There was a time when the University of Kentucky could boast of having, year in and year out, the best college basketball team in the land. Now it can't even claim the best team in Kentucky. The latest blow to the Wildcats' pretense to preeminence in Bluegrass country came last week in Nashville, where everybody expected Kentucky and Louisville to meet in a "dream game" in the second round of the NCAA Mideast Regional. The dream turned into a nightmare when the Wildcats were upset 50-44 in the first round by Middle Tennessee State. It's bad enough that Kentucky got bounced from the tournament and that Louisville subsequently whipped Middle Tennessee 81-56. But what really stamps the Wildcats as No. 2 on their own turf is their continuing and increasingly shameful reluctance to play despised Louisville in the regular season.
That failure of the competitive spirit on Kentucky's part plays very much into the hands of Denny Crum, who became the Louisville coach in 1971. Crum has turned out a succession of talented and freewheeling teams, and when the Cardinals won the NCAA championship two years ago, he got in a dig at the Wildcats by crowing, "Now we're the university of Kentucky." Under Crum, Louisville has thumbed its nose at entrenched Kentucky in other ways; this season a Louisville radio station, WHAS, which for many years has broadcast Kentucky games, also started carrying Cardinal games.
Kentucky could have responded to Louisville's challenge with considerably more grace than it has. Outside of the greater Louisville area, the Wildcats continue to own the hearts and minds of most of the state's rabid basketball fans, and probably always will. Under Joe B. Hall, who had the thankless task of succeeding Adolph Rupp as coach in 1972, they won an NCAA tournament of their own in 1978. But Hall's somewhat regimented team isn't as much fun to watch as Louisville's, and to judge by the great number of stars who have transferred to other schools, it's also considerably less fun to play for. And the Wildcats have tended to fold at inopportune moments, last week's stunning upset in Nashville being only the latest example.
In losing to Middle Tennessee, Kentucky may have been guilty of looking ahead to the anticipated showdown with Louisville. And in view of the Cardinal phobia that has been bred into Wildcat players, how could it have been otherwise? The two schools haven't scheduled each other in basketball since 1922, and they last met in the NCAA tournament in 1959, when Louisville upset one of Rupp's best teams 76-61. Crum has repeatedly called for the two schools to start playing each other during the regular season, but Kentucky coaches, officials and boosters, taking a what-have-we-got-to-gain position, have turned a deaf ear.
They have looked silly in the process. When a TV reporter asked Hall in a preseason interview about the prospect for such a game, the Kentucky coach looked into the camera and said, "Cut...dissolve." And when The Sporting News tried to arrange for Louisville and Kentucky players to pose together for the cover of its college basketball issue. Hall balked. A bill has been introduced in the Kentucky legislature that would require the two schools to meet each year in both basketball and football (the Wildcats have lately been avoiding Louisville in that sport, too), but University of Kentucky supporters opposed the measure, which is currently bottled up in committee. Under the circumstances, some Louisville partisans could scarcely be blamed for wondering aloud whether Hall's team had intentionally lost to Middle Tennessee in order to avoid playing the Cardinals. There's no reason, thank goodness, to believe such a thing, but Hall and his Wildcats don't have much to be proud of all the same.
Could it have been an omen? In Murfreesboro, Tenn., home of Middle Tennessee State, bumper stickers reading MURFREESBORO NEEDS JOE B were seen long before last week's big win over Kentucky. But the stickers didn't refer to Wildcat Coach Hall. It happens that Joe B. Jackson is the Democratic candidate for mayor in Murfreesboro's April 20 general election.
A BIG GUY SPEAKS OUT
Bob Hill, a columnist for The Louisville Times, has a pet peeve. Hill is vexed that basketball coaches, announcers, sports-writers and fans insist on saying of Ralph Sampson, Sam Bowie and other sweet-shooting giants, "He's got a great touch for a big man." Calling that phrase "archaic, offensive and discriminatory," Hill allowed in one of his recent columns that there was a time when the "big lummoxes" who played basketball couldn't shoot, but he pointed out that the "game is now overrun with 6'8" clones who are good outside shots." With unassailable logic, Hill asked, "Has anyone ever said that 6'8" John Kenneth Galbraith is a great economist for a big man?" Warming to his subject, Hill also wrote, "And why shouldn't [today's big men] be good shots?" He answered his own question: "They don't have those dumb, ugly, stubby little fingers that the pint-sized guys do."
Forgive the flash of anger. The 6'5" Hill, who was a swingman on Rice's basketball team in the early '60s, admitted that he was still scarred from having suffered the slings and arrows of classmates because he was "the tallest kid in my class for 12 years in a row."
In the first 21 years of the conference's existence, Southern Cal won or was co-winner of no fewer than 17 Pac-8 and, later, Pac-10 swimming championships, thanks to an abundance of standout performers like Joe Bottom (1974-77) and his brother Mike (1975-78), each of whom swam on four conference championship teams. A third brother, Dave, is now a freshman at Stanford, having decided not to follow Joe and Mike to USC. At the Pac-10 meet two weeks ago in Los Angeles, Dave was Stanford's leading scorer, placing second in the 100-yard butterfly and in the 100- and 200-yard backstrokes, as the Cardinal won its first team swimming title in conference history. USC placed fifth.
