A governor cannot succeed himself in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and a horse can run only once in the Derby, but as long as Adolph Rupp is around the Bluegrass will never suffer from a lack of continuity. For 36 years, in a land of colonels, he has been the only Baron, a man of consummate pride and well-earned privilege. One might think that Adolph Rupp would be satisfied now to retire to his estate in the pleasant, rolling country outside Lexington, there to tend his prize Herefords and Burley tobacco, to rest amid his affluence and such souvenirs of glory as no other basketball coach ever has gathered. Instead, at the age of 64, he continues to pursue the only challenge left—trying to top himself. And that is some tough act to follow.
Rupp has won 743 games, 22 Southeastern Conference titles (the trophy shown with him on the cover represents one of these) and four NCAA national championships, as well as enough acclaim (and censure, too) to serve most men, barons and otherwise, for all their years. Yet his persistence in staying at his job has won him this year something more than just another trophy or a few fresh statistics. He is threatening to become the grand old man of basketball.
Nearly everywhere his undefeated, No. 1 team has played, in the old hellholes and new field houses throughout the South, where he has been hooted and despised for decades, Rupp has been accorded ovations of respect merely upon his appearance on the court. Though he does not admit it, he must sense his new status. Typical was the scene in Nashville four weeks ago after his Wildcats beat Vanderbilt, virtually assuring themselves a berth in the NCAA tournament and crushing the hopes of the home fans for a championship of their own. After shaking hands with the losing coach Rupp turned and, as the Vanderbilt partisans responded with applause for their conqueror, he threw an arm about Kentucky Forward Larry Conley, received Conley's arm around his shoulder in return, and together—beaming—they marched down the length of the court.
Everyone's explanation for Rupp's new phase is that he has mellowed. "That's what they're saying," he concedes, indicating nothing except that it is interesting, at least, to be called mellow after all those years of antonymous description. But then he moves on, into voluntary, eager praise for his team. "These boys are coachable," he says. "They listen and they do what they're supposed to. They're a pleasure and they're all regular. They are regular to the last man. It would be mean if they lost a game."
There has been a great deal of fuss in the commonwealth about the matter of finding a nickname for this team, in keeping with those that have distinguished former Wildcat clubs. Mrs. Mary Simmerman of Lexington even wrote to the paper insisting that all the players be commissioned, so that they could simply and rightfully be proclaimed "The Kentucky Colonels." Most suggestions have featured alliteration, and so far "Rupp's Runts" seems to be leading in popularity. Regardless of the final public choice, however, it is clear from his behavior that this is Rupp's favorite five.
Adolph's mellowing has had little effect on the famous Kentucky practices, those taut lessons in efficiency which the Baron and his assistants preside over, all dressed in outfits of starched khaki. But this year Rupp's sarcasm, which used to endanger sensitive eardrums, is being held to a minimum. And, off the court, the players, a remarkably intelligent and personable bunch, are accorded attention and solicitude that no other Rupp team has ever been granted. "The other day," says senior Guard Tommy Kron, "I heard him ask Conley what he was going to do after graduation. I never heard of that before. Coach Rupp always sort of found those things out. He was interested, but there was never anything like that." The attitude is unanimously reciprocal, too. "I really want to win this thing for him," says junior Forward Pat Riley. "We all do. We're very close. It seems like we've all grown this year, and he's just grown into us."
Rupp gives Kron the hardest time on the practice floor ("Someday I'm going to write a book on how not to play basketball, and I'm going to devote the first 200 pages to you"), but the mellow Baron quickly takes over. The night before the Tennessee game last week the team met outside Rupp's office to receive encouragement from the cheerleaders. On behalf of the players Kron accepted a prize for "a special team, a special Kentucky team, something special." It was a decorated giant-size box of the cereal Special K.
Shortly afterward Rupp came by on his way home. "Now, Tommy," he said. "No courting tonight." Kron had been fighting a virus and had hardly been out of his room for the last three days. "Now, you get your rest," Rupp added.
"Well, I don't know if I can get to sleep, but I'll just lie there," Kron said.
"Well, then," Rupp replied, almost paternally by now, "you get a good supper." Then he saw the cereal box.
"The cheerleaders gave it to us," Kron explained, handing it to Rupp for inspection. "See—K, Special K, for Kentucky. Why don't you keep it, Coach?"
