Ever since you were old enough to drink water after 6 p.m., you've probably understood that Adolph Rupp ranked right up there with Colonel Sanders, Man o' War, Mammoth Cave and other great Kentucky inventions. You've known it and believed it, another legend to help you through those desultory days when you needed a push every 15 minutes to get your brain kick-started. Irascible, cantankerous, lovable, immovable ol' Adolph. As basketball coach at the University of Kentucky, he fooled more fools, won more games and sassed more referees than any battalion of us ever could hope to do. But last week the final page turned as Kentucky opened its season. Not only was Adolph missing from the bench, he was a couple of hundred miles away, back home in Lexington, listening to the game on the radio. The Baron had become simply the fan in the brown suit.
For all of you who understand modern math, it might be necessary to say that there was a time when UCLA aspired to be the UK of the West. While John Wooden was a high school coach in Dayton, Ky., for gracious sakes, Rupp was amassing a record that eventually included four NCAA championships, one NIT title and 27 Southeastern Conference championships. In 42 years Rupp's teams won 879 games, just a little over eight out of every 10 they played.
But dynasties, like fine china, never seem to fare well when passed from hand to hand. Even though the new coach, Joe Hall, was a good ol' boy who was born and raised in Cynthiana, Ky., there still was a goodly amount of trepidation accompanying Kentucky fans to East Lansing, Mich. last Saturday to watch their team open the season against Michigan State. And what they saw did not look like a Kentucky team.
The Wildcats won, 75-66, but they did it by playing a pressuring, multi-faceted defense, rebounding and blocking shots and using more substitutions than a sour-stomach restaurant. Hall shuttled in all 12 of his players in the first half. Under Rupp, a second-line player was sure only that he would have a clear line of sight for the entire season, much of the reason why the school at times seemed to be just a place to get a transfer out of. In fact, Hall himself transferred from Kentucky after his sophomore year in 1950, discouraged by having to play behind that year's "fabulous five."
December 11, 1972
Joe Hall thus faces the most difficult job in college basketball, and in many ways he begins it as the antithesis of his predecessor. Rupp's craggy face and brusque wit were the cement and mortar that built the specter of The Baron; Hall's appearance and demeanor are mindful of his name—simple, reliable and neat, no abbreviations or nicknames necessary. Except for one week when he left to take the head-coaching job at St. Louis University, this soft-spoken man had waited offcourt as an assistant coach at Kentucky for seven years while the resolute Rupp creaked toward the university's mandatory retirement age of 71. But even when he pulled abreast of retirement last year, he hesitated. Finally, facing the inevitable, Adolph announced his retirement—although that retirement is not always as apparent to others as it is to him. President now of the Memphis Tarns of the American Basketball Association, Rupp lives in Lexington, maintains an office at UK's Memorial Coliseum and now and then looks in on basketball practice. "He's stopped by several times this year and each time I've invited him to talk to the team and each time he has," says Hall.
Publicly, the players profess no preference for one professor over the other, but privately they are willing to confess their pleasure at the transition. "Coach Rupp was just getting old," said one member of the team a few days before the Michigan State game. "He's a great man, but I would say that the players believe that Coach Hall will be able to take us farther than Coach Rupp could have."
The Baron maintained an omnipotent stance during his reign. He was the lord, the players were the serfs, and if they made mistakes he chewed them out in front of the fans and in front of the sportswriters. "It was his way of toughening you up," says senior Jim Andrews, a target of Rupp's vitriolic tongue last year. "I knew that he wanted me to try a little harder and I went out and tried a little harder—sometimes."
Andrews almost quit Kentucky as a sophomore when he found himself as the third center behind Tom Payne and Mark Soderberg, who later transferred. "When I was a sophomore," Andrews says, "I never heard from him but I knew that when the day came that Payne signed with the pros, I'd hear. And I did. He called me up at 9 a.m. one day and asked me how I was feeling, if my summer job was all right. I knew then that Payne was leaving. He did, too."
