A lacquer of frost is on the bluegrass again, time for the farmer to prepare his tobacco for auction, for the mare to wait out her foal, for the Governor and Senator to unwind from another round of that fine old Commonwealth tradition of musical seats. And time, too, for the voice of Kentucky basketball, Cawood Ledford, to rejoice in full cry over the 50,000 watts of WHAS, Louisville: "MARK it down, fans, the 'Cats are running!"
And so they are. The Kentucky Wildcats, sons of history, sires of glory, inventors of the guard-around and the fast break and the white rebounder, are running once more. Trailed by ghosts and beset by innuendo, Kentucky has squarely faced the challenge of a rejuvenated Southeastern Conference and the backwash of miseries from last winter and now has moved in alongside Tennessee as the No. 1 challenge in the SEC to favored Alabama.
Last week, after a 96-77 win at Georgia and despite a 90-85 upset at Auburn, Kentucky owned a 9-2 record and a 94-point-a-game average and probably will get better. The Wildcats were even threatening to outrun the burly monument in the brown suit whose image stalks them from an office just down the hall.
Even as Adolph Rupp, the progenitor, adjusts to his sedentary role as basketball's Godfather, Hereford cattle baron and lovable shill for the ABA franchise up the interstate in Louisville, his name and semipresence haunt Memorial Coliseum.
"I don't have that depth of feeling, the sense that the boys are mine anymore," says Rupp. "I'll never get used to it, and that's very sad." Still, he should know that senior Guard Jimmy Dan Conner refers to him as "the greatest old man who ever lived," and awe-struck younger teammates sneak glances through the window in the door of the office marked "consultant" each time they pass.
Against his wishes The Baron was forced into retirement two years ago but, instead of presenting him with a gold watch, Kentucky gave him his office. It is the same one Rupp always had. It puts him right in the middle of things, just across the hall from the candy machines, while his successor, Joe B. Hall, works far down at the other end of the building. Though the old man is not there much anymore and long since has been honored to a fare-thee-well for winning four national championships and four hundred million games, it is obviously not over for him.
Much like frightened Mafia capos wary of deserting a fading Don to give fealty to young Michael, the Lexington citizenry persists in the sanctification of Rupp. At a preseason player banquet the main speaker wallowed in Ruppania. At the Tennessee game Rupp was surprised by the return of many former players to dedicate a 600-pound bronze plaque to him. Later this month he will be honored by a chamber of commerce dinner attended by celebrities including Lawrence Welk. Old Barons never die, they just suffer testimonials from bandleaders.
All of this does not make it any easier for Hall, a plain, congenial former ketchup salesman who must feel like George Selkirk when he followed Babe Ruth into right field at Yankee Stadium. Luckily, Kentucky's performance now is serving Hall well after two seasons marred by inconsistent play, as well as some indelicate barbs emanating from the deposed monarch.
In his first year Hall guided the 'Cats to a 20-8 record and the finals of the Mideast Region, but Rupp, who still had his own postgame radio show, labeled it a "disappointing"' campaign. Last season, when the Wildcats lacked a center and struggled to a bizarre 13-13 record that included losing to Alabama on Kentucky's court by 23 points, failing to score for the last five minutes of a game at Tennessee and falling behind 14-0 at Auburn, Rupp was mute, allowing disaster to take its course and others to scream for Hall's head.
With Kentucky streaking again, The Baron's name is back in the rumor mills. It is said that he has told friends that Hall has yet to inspire confidence in his players. It also is said that Rupp, still bitter at the university for putting him out to pasture, has even volunteered to aid recruiters from other schools by speaking against Kentucky to youngsters.