"No, it was meant for the team," Rupp said.
"No, sir, really, you take it. None of us could eat it anyway. I mean, you know, none of us have refrigerators." Rupp was examining the contents label. "It's full of proteins," Kron urged.
"Well, all right, Tommy. Thank you," Rupp said. And then, bidding everyone good night, he moved on, the cereal box with the big bow and the bright-blue ribbon around it clutched to his bosom. If the scene after the Vanderbilt game was surprising, this one was stunning, and also touching, to anyone familiar with Rupp's previous relations with his players.
The point has been made, often cynically, that it would be impossible for any coach not to warm up to a team that was 23-0 and had no academic or disciplinary problems. But the change in Rupp is not so easily explainable. "With us," says Alex Groza, All-America center on the "Fabulous Five" champs of the late '40s, "there was no joking, no laughing, no whistling, no singing, no nothing. Just basketball. When we traveled, for instance, he often communicated with us through the team manager." But there was one time this year, in Alabama, when Rupp positively enthralled some of the starters with an enchanting discourse about how his mother used to prepare fried chicken. On another occasion Louis Dampier, the little guard, came up to Rupp before practice and said blithely, "Hey, Coach, a professor told me a funny story about you today." Rupp was delighted. He asked to hear the tale, laughed throughout it and then told Dampier it was absolutely true.
At times this season Rupp has solicited and then used advice on strategy from his players. He did it at half time in the St. Louis game, when Kentucky led by only a basket. He has gone so far on some occasions as to ask the players if they approved of his strategy. There is virtually no precedent for this. "I can't ever remember us offering suggestions in a game," says Frank Ramsey, star of the undefeated 1953-54 team. "We did discuss things with him, but you have to remember that was a special situation. Since the NCAA suspension kept us out for that year, we could do nothing but practice, and three of us were five-year men. We'd known Coach Rupp for a long time."
One reason for the change in Rupp is his health. He has had trouble with his blood pressure for a decade. Last year he endured his worst record (15-10) and was physically debilitated as well. "Why, I'd just be sitting there dictating a letter, and in a third of a second I'd be all dizzy," he says. "Just to get on the floor was hard. I was breathing like a panther all the time." Often he was dopey from a variety of medications, and some observers thought he was falling into senility. This year Rupp is 20 pounds lighter, the blood pressure is down, the dizziness is gone and he has never felt better.
He knocks on wood when he says that. He knocks on wood with almost every optimistic statement he makes, a strange habit for a man who is so majestically self-assured. He is as vigorous and as cantankerous as he wants to be and positively delighted with all the new attention he is receiving. "I'm just so busy," he says. "Why, we have so much mail we had to hire another secretary." There always seems to be someone waiting in his outer office to see him, and he greets all visitors—the men with energy, the women with a genuine courtliness. It is obvious he is overjoyed that the world has come back to see Adolph Rupp once more. There are silver threads across the bald and a paunch of diminished but still impressive girth, but his outlook is so cheerful that he blanches at the thought of having to leave coaching.
"He's so loose now," says Harry Lancaster, Rupp's assistant and comrade for the last two decades. "I don't believe he's ever been so relaxed. I think this is important for this team, too. He's made it their ball club. He's given them the credit."
The credit has been earned, since this team was generally picked about third best in the SEC. Only one new starter, 6-foot-5 sophomore Center Thad Jaracz, has joined last year's unsuccessful quartet: Kron, the 6-foot-5 passing guard: Dampier, the 6-foot shooting guard; and the 6-foot-3 forwards, Conley, who passes, and Riley, who shoots and rebounds. That they have become the slickest basketball unit in the country is a metamorphosis at least as pronounced as that of their coach. "There was dissension on this team last year," Dampier says. "We were always bickering, and by the end of the season we knew we were holding onto the ball for ourselves instead of passing it."
