Review of Adolph Rupp and the Rise of Kentucky Basketball

Bolin, James Duane. Adolph Rupp and the Rise of Kentucky Basketball. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky.  2019. Pp.  394. Bibliography and index. $40 hardback.

Reviewed by Bob D’Angelo.

There are not enough adjectives to describe Adolph Rupp, but author James Duane Bolin gives it a good try.

University of Kentucky Press, 2019.

“Successful, colorful, crusty and controversial,” (p. 17) Bolin writes in his sweeping, thorough biography of the man who coached University of Kentucky basketball for 42 years. Rupp won four national titles and 27 Southeastern Conference crowns at Kentucky. When he was forced to retire in 1972, the “Baron of the Bluegrass” was college basketball’s winningest coach with 876 victories. “He forged an identity that united a backward state,” Bolin writes in Adolph Rupp and the Rise of Kentucky Basketball (p. 8). Rupp, who died in 1977, was larger than life, a cantankerous, iron-fisted coach who preached the fast break and pinpoint passing. He was “the man in the brown suit,” superstitious to a fault, and held the Bluegrass state in the palm of his hand.

Mention Rupp’s name to longtime Wildcats fans, and there is an almost reverent tone in response. “It was the dream of 95 percent of the boys in Kentucky to play for coach Rupp,” according to Elhanan “Pete” Grigsby, who played for Rupp during the 1950s and carved out his own coaching legacy at McDowell High School in eastern Kentucky during the 1960s and ’70s. I spoke with Grigsby in 2014, and he remembered how Rupp could pick and choose who he wanted to play in Lexington. “If he wanted you, he did the talking,” Grigsby said.

Rupp did plenty of talking during his career, which makes researching him a lot easier.

Bolin, a professor emeritus of history at Murray State University, is well-versed in Kentucky lore, writing Bossism and Reform in a Southern City: Lexington, Kentucky, 1880-1940 in 2000; Kentucky Baptists, 1925-2000: A Story of Cooperation, also in 2000; and Kentucky Women: Their Lives and Times, in 2015. Bolin began writing the book when his mentor at the University of Kentucky, Humbert Nelli, scrapped plans to write a biography of Rupp and turned over his research materials to his former student. Bolin then expanded his research, combing through archives and newspaper articles, and interviewing more than 100 former players, assistants, friends and critics of Rupp.

Still, tackling Rupp’s towering legend was a daunting task. He was considered a messiah in Kentucky, the man who built a basketball dynasty in a conference that emphasized football. And yet, Rupp had his faults —  he was an unabashed self-promoter, he antagonized his assistants, conference rivals and school administrators, and he was viewed as a racist who could not adjust to the times as blacks began to make an impact in American sports. According to then-Kentucky football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, Rupp called the door to his office “the pearly gates,” telling a recruit, ‘By gad, you’ve just walked into the pearly gates of basketball!” (p. 247).

It is easy to generalize Rupp’s career by focusing on three areas: The tremendous success of his “Fabulous Five” squad that won the national title in 1948; the point shaving scandal in 1951 that prevented Kentucky from playing during the 1952-1953 season; and the 1966 NCAA title game, when the all-white “Rupp’s Runts” lost to a Texas Western squad that had five blacks in the starting lineup. Bolin addresses all three of these areas completely but also digs deeply to chronicle Rupp’s youth and early basketball career. He was helped by nineteen interviews Russell Rice conducted with Rupp between 1931 and 1972 in what has been called the Adolph Rupp Oral History Project.

Rupp was the son of German immigrants who were Mennonites. He and his siblings spoke German in their household, as many residents of Halstead, Kansas, did during the early twentieth century. Rupp’s father died when he was nine, forcing him to work in the Kansas wheat fields. The loss of his father also made finding a mentor important. He found it in basketball, where he played for Forrest “Phog” Allen at the University of Kansas. Rupp did not see much action with the Jayhawks, but he observed and learned how Allen, a disciple of basketball founder James Naismith, coached and handled players. It would become the blueprint for Rupp’s success as a high school basketball coach, and ultimately, at Kentucky when he took over the program in 1930. As a coach, Rupp was cold and calculating, rarely complimenting his players. Cliff Rollins asked Rupp once why he was always “tearing us down but you never compliment us.” “By gawd, I brought you here to play a hundred percent all of the time,” Rupp told him. “Hell, you’re not supposed to make any mistakes.”“I never asked that question again,” Rollins said. “And I never got a compliment either.” (p. 156).

The 1966 loss to Texas Western made Rupp “the perfect villain for this morality play.” (p. 270). The game would be immortalized in the 2006 movie Glory Road. Actor Jon Voight portrayed Rupp and warned Herky Rupp, the coach’s son, that “he doubted the movie would be very popular in Kentucky.” (p. 299). The debate over the game and its implications continue. Sportswriters Billy Reed and Dave Kindred have defended Rupp, calling the loss to Texas Western more of a “David vs. Goliath” game and noting the racism subplot emerged years after the game was played. Other writers, like Curry Kirkpatrick, had withering criticism for Rupp in an article that rain in the April 1, 1991 edition of Sports Illustrated, called “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” “In public, Rupp usually was a charming p.r. rogue, brimming with diplomacy and psychology; regrettably, his politics leaned more toward the KKK,” Kirkpatrick wrote.

