Among the less recognized but most unstinting of the sportswriters of Lexington, Ky. is Nancy Meade, who writes by hand under the auspices of Melissa Fagan's Red Flash News, Grade 4, Sayre School. In her editorial last week, Miss Meade pointed out that she was "born here in Lexington and grew up to be one of the biggest fans there ever was and ever will be." Miss Meade said she had tried to cover a recent University of Kentucky basketball game by radio but was unable to complete the job because she fell asleep. "When I woke up the first thing I did was I got the paper, turned to the sports page and looked. We won! We won!" Furthermore, wrote Miss Meade, "I hope all Coach Rupp's fans think he is such a wonderful coach and has such a wonderful team as I do." In closing, she said that her aim in life—presumably after she outgrows sports-writing—is to be a cheerleader for the Wildcats "if Coach Rupp is still here."
By every recognizable sign, Coach Adolph Rupp, "the Baron" to Kentuckians, was very much still here last week, and Miss Meade and objective local editorialists like her were enjoying some of the familiarity that has bred content in that part of the country ever since Rupp came to coach 34 years ago: Kentucky was up on top of the Southeastern Conference. Rupp's 700th victory as a coach—achieved over Georgia, 103-83, at Athens—was so thoroughly toasted that you would have thought he had won all 700 singlehanded.
What one formerly happy rival coach called "that very extinguished look" of Rupp's 1963 team, the one that gave him his worst record (16 victories, nine defeats), has become the look of the legendary Kentucky teams of Hagan and Ramsey, Groza and Beard—and that is a murderous look. On Saturday, Kentucky played one of its poorer games of the year and still overwhelmed Mississippi 102-59, for No. 701. It was beginning to look like the 1958 NCAA champions, whom Rupp also coached from obscurity to a title.
But the signs that many Kentucky people do not find familiar at all have to do with Rupp himself. He has quit yelling at referees—on a sustained basis—and has not sharpened his teeth on a sportswriter for years. Those he has no use for he simply ignores. He has delegated more and more authority to his capable assistant coach, Harry Lancaster. He has become more tolerant of his players, even taking a shine to the current cutup sophomore hotshots he calls "the Katzenjammer Kids."
February 17, 1964
Rupp no longer watches over the team's dietary habits with an iron calorie-counter, and for the first time the players do not cluster together like interns in the same dormitory. On the court he has allowed more offensive freelancing than ever before. On defense, at Lancaster's urging, he has incorporated a zone; he once vowed never to do such a thing, because he thought zone defenses dulled the game. He gets around this one by calling it a "point" defense or, tongue-in-jowl, "a transitional shifting man-to-man with a hyperbolic paraboloid."
The word most often used to describe Rupp now is "mellowed." It is a bad word, because it connotes a softening of convictions. He still very strongly believes that there is no greater foolishness than the foolish idea that it does not matter whether you win or lose but how you play the game. He says, "How would you like your surgeon to tell you, 'It doesn't matter whether you live or die, it's how I make the cut.' " Rupp talks and lives in terms of won and lost, and nothing has changed that. But he is also 62 years old now, his blood pressure is way up and he tries to take it easy. He has made sound investments—in Hereford cattle, in tobacco—and he is known for his frugality. Intimates say he is worth three-quarters of a million dollars, and he speaks of retirement at 65 as though it could happen even to him.
"But I like this work," he said the other day in his office. "I'd like to stay as long as I can be of useful service to the university."
He put his feet up on the desk ("better for the blood pressure, you know") and locked his hands behind his head. "There's no question about it. I've slowed down. A lot of things don't worry me, don't irritate me like they used to. I'm not out to conquer the world anymore. Just to win all the basketball games my team plays.
"You wonder sometimes where you might have wound up if you'd done this thing or that," he said. "I had opportunities to go into public relations years ago, and one company wanted me to go to South America. But it's not what you have done or would have done that matters, it's what you want to do. Now, tonight we play Ole Miss. It's exactly the same for me as it was 836 games ago. It's a challenge, and I want to win this one just as bad as the first. I know there'll be 12,000 people there to see it. And I know why they'll be there. They expect us to win."
