A governor cannot succeed himself in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and a horse can run only once in the Derby, but as long as Adolph Rupp is around the Bluegrass will never suffer from a lack of continuity. For 36 years, in a land of colonels, he has been the only Baron, a man of consummate pride and well-earned privilege. One might think that Adolph Rupp would be satisfied now to retire to his estate in the pleasant, rolling country outside Lexington, there to tend his prize Herefords and Burley tobacco, to rest amid his affluence and such souvenirs of glory as no other basketball coach ever has gathered. Instead, at the age of 64, he continues to pursue the only challenge left—trying to top himself. And that is some tough act to follow.
Rupp has won 743 games, 22 Southeastern Conference titles (the trophy shown with him on the cover represents one of these) and four NCAA national championships, as well as enough acclaim (and censure, too) to serve most men, barons and otherwise, for all their years. Yet his persistence in staying at his job has won him this year something more than just another trophy or a few fresh statistics. He is threatening to become the grand old man of basketball.
Nearly everywhere his undefeated, No. 1 team has played, in the old hellholes and new field houses throughout the South, where he has been hooted and despised for decades, Rupp has been accorded ovations of respect merely upon his appearance on the court. Though he does not admit it, he must sense his new status. Typical was the scene in Nashville four weeks ago after his Wildcats beat Vanderbilt, virtually assuring themselves a berth in the NCAA tournament and crushing the hopes of the home fans for a championship of their own. After shaking hands with the losing coach Rupp turned and, as the Vanderbilt partisans responded with applause for their conqueror, he threw an arm about Kentucky Forward Larry Conley, received Conley's arm around his shoulder in return, and together—beaming—they marched down the length of the court.
Everyone's explanation for Rupp's new phase is that he has mellowed. "That's what they're saying," he concedes, indicating nothing except that it is interesting, at least, to be called mellow after all those years of antonymous description. But then he moves on, into voluntary, eager praise for his team. "These boys are coachable," he says. "They listen and they do what they're supposed to. They're a pleasure and they're all regular. They are regular to the last man. It would be mean if they lost a game."
There has been a great deal of fuss in the commonwealth about the matter of finding a nickname for this team, in keeping with those that have distinguished former Wildcat clubs. Mrs. Mary Simmerman of Lexington even wrote to the paper insisting that all the players be commissioned, so that they could simply and rightfully be proclaimed "The Kentucky Colonels." Most suggestions have featured alliteration, and so far " Rupp's Runts" seems to be leading in popularity. Regardless of the final public choice, however, it is clear from his behavior that this is Rupp's favorite five.
Adolph's mellowing has had little effect on the famous Kentucky practices, those taut lessons in efficiency which the Baron and his assistants preside over, all dressed in outfits of starched khaki. But this year Rupp's sarcasm, which used to endanger sensitive eardrums, is being held to a minimum. And, off the court, the players, a remarkably intelligent and personable bunch, are accorded attention and solicitude that no other Rupp team has ever been granted. "The other day," says senior Guard Tommy Kron, "I heard him ask Conley what he was going to do after graduation. I never heard of that before. Coach Rupp always sort of found those things out. He was interested, but there was never anything like that." The attitude is unanimously reciprocal, too. "I really want to win this thing for him," says junior Forward Pat Riley. "We all do. We're very close. It seems like we've all grown this year, and he's just grown into us."
Rupp gives Kron the hardest time on the practice floor ("Someday I'm going to write a book on how not to play basketball, and I'm going to devote the first 200 pages to you"), but the mellow Baron quickly takes over. The night before the Tennessee game last week the team met outside Rupp's office to receive encouragement from the cheerleaders. On behalf of the players Kron accepted a prize for "a special team, a special Kentucky team, something special." It was a decorated giant-size box of the cereal Special K.
Shortly afterward Rupp came by on his way home. "Now, Tommy," he said. "No courting tonight." Kron had been fighting a virus and had hardly been out of his room for the last three days. "Now, you get your rest," Rupp added.
"Well, I don't know if I can get to sleep, but I'll just lie there," Kron said.
"Well, then," Rupp replied, almost paternally by now, "you get a good supper." Then he saw the cereal box.