Those constant rumors pervading the tine old picket-fence atmosphere of Lexington, Ky. these days are unsettling enough to cause a man to wonder if Santa Claus really is coming to town.
Adolph Rupp, some say, is deathly ill with diabetes and only hanging on so that Gabriel will call him from the bench rather than the bed; Rupp is not much sick at all, say others, but is cunningly gathering his rosebuds and some sentiment, too, that will allow him to continue coaching forever. Mike Casey, Kentucky's broken-legged shooting star, will miraculously return to the starting lineup any day now; Casey will not play this or any other year in Lexington but will sign a large contract with the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA. Harry Lancaster, Rupp's longtime assistant, is going around with knives for assorted backs now that he is athletic director and boss and can lord it all over his onetime mentor. Finally, the new coach, if there ever is one, will be Frank Ramsey or Cliff Hagan or Colonel Sanders or Daniel Boone or anyone else except the best and only man for the job, Rupp's bright and articulate assistant, Joe Hall, who has been promised the position.
The truth is far simpler than the gusts of speculation. The Kentucky Wildcats themselves ignore the talk; instead, they are busy proving that once again they are the finest college basketball team in America. While dozens of other good teams have been struggling along these first weeks—many of them winning against opposition that could best be represented by cartoon strips—Kentucky has looked staggeringly impressive in defeating by an average margin of 18 points four schools that should be powers in their own regions later on.
"I know how good Kentucky can be," said North Carolina Coach Dean Smith after losing to the Wildcats 94-87 in Charlotte. "And tonight they were bad. If a team can't beat them on an off night, when are you going to beat them?" Smith has a point. Neither North Carolina nor Kentucky's other three victims, West Virginia, Kansas and Indiana, have much cause for embarrassment. As old Adolph himself grumbled the other day, in a slightly condescending manner intended to let everyone, including himself, off the hook: "Awwgghh, there have been periods when every bounce has gone our way and we've been, awwgghh, perfect. Awwgghh, hell, we're not out to humiliate anybody."
Be that as it may, last Saturday night, in something less than a "perfect" exhibition, Kentucky bolted to a 74-43 lead against the Hoosiers before succumbing to prosperity and a medium-tough zone, and winning by the relatively humane count of 109-92. This and the other victories were produced by a team whose best backcourt does not even suit up. One of the absentee guards is Casey, an All-Southeastern choice for two years who ran his car into a telephone pole last summer and who now sits there at practice every day looking like a little kid with his nose pressed against the bakery window. The other is Greg Starrick, a shooting and passing wizard who is biding his time at Southern Illinois after transferring in the middle of last season because of friction between himself and Athletic Director Lancaster.
In place of these men, Rupp has gone with two junior redshirts, shooter Terry Mills and passer Jim Dinwiddie, and he has been held up for questioning because of it. Some observers think that the two sophomore guards, Kent Hollenbeck and Stan Key—the latter a redhead with an alarming facial resemblance to Howdy Doody—are a combination with unlimited potential and should start. Others insist that Bob McCowan, a fiery hustler with more confidence and zest, has to be in the lineup. Veteran Wildcat followers lament the fact that none of them is yet in a class with the Kentucky guards of old: together they have shot only 35 of 89 from the field. So, of course, with his five guards, Adolph Rupp keeps struggling along...his team No. 1 in this statistic, No. 1 in that and, naturally, No. 1 in all the polls.
More to the point, Kentucky's strength is up front where skinny, sleepy-eyed Larry Steele has turned into the Wildcats' best defender in years, where Mike Pratt has emerged from the shadows of illustrious teammates to a deserving place in the All-America picture and where 6'8½" Dan Issel is having little trouble maintaining his reputation as the highest-scoring center around. In Kentucky's opening 106-87 rout of West Virginia, the three combined for 83 points; against North Carolina, Issel and Pratt scored 68 while Steele was busy holding Charles Scott to 14 until the last five minutes of the game.
But it is taking all of the skills Pratt and Steele can muster to keep a job for themselves. Two more sophomores, 6'6" Tom Parker and 6'7" Randy Noll, would be starting for most other teams, and the 6'8" reserve Center Mark Soderberg, another rookie, is good enough to cause Issel to say, "I don't have to worry about pacing myself anymore. It's good to look over and sec Mark and the others on the bench and know there won't be trouble if we come out."
Knowledgeable basketball people had been talking about Kentucky's depth for months before the season opened while nodding their heads and vowing something like "Ole Adolph, he sure does have 'em, all right. But he'll never use 'em. Never has, never will." While it is true that over the years Rupp has held that a team is better off sticking with five men, he has continued to insist that this season will be different.
To date the coach's words have been borne out only partially by his actions. In his single close game, against North Carolina, Rupp substituted only one time that was not forced on him by men fouling out. This development came two days after the Kansas game where his five sophomores, operating as a unit, hit nine of their first 10 shots and expanded the varsity's lead by five to a crushing 115-85 victory.