Space is at a premium on Rupp's cluttered office walls. Pictures show him at friendly grips with Happy Chandler, Lily Pons, Harry Truman, Marilyn Maxwell, Bob Hope. He says he was never out to win any popularity contests, and he has not won many, but 12,000 people at every Kentucky game would rather shake his hand than the President's, and those who know him more than superficially are devoted to him.
Chandler, the former Kentucky governor and commissioner of baseball, has been his close friend for 25 years and is a dressing room regular. Harry Lancaster has turned down a number of offers to go elsewhere as a head coach. He has been Rupp's assistant since 1946 and is his likely successor, if there is ever to be one. Lancaster is probably the highest-paid assistant basketball coach in the business, for no better reason than the fact that Rupp, at $18,500 a year, is the highest-paid head coach. Rupp is a covetous, prideful man where his success is concerned, but he readily credits Lancaster for beating him down on the zone defense—"though it's not really a zone," he insists.
The troubles that Rupp has had have come from his being misunderstood—and understood. He has been bellicose and is always unnervingly candid. Characteristically, he gets in the last word. "One of those eastern writers is trying to get people to believe the only reason I win is because I'm an s.o.b.," he said once. "But I know a lot of losers who are s.o.b.s, so that's not the answer."
For years he goaded and chafed every Southeastern Conference team that did not give his team a decent contest, and now the league he once called a laughingstock is tough and respected, and he is battling for his life almost every game. He is proud of it. "Basketball is a good product and ought to be played that way," he says. "I believe in preaching the gospel." An opponent of those "silly people" at some SEC schools who "hide behind segregation," Rupp is not far away from setting another precedent by signing a Negro to a Kentucky scholarship. The reason is, to Rupp, the best possible reason: the Negro is an outstanding college prospect.
The Rupp discipline is not as unbending as it once was. "You should have seen him passing out extra sandwiches and dishing up extra cake the night we beat Georgia for No. 700," says one incredulous Kentucky man. But it still beats anything this side of the military academies. It is a no-nonsense regimentation that Kentucky players undergo, but the word was out long ago and they come expecting it. "I played in high school for Cliff Barker," says Cotton Nash, Rupp's current All-America, "and Cliff played for Adolph, also. I knew what to expect. If you want to play for the Yankees you play the Yankee way."
Nash, excellent as a sophomore, was part of a general team breakdown last year, and Rupp's plans for big success were unrealized. This season Nash has averaged 27 points a game, gets good shooting support from senior Ted Deeken and excellent playmaking from two of the Katzenjammers—Tommy Kron, who works the point in the scrambling 1-3-1 zone, and Larry Conley, a superb quarterback. Rupp says this is the best ball-handling team he has ever had.
Size is the only Kentucky problem. Nash is the tall man at 6 feet 5, but he is a brute off the boards—he got 30 rebounds against Mississippi—and Conley, 6 feet 3 and all elbows, knees and gall, is an amazing pivot man on offense. Conley also amazes Rupp with his wraparound sunglasses ("got 'em for four bucks in Gainesville, Florida, if you wanta get yourself a pair"), short-brimmed green felt hat, umbrella and turtleneck sweater. Rupp can't quite make him out, but he does know he has to watch him, "because Larry kind of likes to sneak in a little coaching on me."
But no matter how flamboyant his team may get, this will still be the year that Adolph Rupp passed up more chances than he took to rise screaming off the bench in pursuit of someone who had done him wrong—player, peanut vendor or whoever. He says he has not really yelled down an official in seven years, that he has just about decided they're all bad—so what's the use? Nevertheless, one prominent referee in the SEC says that when all the evidence is in, dealing with Rupp has never been much of a problem. "Sure, he's called me a blind indelicacy a few times and I've socked him with a few technicals, but we get along fine. You've got to know Adolph to appreciate him."
Rival coaches who know and appreciate Rupp are guessing that his Katzenjammer Kids—unheralded in nearly all preseason estimates—may win him his fifth national title.