morgantown — Dave Kindred is one of America’s top sportswriters and authors and among his many books was “Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Faithful Friendship.”
It was an investigation into the relationship between Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell.
Kindred earned his spurs as a young newspaper writer with the Louisville Courier-Journal, following Ali through his rise to fame while, at the same time, coming to know the man who was nicknamed “The Baron of the Blue Grass” — Adolph Rupp.
Yes, he is the man Rupp Arena in Lexington is named after and was known as one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time.
And if you are wondering why his name is back in the public view today, consider that if West Virginia’s Bob Huggins beats Missouri in a noon game at the Coliseum Saturday as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge, he will tie Rupp for seventh place in all-time victories with 876.
But who was Adolph Rupp?
He was a complex individual, a great coach but was something of an egomaniac. To some he was a mentor and genius, others saw him as a racist coaching not only at a time when sports were integrating but doing more to integrate the sport in the South in his most difficult defeat to accept than anyone else.
Kindred knew Rupp and tells a story that gives you some idea of what he was like.
At the Courier-Journal, he and Dick Fenlon, another Louisville newspaper legend, had an assignment that sent them to Rupp’s house in Lexington.
Upon opening the door, Fenlon told Rupp who they were.
Rupp gazed at them quizzically.
“There are two columnists in Louisville. Hmmm, Kindred and Fenlon. Fenlon and Kindred. One of you is a son of a bitch, the other is OK. Which one are you?”
And so it went with Rupp. He was one man and he was many men, captured as nowhere else in a documentary years ago — “Adolph Rupp: Myth, Legend and Fact.”
Gale Catlett, the longtime West Virginia coach, spent his internship under Rupp and was prominently featured in the documentary.
“One of the main reasons I had some success in coaching, was because of what I learned from Adolph Rupp about basketball, about people, about life,” Catlett said. “And he was a teacher of people, not basketball. And I just admired him so much, and I will always think, in my mind, that he was the greatest coach ever to coach the game, in any sport.”
But that is not to say he was easy to work for.
“Coach Rupp was a dictator,” Catlett said. “And you had to be a dictator at that time. The most successful coaches in college sports back during that era were dictators. And you think of Bear Bryant, you think of Coach Rupp and you think of Darrell Royal at Texas and you think of just the many great coaches. They had built these empires, so to speak.”
There also was an intellectual side to Rupp.
“He was a very deep man, he just didn’t say yes or no,”Catlett said. “He always had a deep answer for you. And understood Shakespeare, loved Shakespeare, and some things like that. I was just amazed at how intelligent he was in things away from basketball about things in life.”
If he wasn’t easy to work under, he wasn’t easy to work under, either.
“He had his pick of great players and he demanded that they be good. Bill Spivey once told me that ‘Adolph wanted all of us to hate him and he succeeded,’” Kindred said.
Bill Spivey was one of the first 7-footers to play basketball, playing for Rupp from 1949 to 1951, leading them to the NCAA Championship in 1951 and being named Most Valuable Player in the Tournament.
But while Rupp had great success, let’s just say he had more ego.
Former Kentucky coach C.M. Newton put it this way in the documentary.
“Coach Rupp had a very, I’ll say this kindly, a very healthy ego. He let you know who he was. I remember the old famous story about him driving down through Western Kentucky somewhere and having to stop and going in, didn’t have any money, and he wrote a check. “The guy said that Coach Rupp wrote a check and put Adolph Rupp on there and handed it to him and said ‘You know who that is ?’ And the guy says, ‘I hope it’s you!’ That was the kind of ego he had. Everybody knew who he was.?
“Rupp believed that Adolph Rupp was a great coach,” Kindred said. “He believed that with everything in him and he proved it. But at the same time he didn’t mind letting you know that he was very good.
“And again, that was at a time in history when modesty was thought to be a great attribute. He was not a modest guy. He won 876 games and his players lost 190.”
But, Kindred swears, Adolph Rupp was not a bad person.
“People thought he was a bad guy,” Kindred said. “For some reason they thought he was a bad guy. He was not, you know, he was not your hail fellow well meant.
“He wanted to beat you, he wanted to beat you bad and he wanted to keep beating you bad. And nobody liked it. And he bragged about how bad he was going to do it. Then when he did it, he bragged about it some more. So nobody liked him, and so they would pin anything on him that they could.”
Perhaps Rupp’s most memorable team was the one that lost the NCAA Final, the team nicknamed “Rupp’s Runts”an all-white team that went up against an all-black Texas Western team that forever changed basketball.
This was 1966 in the heart of the Civil Rights Movement but the SEC had not yet integrated in basketball.
According to those who wrote about the game, that was not a big deal at the time but it came to symbolize the Deep South’s resistance to change.
Pat Riley, an NBA star and coach, was the star of that team.
“There wasn’t any racism in him. There wasn’t,” Riley said in the documentary. “All there was, was a guy that wanted to win and take the best players. And I think he was judged on the subject harshly because he was a winner, he was a bigger than life character.”
“Any attempt to make him a segregationist was just ridiculous,” said Joe B. Hall, who followed Rupp at Kentucky.
Kentucky remained slow to integrate but Kindred notes that wasn’t a part of what he was.
“Rupp was a man born in Kansas in the 19th century. He came to Kentucky in 1930. His world was NOT Martin Luther King’s world. He was NOT a social crusader. He was a basketball coach,” Kindred said.
“I think it was too much to expect. Too much to put on his shoulders to think that he should have been a social crusader in addition to being a basketball coach. Very few people could do both of those things.”
Many of Rupp’s players wound up involved in scandals, including Spivey. In the early 1950s college basketball was rocked by a point-shaving scandal and players were banned from the game and some sent to jail.
“They couldn’t reach my boys with a ten-foot pole,” Rupp said then.
He needed a longer pole. The NCAA suspended the Kentucky basketball program for the 1952-53 season.
Ralph Beard and Rupp’s “Fabulous Five” team — Beard, Alex Groza, Wallace Jones, Cliff Barker and Kenny Rollins — from the late 1940s were implicated in the scandal for taking bribes in 1951.
And later 7-foot-1 Tom Payne, the first African-American to play at Kentucky, was arrested and sent to jail as a serial rapist when he was playing with the Atlanta Hawks.
Rupp died of spinal cancer at age 76 in Lexington on a night when Kentucky defeated his Kansas alma mater at Allen Fieldhouse. The game had been promoted as Adolph Rupp Night.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel