foot guard from Kentucky's Cumberland Mountain community of Four Mile. His home town got that name, they say, because it is four miles from a big town, Pineville (pop. 3,181). Rupp is very proud that 85% of his players have come from Kentucky, and many of those from such hamlets as Four Mile. He enjoys quoting the Bible: "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help."
Pursiful is a remarkable shot and may be more important to the Kentucky team than the better-known Nash. Sinking 53.8% of his attempts, most of them from more than 20 feet, he keeps defenses from collapsing around Nash. "He is not only the best shot I have ever had," says Rupp, "he is the best shot I have ever seen."
The third reason for success is the practice itself. It showed completely why Rupp's teams can play such beautifully disciplined basketball. His players warmed up for the first half hour, and the only sound in the gym was the bouncing of basketballs. No "student" speaks in Adolph's "classes." At exactly 3:15 by the arena clock the players broke into two equal groups and shot some more. The silence held. On the stroke of 3:45 Captain Pursiful came up to Coach Rupp. "Let's go fundamentally," said Rupp. Pursiful gave a signal. For 27 minutes Kentucky went through a dazzling series of plays and lay-up drills. The most complicated one involved six passes and a shot. Minutes would go by without a missed shot or dropped pass. "They don't make many errors," said Rupp. "When a boy does make a mistake he feels it is kind of a tragedy." It was difficult and it wasn't fun, but Kentucky's players went about it with obvious pride.
So it was essentially two good players, discipline and pride that the team took into the game the next night against Mississippi.
Kentucky got the tip and with only 11 seconds gone Pursiful hit a long jump from 25 feet. By the time Nash had gracefully arched in a jump shot and Pursiful had broken through for a lay-up, Kentucky was five points ahead and not to be caught. Only Happy Chandler, sitting on the very edge of his chair shouting, "Watch 'em, watch 'em," was worried after that.
Wildcat Forward Carroll Burchett then contributed some fine hook shots, and twice toward the end of the half Nash threw perfect lead passes three-quarters the length of the court to set up fast-break baskets. When he wasn't doing that he was scooping in rebounds (a grand total of 22 rebounds matched his 22 points), dribbling the ball upcourt as a guard, and once he even passed behind his back while running at top speed. The pass went out of bounds, and Rupp winced. Finally, playing true to form by looking just ragged enough to show they could be beaten and good enough to show the beating wasn't coming that night, Kentucky won.
Adolph was his folksy finest after the game. His Kansas twang rang as he said he'd "been through this 900 times but my stomach still feels like I've been eating lye all day." He said Nash had been "spectacular, sensational." He talked warmly with four blind girls who had come to the game and called his players over to have them give the girls autographs. Then he excused himself and said he had to leave.
Basketball is very big in Kentucky. Adolph Rupp, only a part-time curmudgeon now, was off to have dinner with the governor.