The key to Kentucky is Conley, a frail and unusually perceptive young man who is that rarity, a playmaking forward. More accurately, he plays smart and is what the NCAA means when it uses the term "student-athlete." Conley leans toward becoming a dentist, but he majors in political science and has taken a curriculum that includes Russian, art, music and most anything else he thought might be interesting. "I came to college," he says, "thinking that I should make it as broadening, as enlightening an experience as I could." This year, applying that kind of reasoning to basketball, he has chosen—along with his roommate, Kron—to sacrifice his scoring in order to set up the underclassmen. In a typical game Saturday against Tennessee, he added six assists to his team-leading total, passing up at least a dozen respectable shots of his own. The performance prompted Tennessee Coach Ray Mears to say that Conley was as unselfish a player and as fine a college passer as he has seen.
In this game, against the Tennessee 1-3-1 zone, Rupp stationed Riley in one corner and brought Dampier down to the other, moving Conley out to a back-court position. With Conley and Kron hitting first Riley and then Dampier (as the defensive emphasis changed), Riley and Dampier got 28 and 29 points bombing over the zone and brought Kentucky an easy 78-64 victory. The Wildcats not only outshot Tennessee, which they do to everybody (Conley's shooting percentage of 47.5 is the poorest among the starters), but they also showed again how position, fight and timing can enable a little team to outrebound a bigger one. The Wildcats won the boards 46-27, with the guards, little Dampier and big Kron, leading the way with 20 rebounds between them.
Riley, the team's best all-round player, also handles center-jump duties, and though he is only 6 feet 3, he has won all but seven of 46 jumping duels. He leads Dampier, whom Rupp calls "the best outside shooter I ever saw," by a hair (21.7 points to 21.4) in scoring. Dampier is the best percentage shooter; Kron, who also specializes in defense, is the top free-throw man.
The team is marked, obviously, by versatility and balance, making it difficult to defense. For example, as soon as Tennessee ignored Kron as a shooter to concentrate on Dampier and Riley, he promptly popped in two 20-footers. When the Vols fell back on him, Kron immediately returned to feeding. Putting pressure on playmaker Conley, as one team (St. Louis) did with fair success, may be the best way to play the Wildcats.
Such teamwork plays a large part in providing Rupp with his first reliable center in years, the home-town kid Jaracz. He gets many easy baskets off passes from Conley. "They all treat Thad like a baby brother," Lancaster says. "They call him the Bear, which makes him think he is a lot tougher than he really is." Jaracz has fallen into a slump lately. "I told him," Rupp says, "that he had been making so many of those crazy shots that he thinks he is Hank Luisetti, and he's just not that kind of boy yet." A year ago the Baron would not have added the "yet."
Rupp has good back-up help for Jaracz in another sophomore, 6-foot-8 Cliff Berger. Jaracz beat out Berger because he has better hands and a better shot, even if he does shoot it off the wrong foot. And though he is heftier than Berger, at 230 he can keep up with his running teammates better. Berger played the last three quarters of the Tennessee game, after Jaracz got into foul trouble, and did a good job against big Red Robbins.
The shooting roommates, Dampier and Riley, are virtually unstoppable—they have been held to less than 33 points only once this season. Dampier, in fact, is such an excellent shooter that in a scrimmage earlier this year the whole team reflexively headed back on defense as soon as he threw up his jumper. When it missed and Rupp suddenly discovered his re-bounders milling about in midcourt, the Baron abandoned his new mellow image for a spell.
The other scorer, Riley, "the Irishman," may be Rupp's favorite. Riley has been enamored of Kentucky since his childhood, though he comes from Schenectady, N.Y., where he was a high-school All-America quarterback. He wears contact lenses on the court, horned rims off the court, and might be accused of being Clark Kent, except that he could never fit into a phone booth to change clothes.
Trying to explain the team's success, Conley says, "It's simply that we know each other. Instinct, I guess. It's instinct. It's really lucky that we ended up together. A lot of it has been the old man, too. Let's put it this way—there have been times I hated him, but we all know what he has meant to us. Consider the abuse that he gives us in practice. Well, if you can't take it, you can't take it in a game. I think it's certain that we never would have won at a place like Mississippi State unless we had what we learned from him and what we had taken from him."
Oh, yes, about that story Louie Dampier heard and related to the Baron. It seems that Rupp, who has never been encumbered by modesty, used to teach a basketball course at UK, and he would always give all of his students straight A's. Rupp's reasoning was simply that no one could learn basketball from Adolph Rupp and not get an A. The reasoning is as sound today, although this bunch of Wildcats would deserve their A's. Teacher should get an A, too.