Some of Rupp’s defenders did not help the coach’s cause. Neither did Rupp. Bolin writes of the time Rupp told a radio announcer that black players were quick because “the lions and tigers caught all the slow ones.” (p. 2). In late 2005, Dick Gabriel, the sports manager at WKYT-TV in Lexington, produced a documentary trying to set the record straight about Rupp. As he began researching, Gabriel asked his 15-year-old son what he knew about the Kentucky coaching legend. “Great coach. Won a lot of championships,” Gabriel’s son said. “Didn’t like black people.” (p. 270). After that 1966 loss, Lexington Herald-Leader sports editor Billy Thompson, the master of ceremonies at the basketball team’s banquet, told the audience, “At least we’re still the No. 1 white team in America.” (p. 298).

Rupp certainly missed the boat in recruiting talented blacks, as UCLA’s John Wooden recruited blacks liberally and began a run of ten NCAA titles in a dozen years, including seven in a row from 1967 to 1973. Kentucky administrators pressured Rupp to recruit blacks, Bolin writes, but the coach said such a player “would have a hard time on road trips to Mississippi or Alabama.” (p. 161). Nevertheless, Tom Payne became the first black to play for Rupp at Kentucky in 1969 but left after one season to enter the pros as a hardship case. Rupp would blame the NBA for stealing his best player, saying in 1972 that “If we had Tom Payne, we’d be undefeated.” (p. 330).

Rupp’s greatest team was the “Fabulous Five,” which won the NCAA title in 1948. The squad went 34-3 in 1946-47 and lost at the National Invitational Tournament. But the Wildcats were not to be denied in 1947-1948, carving out a 36-3 record with Alex Groza, Ralph Beard, Wallace “Wah Wah” Jones, Rollins and Cliff Barker leading the way. Kentucky’s success would be tempered by the point-shaving scandal that came to light in 1951. Although Rupp claimed, “fixers couldn’t touch my boys with a ten-foot pole,” (p. 181), Groza, Beard and Dale Barnstable were arrested and charged with fixing games during their college playing days.

Even though the players were charged, Bolin writes that the court documents from the sentence in 1952 “was mostly a blistering condemnation” of Rupp (p. 184), who “aided and abetted the immoral subsidization of the players.” Judge Saul Streit wrote that Rupp’s “overbearing manner and ‘it pays to win’ policy marked him as a foreman of a hard-driven working squad,” rather than a “teacher and inspirational force worthy of the institutions he represented.” (p. 184). The Wildcats’ 1952-1953 season was canceled as punishment, but the team went 25-0 in 1953-1954 — although Rupp held the team out of postseason play when three stars were ruled ineligible because they could not play in the playoffs as graduate students (that rule has since been changed). But by the 1957-1958 season, the “Fiddlin’ Five” brought Rupp his fourth and final NCAA title. Rupp passed Western Kentucky’s Ed Diddle as the NCAA’s winningest coach Feb. 18, 1968, when he notched victory No. 760 in a 103-74 triumph at Mississippi State. But by the 1970s, Kentucky administrators believed times had passed him by. Rupp was forced to step down due to state regulations requiring mandatory retirement at age 70, quietly announcing his departure in March 1972.

Bolin’s notes are extensive and at times very descriptive, adding texture and nuance to his narrative. He writes about Rupp’s home life, his charitable deeds and his joy at raising Hereford cattle. Rupp also served as president of the Kentucky Hereford Association in 1959. Although Bolin writes sympathetically about Rupp, he makes it clear the coach couldn’t — or wouldn’t — change with the times. Nevertheless, Bolin argues Rupp changed the game of basketball. He perfected the fast break that was introduced by his predecessor, John Mauer. “Coach Rupp was fast break, fast break fast break,” Grigsby remembered in 2014, sixty years after playing on Rupp’s unbeaten squad. “He had a system where you passed the ball — but every player had options. He could pass, take a shot or get the ball down inside.” It goes without saying that Grigsby, who died in 2016, employed Rupp’s system as a high school coach.

Rupp’s success also forced other schools in the SEC to build bigger basketball arenas. While he refused to recruit blacks for many years, Rupp played all teams — integrated or not. Bolin references the cliché that Kentuckians from Pikeville to Paducah rooted for the Wildcats, and it is true that he was beloved in his home state. But Bolin provides a view that shows Rupp from every angle, even the unsavory ones. Bolin does not revert to the argument that Rupp was a product of his times; rather, he documents his triumphs and failures, weaving them into a historical narrative that is informative and educational.

Bob D’Angelo was a sports journalist and sports copy editor for more than three decades and is currently a digital national content editor for Cox Media Group. He received his master’s degree in history from Southern New Hampshire University in May 2018. He is the author of Never Fear: The Life & Times of Forest K. Ferguson Jr. (2015), reviews books on his blog, Bob D’Angelo’s Books & Blogs, and hosts a sports podcast channel on the New Books Network.

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