A lacquer of frost is on the bluegrass again, time for the farmer to prepare his tobacco for auction, for the mare to wait out her foal, for the Governor and Senator to unwind from another round of that fine old Commonwealth tradition of musical seats. And time, too, for the voice of Kentucky basketball, Cawood Ledford, to rejoice in full cry over the 50,000 watts of WHAS, Louisville: "MARK it down, fans, the 'Cats are running!"
And so they are. The Kentucky Wildcats, sons of history, sires of glory, inventors of the guard-around and the fast break and the white rebounder, are running once more. Trailed by ghosts and beset by innuendo, Kentucky has squarely faced the challenge of a rejuvenated Southeastern Conference and the backwash of miseries from last winter and now has moved in alongside Tennessee as the No. 1 challenge in the SEC to favored Alabama.
Last week, after a 96-77 win at Georgia and despite a 90-85 upset at Auburn, Kentucky owned a 9-2 record and a 94-point-a-game average and probably will get better. The Wildcats were even threatening to outrun the burly monument in the brown suit whose image stalks them from an office just down the hall.
Even as Adolph Rupp, the progenitor, adjusts to his sedentary role as basketball's Godfather, Hereford cattle baron and lovable shill for the ABA franchise up the interstate in Louisville, his name and semipresence haunt Memorial Coliseum.
January 20, 1975
"I don't have that depth of feeling, the sense that the boys are mine anymore," says Rupp. "I'll never get used to it, and that's very sad." Still, he should know that senior Guard Jimmy Dan Conner refers to him as "the greatest old man who ever lived," and awe-struck younger teammates sneak glances through the window in the door of the office marked "consultant" each time they pass.
Against his wishes The Baron was forced into retirement two years ago but, instead of presenting him with a gold watch, Kentucky gave him his office. It is the same one Rupp always had. It puts him right in the middle of things, just across the hall from the candy machines, while his successor, Joe B. Hall, works far down at the other end of the building. Though the old man is not there much anymore and long since has been honored to a fare-thee-well for winning four national championships and four hundred million games, it is obviously not over for him.
Much like frightened Mafia capos wary of deserting a fading Don to give fealty to young Michael, the Lexington citizenry persists in the sanctification of Rupp. At a preseason player banquet the main speaker wallowed in Ruppania. At the Tennessee game Rupp was surprised by the return of many former players to dedicate a 600-pound bronze plaque to him. Later this month he will be honored by a chamber of commerce dinner attended by celebrities including Lawrence Welk. Old Barons never die, they just suffer testimonials from bandleaders.
All of this does not make it any easier for Hall, a plain, congenial former ketchup salesman who must feel like George Selkirk when he followed Babe Ruth into right field at Yankee Stadium. Luckily, Kentucky's performance now is serving Hall well after two seasons marred by inconsistent play, as well as some indelicate barbs emanating from the deposed monarch.
In his first year Hall guided the 'Cats to a 20-8 record and the finals of the Mideast Region, but Rupp, who still had his own postgame radio show, labeled it a "disappointing"' campaign. Last season, when the Wildcats lacked a center and struggled to a bizarre 13-13 record that included losing to Alabama on Kentucky's court by 23 points, failing to score for the last five minutes of a game at Tennessee and falling behind 14-0 at Auburn, Rupp was mute, allowing disaster to take its course and others to scream for Hall's head.
With Kentucky streaking again, The Baron's name is back in the rumor mills. It is said that he has told friends that Hall has yet to inspire confidence in his players. It also is said that Rupp, still bitter at the university for putting him out to pasture, has even volunteered to aid recruiters from other schools by speaking against Kentucky to youngsters.
Strolling through the fields of his 500-acre farm outside Lexington last week, Rupp seemed incapable of making such dastardly utterances. "Look at these damn things," he said, pointing to his cattle. "Their depth, their withers, their backs. You could play dominoes on that back. Now that's a cow." Rupp says he likes Hall. He says he could never exert pressure on him. He says their relations are "500% fine." Rupp also says, "Kentucky has, by God, the best talent since the Fabulous Five of 1948." So much for kisses of death.
Hall takes such talk calmly. He is, in the words of freshman Center Rick Robey, "a good country man." Unlike Rupp, who grew up in Kansas, Joe B. is a Kentucky original, a child of the soil who was born in nearby Cynthiana, went to school at the university, traveled the area for Heinz' 57 Varieties, married a striking farmer's daughter, jumped into coaching and in 1965 became Rupp's assistant just in time to introduce a conditioning program that had become standard elsewhere but had escaped The Baron's notice.
Quiet, simple, pudgy and bespectacled, Hall has an undeserved reputation for being dull and colorless. In fact, his dry wit is ever ready. Being evasive about the origin of his initial B, which he prefers in any use of his name, he says it stands for "Basketball." As a player, Hall says, he was "the eighth" of the Fabulous Five. And he says the one thing that keeps him in the sport are the "free showers." He also admits to overcoaching in the past and to relying too much on pregame scouting. "No preconceptions this time," he says. "We're dealing strictly in bodies."
Hall never has complained of the tortuous moments, the second-guessing and querulousness of some fans, that must have accompanied his succession. He attributes Rupp's performance since retirement to "ego, not vindictiveness. I know Adolph so well it doesn't bother me. I wish he could accept the success we have as a continuing credit to the man who built the program."