Though Kentucky's power man, Issel, does not seem to be jumping as well as he did during his first two years, he is stronger, shooting better and driving to the basket more. He was married over the summer to cheerleader Cheri Hughes, a girl he managed to woo while playing for two seasons without any front teeth. Before his first varsity game, Issel had a tumor removed from the roof of his mouth; ever since, his false teeth have stopped up the hole and impaired his breathing on the court. This season the hole finally was healed, so the teeth are back in. "I was looking much better until I got this," he said last week, pointing to his gashed cheek and bruised eye—the result of a collision with a North Carolinian elbow.
Pratt, who is 6'4" of muscle and dimples, has rebounded as well as Issel and. though overlooked throughout his career, is probably just as important to the Wildcats' success. He is Kentucky's best man against the press, and his moves in the lane are carried out with crowd-pleasing aplomb. Married himself for three years, Pratt is one of Kentucky's three starters enjoying connubial bliss (the third is Dinwiddie). a situation invoking some particularly blue comment from Rupp, who has always harbored extreme distaste for young marrieds.
"When a boy's married," Rupp once whined, "his wife is first, his school is second and his basketball is third—and that makes Adolph too damn far down the list." Probably he did not repeat those words at home where his wife, Esther, is among the lovely ladies of the world.
All over Kentucky the big Christmas gift this year for the man who has everything is a long-playing stereo record album about the man who is everything. Produced by the Kentucky booster club and entitled Great Moments in Kentucky Basketball, the record touches the highlights of Rupp's first 39 years at Kentucky, during which he won 810 games, and is a fitting documentary to a man who comes as near to being a legend as anyone college basketball is likely to produce. Unfortunately, it is apparent now more than ever before that Rupp's days at Kentucky are dwindling. For several years a full schedule of speeches and lectures in the off season have combined with strenuous activities during the winter to take a heavy toll on his health. Now 68, he has had an advanced case of diabetes for some time, but only this fall did the disease reach dangerous proportions with the occurrence of swelling in his feet. A month ago doctors warned Rupp that one leg might have to be amputated unless he had complete rest. Always an amateur hypochondriac who nevertheless paid little attention to diagnoses, Rupp finally was frightened into obeying, and he has stayed in bed for most of the last few weeks.
He gets up only to be driven to practice each day. When practice is over, he goes right home and back to bed. His diet, including liquor, has been restricted to such things as chicken and fruit, although friends say he still cheats a little. From all accounts he is obtaining the finest care and treatment. However, even longtime Ruppologists are shocked by the Baron's appearance and manner of speaking. He is very gaunt, his face has lost much of its glow and shape and his voice shakes when he is tired.
Still, it is one of the marvelous sights in the game when the old man, in his floppy sport coat, loafers and white surgical socks, shuffles onto the coliseum floor every day at precisely 3:45 and, without a whistle or a clap, without any sound at all, each Wildcat stops shooting and dribbling and silently walks to the center circle to meet him and, of course, stand in awe.
Occasionally now, Rupp will fall victim to memory, such as at a banquet when he messed up his "Mikes" and spoke of Pratt's (not Casey's) broken leg, or when he had to be cued from the dais on the names of his guards.
In practice the other day he bellowed at Hollenbeck, "Get your shirt on, Hoddelbeck," and later shouted to Parker, "Parker, you take uh uh uh...." A long silence ensued. Then, pointing at Steele, "You...you. Uh, uh. Dammit, Parker takes your place. Who the hell are you?"
Usually Rupp sits on the sidelines with his feet propped up on a cushioned chair, all craggy-faced and glowering. He is Big Daddy, watching Maggie the Cat and all the little, no-neck monsters running around him; Ebenezer Scrooge, gazing on the spirits of Christmases past. Mostly, though, Adolph Rupp is just Adolph Rupp imitating himself, for that is the ultimate that is left to him. And that is certainly enough.
After so many years of unparalleled acclaim in the sport it is little wonder that Rupp should want to bow out gracefully and as a champion (the suspicion is that if his current team were to win the NCAA title, he would be satisfied and step down). A certain palace intrigue exists, however, that is making this difficult for him. After the death of Athletic Director Bernie Shively two years ago, a spirited political fight developed for the vacancy between Lancaster and the then-football coach, Charlie Bradshaw. Lancaster had been Rupp's assistant for 21 years—a length of time during which such a relationship hardly could be free of some strain, and a period, some say, when Lancaster took much of the credit for a coaching job that, in truth, Rupp deserved. Whatever the case, Lancaster became acting athletic director and Bradshaw resigned and was replaced by John Ray. While Rupp publicly backed Lancaster for the permanent job, he was not in favor of his former assistant becoming his boss after so many years, and behind the scenes he worked for Bradshaw's appointment. After a long and bitter struggle that involved the futures of everyone from the next basketball coach to, insiders say, the next governor—Lancaster won in January.
