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Ever since you were old enough to drink water after 6 p.m., you've probably understood that Adolph Rupp ranked right up there with Colonel Sanders, Man o' War, Mammoth Cave and other great Kentucky inventions. You've known it and believed it, another legend to help you through those desultory days when you needed a push every 15 minutes to get your brain kick-started. Irascible, cantankerous, lovable, immovable ol' Adolph. As basketball coach at the University of Kentucky, he fooled more fools, won more games and sassed more referees than any battalion of us ever could hope to do. But last week the final page turned as Kentucky opened its season. Not only was Adolph missing from the bench, he was a couple of hundred miles away, back home in Lexington, listening to the game on the radio. The Baron had become simply the fan in the brown suit.
For all of you who understand modern math, it might be necessary to say that there was a time when UCLA aspired to be the UK of the West. While John Wooden was a high school coach in Dayton, Ky., for gracious sakes, Rupp was amassing a record that eventually included four NCAA championships, one NIT title and 27 Southeastern Conference championships. In 42 years Rupp's teams won 879 games, just a little over eight out of every 10 they played.
But dynasties, like fine china, never seem to fare well when passed from hand to hand. Even though the new coach, Joe Hall, was a good ol' boy who was born and raised in Cynthiana, Ky., there still was a goodly amount of trepidation accompanying Kentucky fans to East Lansing, Mich. last Saturday to watch their team open the season against Michigan State. And what they saw did not look like a Kentucky team.
The Wildcats won, 75-66, but they did it by playing a pressuring, multi-faceted defense, rebounding and blocking shots and using more substitutions than a sour-stomach restaurant. Hall shuttled in all 12 of his players in the first half. Under Rupp, a second-line player was sure only that he would have a clear line of sight for the entire season, much of the reason why the school at times seemed to be just a place to get a transfer out of. In fact, Hall himself transferred from Kentucky after his sophomore year in 1950, discouraged by having to play behind that year's "fabulous five."
Joe Hall thus faces the most difficult job in college basketball, and in many ways he begins it as the antithesis of his predecessor. Rupp's craggy face and brusque wit were the cement and mortar that built the specter of The Baron; Hall's appearance and demeanor are mindful of his name—simple, reliable and neat, no abbreviations or nicknames necessary. Except for one week when he left to take the head-coaching job at St. Louis University, this soft-spoken man had waited offcourt as an assistant coach at Kentucky for seven years while the resolute Rupp creaked toward the university's mandatory retirement age of 71. But even when he pulled abreast of retirement last year, he hesitated. Finally, facing the inevitable, Adolph announced his retirement—although that retirement is not always as apparent to others as it is to him. President now of the Memphis Tarns of the American Basketball Association, Rupp lives in Lexington, maintains an office at UK's Memorial Coliseum and now and then looks in on basketball practice. "He's stopped by several times this year and each time I've invited him to talk to the team and each time he has," says Hall.
Publicly, the players profess no preference for one professor over the other, but privately they are willing to confess their pleasure at the transition. " Coach Rupp was just getting old," said one member of the team a few days before the Michigan State game. "He's a great man, but I would say that the players believe that Coach Hall will be able to take us farther than Coach Rupp could have."
The Baron maintained an omnipotent stance during his reign. He was the lord, the players were the serfs, and if they made mistakes he chewed them out in front of the fans and in front of the sportswriters. "It was his way of toughening you up," says senior Jim Andrews, a target of Rupp's vitriolic tongue last year. "I knew that he wanted me to try a little harder and I went out and tried a little harder—sometimes."
Andrews almost quit Kentucky as a sophomore when he found himself as the third center behind Tom Payne and Mark Soderberg, who later transferred. "When I was a sophomore," Andrews says, "I never heard from him but I knew that when the day came that Payne signed with the pros, I'd hear. And I did. He called me up at 9 a.m. one day and asked me how I was feeling, if my summer job was all right. I knew then that Payne was leaving. He did, too."
" Coach Hall is kind of down to our level of thinking more than Coach Rupp," says Ronnie Lyons, another team member cauterized by Rupp last year. "You can relate more to him than you could to Coach Rupp."
Hall takes the players on fishing trips and has them over to his house for dinner on occasion. "I was a head coach at small colleges before I came to Kentucky," says Hall, "and I learned then to be everything to my players. I've been a trainer. I've been a tutor. I've been a doctor. I've got a background of closeness to the players and I don't think I'll ever lose that."