Fortunately, debris from the affair has hardly affected the team's performance. The current seniors were the last group recruited by Hall while Rupp was still head man, and Conner says he was in the middle of it then. "I heard Hall men bad-mouth Rupp and Rupp men bad-mouth Hall," he Says. "I came to Kentucky not believing any of it. The problems we've had were because of us, not them."
Two seasons ago Conner, Guard Mike Flynn, Forward Bob Guyette and star shooter Kevin Grevey came to the varsity after having been chosen the best freshman team in the land. Bluegrass folks were expecting three NCAA championships. On closer inspection, the Wildcats turned up too slow.
In Hall's fourth game as head coach, the Wildcats were losing to North Carolina in Louisville by 19 points midway through the second half when this mild man ripped off his coat and roared far enough out onto the floor that Conner had to hold him back from the referees. Sufficiently shaken, Kentucky rallied to a respectable eight-point defeat. This explosion, says Hall, was "the turning point in my life. I had to set fire to the building or something. I made up my mind to get out of coaching if the score continued that way." He has not taken off his coat or screamed much since.
It was a similar circumstance that woke up Kentucky again earlier this season. The Wildcats had just been embarrassed at Indiana and were behind North Carolina 22-8 with three of the seniors sitting on the bench when Conner informed Hall that his classmates were ready to play. Upon re-entering the contest, Conner proceeded to "go unconscious" and score 35 points. The rookie pivotmen, Robey and Mike Phillips, suddenly grew up and beat up the Tar Heels' big men, and the 'Cats pulled away to a 90-78 victory.
Subsequently Kentucky has scored 100 points a game and shot over 51% in routing six of seven opponents. The Wildcats have beaten Notre Dame by 17 points, Kansas by 37 and LSU by 35, in the process sending Bengal Coach Dale Brown into his usual hyperbolic frenzy. "I did nothing to provoke a killing," he moaned. "They made asses of us." The Wildcats have shown better shooting than ever and a markedly improved, aggressive defense, especially by Grevey, also known as the " Irish rover." And they have revealed elements seldom seen in the Kentucky scheme: muscle and black men.
Observers continue to marvel at the Wildcats' assault-troop maneuvers, which are so incongruous in light of the tactics employed by Kentucky's finesse outfits of old. Conner, the team catalyst, is right in the middle of it. A sinewy 6'4" guard who chews tobacco and says things like, "Don't be surprised if I know how to act around people," Conner played out of position at forward for two years. Now he is at home in the backcourt and roughing up people at will. And so is Guyette, who is vastly improved now that he has switched to his natural forward spot after two misfit years at center.
Washington State Coach George Raveling was so upset at Conner's treatment of the Cougars' 245-pound Center Steve Puidokas on a rebound that he shouted something about a "cheap-shot football play" at Conner. No wonder, since Conner describes another of his defensive routines as "rolling my man down and nailing him in the neck." Even that did not amuse Raveling. He said Kentucky's physical play was a return to "the days of Rome," and that Wildcat opponents should come equipped with "face guards."
"We decided we had the material to be physical," says the 6'5" Grevey. "Let them complain. I smile. It's good to have respect."
The left-handed Grevey was SEC Player of the Year as a sophomore but slumped last season after he suffered cuts requiring five stitches in each elbow in a fall over a chain fence. With Kentucky's added depth, Grevey now plays only 32 minutes a game and still collects 25 points and virtually all the clutch baskets. "I get itchy when we need a big one," he says.
Of the Wildcats' first nine men, only two are shooting below 50% The most important among them are the infant twins alternating in the post, 6'10", 240-pound Robey and 6'10", 245-pound Phillips. With their size, defense, rebounding and enthusiasm, they have turned Wildcat fortunes around. Their statistics are nearly identical—together they average 18.5 points and 11 rebounds—but Phillips is the traditional stationary monster, while Robey impersonates a berserk forward who dives for loose balls like a wino after the Thunderbird.
Among their teammates, Guyette was a Rhodes scholar candidate, Flynn is a new father and five others are black.
Since the school's first Great Black Hope dropped out of school and was later tossed in the slammer on a rape charge, Kentucky has had better luck with black recruits. Hall opened up the Wildcat program during the latter Rupp years, but Kentucky still has trouble living down a racist image and attracting recruits from out of state.
All five blacks on this year's team are Kentuckians, three are left-handed and none are tokens. Larry Johnson, a 6'2" sophomore, is the player the Wildcats use to speed up their offense. He is equally adept at ballhandling and defense, won the player-of-the-game award for his 16 points against Notre Dame and probably would start if he were not so valuable coming off the bench.
Merion Haskins, a sophomore who is the brother of Clem, the former Western Kentucky star now in the NBA, is candid about Kentucky. "UK's reputation was always terrible," he says. "When I was in high school I hated Kentucky and rooted for them to lose every game. When they started recruiting me, I thought it was jive nonsense."
This fall Hall strengthened his hand considerably with the addition of a black assistant, Leonard Hamilton, and two black freshmen from Lexington, Jack Givens and James Lee.
So ties to the Rupp years appear severed at last. Hall says, "Last season's 13-13 record was a catharsis. This year I felt we were starting all over again and it was a different era."
The other day Rupp strolled into practice for the first time this season and noticed five new blue-and-white banners hanging from a wall of the Coliseum. One listed all the SEC titles Kentucky has won, the other four signified the NCAA championships. Joe B. Hall had a hand in putting them up there, and Rupp said, "By God, they're finally getting some class around here." For once the grand old man was wrong. There has always been class at Kentucky.