SAVE YOUR BEAR MEMORABILIA, THE PRICE WILL RISE AGAIN
Following a 1981 season in which he became the winningest coach in college football history—he has 315 career victories, one more than Amos Alonzo Stagg—Bear Bryant is now suffering the postmilestone blahs. Bryant's top administrative aide, Charley Thornton, has up and taken a job at Texas A&M, and the Crimson Tide appears to have been out-recruited for next season by, among others, cross-state rival Auburn. One recruiting pitch used against the 68-year-old Bryant was that he faces mandatory retirement in two years, and unless some of his influential boosters succeed in making that retirement unmandatory, well, who would want to become part of a program as unsettled as that? Another pitch was that Bryant's grip on his players was slipping, as evidenced by the fact that several of them had scrapes with the law in 1981, leading to jokes around Tuscaloosa that the school's cheer should be changed from "Roll Tide" to "Parole Tide."
But none of this prevented 1,000 well-wishers from assembling in the ballroom of the Sheraton Washington (D.C.) Hotel last week for a $125-a-plate dinner billed as "America's Tribute to Paul (Bear) Bryant." Bob Hope and the Rev. Billy Graham were at the head table, so you knew right away that something important to America was going on, and the ballroom was decorated to resemble a stadium, complete with artificial turf on the floor, a lighted scoreboard, a replica of the Goodyear blimp hovering overhead (it was adorned with Bryant's name in lights) and "vendors" dispensing peanuts. Equally lavish were the words of Alabama Senator Jeremiah Denton, one of the dinner's sponsors, who said, "In Alabama, Coach Bryant is second only to God. We believe that on the eighth day the Lord created the Crimson Tide."
The dinner, the proceeds from which were earmarked for a scholarship fund at the school in Bryant's name, gave Alabama fans every reason to be confident about the future—if not necessarily on the gridiron, then certainly in the marketplace for Bryant memorabilia. All the guests at the function received limited-edition souvenir programs, each of them individually numbered, presumably in the expectation that historical documents chronicling the Bryant era will one day fetch a pretty price. Guests also received 10-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola bearing Bryant's likeness on the label. The commemorative Cokes went on sale in Alabama last December for, typically, 692 each and are in such demand around the state that some stores reportedly are now asking—and getting—up to $3 apiece. Instead of drinking the Cokes, many guests slipped the unopened bottles into pockets and purses and took them home for safekeeping. For his part, Bryant was presented with two paintings of Alabama football scenes, keys to a new van, a couple of stuffed bears and a small bronze bust of himself.
Three days after New Jersey Senator Harrison A. Williams Jr. resigned under threat of expulsion following his conviction on federal bribery and conspiracy charges, what was billed as "Williams Day" was held, as previously scheduled, in the Garden State. Don't worry, the disgraced politician wasn't the one being honored. The festivities, which took place before the New Jersey Nets' 98-97 loss to the Seattle SuperSonics in the Byrne Arena's in East Rutherford, N.J., recognized Ray Williams, one of the Net newcomers who have helped give that team new life this season (page 64), and his brother Gus, who plays for the Sonics. Neither ex-Senator Williams nor Bill Bradley, who succeeds him as the state's senior U.S. Senator and who has earned some honors in the NBA in his day, was on hand for the ceremony.
ONE OF A KIND TAKES A MATE
Since winning the three-meter springboard diving championship as a teenager at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Jennifer Chandler has attended college (University of California at Irvine), retired from amateur athletic competition, done some coaching and become the answer to the following trivia question: How many American women have won individual Olympic gold medals in swimming or diving since 1972? Owing to her countrywomen's poor showing in '76 and the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow, the answer is exactly one—Jennifer Chandler. Something else that Chandler, now 22, has done since her triumph in Montreal is become engaged to Samuel Edgar Ainslie, 24, a golf teaching pro whom she'll wed in Birmingham on April 3. We congratulate her on taking the plunge.
CONSIDERED TOGETHER, THEY'RE IDEAL
Contrary to anything else you may hear on the subject, the starting guards on the San Diego Clippers aren't Oscar Madison and Felix Ungar. They're Charlie Criss, the NBA's shortest player, and Joe (Jelly Bean) Bryant, quite possibly the tallest guard in league history, and they've been the Clippers' regular back-court combination for almost a month now. Criss is 5'8", Bryant 6'9½", and if the height disparity strikes you as bizarre, look at it this way: They average around 6'3", which is probably pretty close to normal for an NBA backcourt.
THEY SAID IT
•Abe Lemons, after being fired last week as the University of Texas basketball coach by the school's athletic director, DeLoss Dodds: "I looked around the room and nobody else was there, so he had to be talking to me."
•Ed Lynch, New York Met pitcher and a former basketball player at the University of South Carolina, addressing teammates as he stood motionless in the clubhouse: "I'm demonstrating the North Carolina offense."