"Coach Hall is kind of down to our level of thinking more than Coach Rupp," says Ronnie Lyons, another team member cauterized by Rupp last year. "You can relate more to him than you could to Coach Rupp."
Hall takes the players on fishing trips and has them over to his house for dinner on occasion. "I was a head coach at small colleges before I came to Kentucky," says Hall, "and I learned then to be everything to my players. I've been a trainer. I've been a tutor. I've been a doctor. I've got a background of closeness to the players and I don't think I'll ever lose that."
For the past few years, Hall coached the freshman team and last season he had what many people consider the finest group of freshmen in the school's history. The team had three players—Jimmy Dan Conner (Kentucky), Mike Flynn (Indiana) and Kevin Grevey (Ohio)—who were considered the top prospects in their states the previous year, and a handful of others almost as talented. The freshmen steamrollered 22 straight opponents, beating a respectable University of Cincinnati team by 70 points. Denny Crum, coach at the University of Louisville, speculated one day that his freshmen were better, and Rupp said, line, we'll rent Freedom Hall, split expenses and the winner takes all the receipts. Crum never called. "The freshmen probably helped us to win the SEC title," says Andrews. "Practicing against them every day had to help. And we loved to beat them. They were getting all the publicity."
Now the freshmen are sophomores, and, according to Hall, they are men. "Conner, Flynn and Grevey are just all-round athletes," explained the coach. "They've got good body control and they've got good body strength. And they don't play like sophomores." The three joined the 6'11" Andrews and the 5'10" Lyons in the starting lineup against MSU and when the Spartans whittled down a 14-point UK lead to one point late in the second half, Hall did not panic. He knew he had the perfect solution. He added another of his seven sophomores, this time Bob Guyette, to replace a fatigued Andrews. That left four sophomores and Lyons, a junior, on the floor and a screaming Michigan State crowd going wild—a perfect spot for a Kentucky cave-in. Instead, the Wildcats dominated the game in the last four minutes with Guyette helping to control the play inside. "You know-he's got a lot of faith in you when he puts you in a spot like that," Guyette said gratefully after the game.
Kentucky's last NCAA title came in 1958 and Rupp's severest critics said he would never win another one until Kentucky stopped doing its thing in whiteface and acknowledged the presence of the black basketball player. Payne finally broke the color line two seasons ago, then signed a pro contract with the Atlanta Hawks. Last year there were two blacks on the team until late in the season, when they were suspended for missing a trip. Now, Hall finds himself with a lamentable legacy—an all-white team and the delicate problem of convincing prospective players that Kentucky is not a racist school. "We're trying to recruit the black player," he says. "Unfortunately, many don't want to come here because there are no blacks here." Hall did recruit one black freshman but another, better prospect resignedly told Hall that he would not attend UK because he had received threatening letters.
The key to the future may lie in some enlightened thinking but the key to this season resides with Jim Andrews and the team's ability to play guileful defense. One day at lunch last week, Conner told the tall center that he could be the best college big man in the country, and Andrews agreed. "I have to get motivated," he said. "And if I do, nobody can stop me." Against Michigan State, he scored 20 points, had 13 rebounds and blocked five shots, three in the opening minutes, and was the epitome of the new Hall look.
In anticipation of the coming year and the swarming new defense, Hall put his players through a torturous four-week running and weight-lifting program. "You could really tell the difference that first day of practice," said Andrews. "It was a tough workout and everybody went through it like a snap."
"Our zone press is terrific," says Conner. "The first couple of times we don't even try to steal the ball. We just get them a little nervous. Then about the third time we put the trap on them and they go crazy. We keep taking the ball from them."
With Conner shutting him off from the ball, Michigan State's talented sophomore, Lindsay Hairston, was neutralized by Kentucky last week. Hairston had missed only three shots in his team's opening game but against Kentucky he was one for 11. "It worked just as we thought it would," said Conner. "We were really prepared."
And that, of course, pleased all the Kentucky fans, including the one in the brown suit back home in Lexington. Probably he marked it up as his 880th victory. After all, who taught Joe Hall everything he knows?