Soon after that, Hall, whom Rupp had publicly supported to be the next coach, left Kentucky to take the coaching job at St. Louis. Hall, who has one of the most fertile minds in the game, was bothered by reports that Lancaster wanted to name his own man for the job and that the man was not Joe Hall. Furthermore Rupp himself was planning to bring his own son, Herky, a high school coach, onto the scene.
When Hall could not get assurances—including a written statement—that he would be hired as Rupp's successor, he left. When some things were ironed out to his satisfaction, he came back, six days later. Still, as capable a coach as he is, Hall seems to be caught in the middle of the deteriorating relationship between Rupp and Lancaster. "I still can't say it is cut and dried that I will be the next basketball coach." he says.
Hall, 40, played for Rupp in the late 1940s and has been the backbone of the program at Kentucky almost from the day he was hired four years ago; he has recruited every player but one on the team. In this difficult year of Rupp's illness, he has also taken on a major share of the on-the-floor coaching load.
"I try to shovel all the credit on Joe because that is where it belongs," Rupp said the other day while lying in his large four-poster at home. "But over the next two years a lot could happen. There is this division around here, but it would be a damn shame if he didn't get the job."
Worrisome stories, meanwhile, continue to sift out of the team's locker room concerning the handling of the basketball program by the athletic director's office. There are reports that the basketball budget has been trimmed, that a weight-training machine was purchased only after Lancaster first refused to buy it and then found enough money from the sale of "official Wildcat" paintings. Several members of the starting team arc bothered that the football locker rooms have been redecorated with carpets all around while the paint in their own tiled dressing room chips away. They are concerned that the sports editor of the student newspaper, as well as Casey, their fallen leader, has had his complimentary game tickets denied him. They are also angry that Casey cannot travel to away games. Casey's father, Dutch, almost came to blows with Lancaster last year over his son's allotment of tickets. Then there is the Great Dessert Fiasco.
In Charlotte the day before the North Carolina game, a waitress asked Claude Vaughan, the Kentucky trainer, if the team members could have dessert.
"Yes," said Vaughan, who handles that sort of thing.
"What kind?" asked the waitress.
"Any kind they want, just like always," said Vaughan.
"What?" said Lancaster. "What do you mean, any kind they want? They all will have the same."
"Some of them don't want the same thing," said Vaughan.
"What?" said Lancaster. "Who's running this show, you or the players?"
"Sometimes I wonder," said Vaughan. "I thought I was."
This exchange, in a public dining room and in full view of the team, did little to assuage the feelings of the players.
"I don't think the No. 1 team in the country should have to go last class," says one starter. "Lancaster is bitching about an extra 50¢ dessert and he's over there drinking some $1.50 Lowenbrau. We know the tension around here; we just can't be bothered if we're going to keep winning. But basketball is Casey's life. And what Lancaster did to him about those tickets is plain rotten."
"This whole thing is silly," says Lancaster. "The boys go through the line and take what they want. If someone's hoggin' it, I circle his name and Coach Rupp handles it. I don't know where the players get their information about the budget. The basketball budget is up $36,000 here. The meal situation is the same as it's always been. The equipment situation is the same. As for carpets for the football team, John Ray went out and raised the money. Mr. Rupp is responsible for the ticket allotment. Mr. Rupp is responsible for which players travel with the team."
Casey has another version. "I don't care if you quote me or not," he says. "I went in and asked Lancaster why I didn't get four tickets anymore and why I couldn't go on trips. I've given this school two pretty good years, I think. He just said 'You're not a player anymore.' I understand the money problems, but after a man like that spends 21 years with the basketball team, it just seems funny to me that all of a sudden he switches and starts cutting things off. I think some questions ought to be asked. He's just stabbing us in the back."
When he heard all of this, Rupp immediately came to the defense of Lancaster—as he has always done in public—and took the blame for Casey's frustration upon himself. But it is no secret that animosity simmers beneath the surface and that Adolph Rupp is averse to a showdown that would becloud the conclusion of his career.
The other day Joe Hall was eating lunch in the faculty dining room when Dr. James Martin, professor emeritus of business administration, sat down.
"Your boys are acting like they want to be famous," said Martin.
"Well, you never know," said Hall. "They could get homesick, or have a fight with their girl friends, and we'd have a bad game."
"Well, they aren't going to get homesick during that pre-Christmas controversy, are they?" Martin asked.
"Controversy?" asked Hall.
"The UKIT," said Martin, referring to Kentucky's tournament. "Now, Joe, don't tell me Coach Rupp and the boys are so good that their games are no longer controversies?"
The Wildcats of Kentucky are almost that good. Their major controversies so far have been completely off the court.