It has been a long and terrible winter in Kentucky. Even now, late in March, the cattle are just getting out to pasture, and the tobacco plowing is behind schedule. It is a Tuesday, two days after Easter, and the sun is warm for the first time in months. There is not a cloud in the sky. In Plot 46 at the Lexington cemetery, under a barren oak tree, the ground remains scarred where the grave was dug almost four months ago; after this rugged winter it will take a while for the grass to grow in. But all things heal in time. Adolph Rupp, interred in this unmarked grave, would have admitted that. The seasons pass, legends are buried, but always the scarred earth turns green.
At the head of Rupp's grave is an arrangement of Easter lilies. A mile away in downtown Lexington the citizenry is celebrating another resurrection. Yes, this has been a winter to remember in Kentucky. The snow kept coming and the Baron died, but when the folks talk about this winter, they will speak of it as the one in which, after a 20-year lapse, the boys brought the NCAA basketball championship back to their old Kentucky home.
The University of Kentucky team that is being cheered and cheered at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington was in deep trouble twice: near the end of the regular season and in the first round of the NCAA tournament. A couple of times Joe B. Hall, the team's 49-year-old coach, had to all but pistol-whip his players to whet their competitive fervor. But the boys won. And now they have come home as heroes, not only to the 15,000 fans in the arena and the 7,000 others clustered outside, listening over the P.A. system, but also to the team's followers in Berea and in Pikeville, in Wolf Coal and in Wax. Kentucky basketball is no mere college-town love object; the team and its games are a statewide mania.
For half a century grown men have cried over Wildcat defeats, and in victory they have often done the same. The country's largest basketball facility, 23,000-seat Rupp Arena, is in Lexington; every ticket is sold for every game. On nights when the Big Blue plays, Kentuckians who have never actually seen the Wildcats in person refuse to move out of earshot of their radios. Some tape each game. Others keep scrapbooks. There is a woman living outside of Lexington who considers it a sacred duty to bake cupcakes for the Wildcats whenever they go on the road. Basketball is almost a religion in Kentucky. Hall speaks of "Wildcat Fever."
Hall had the fever bad as a boy in Cynthiana, Ky. The son of the county sheriff, he spent his youth dreaming of and working toward the day when he would play for Kentucky. While a Boy Scout, he ushered at Wildcat games and then raced home to practice shooting and to lift weights fashioned out of concrete-filled coffee cans fastened to broomsticks. He ran four miles a day, studied diligently, earning the highest grades of any boy in Cynthiana High, and was class president four straight years as well as captain of the basketball team. When he entered the university, it was his misfortune as an aspiring basketball player to arrive in the era of the Fabulous Five ( Alex Groza, Ralph Beard, Kenny Rollins, Wah Wah Jones and Cliff Barker). Still, he worked hard, during one stretch struggling daily from his hospital bed to practice despite a sprained right ankle and an infected left foot. But the talent ahead of him was just too good. He transferred to Sewanee, where he became the basketball captain and set a single-game scoring record of 29 points.
Hall returned to Kentucky as Rupp's assistant in 1965, and he took over as head coach in 1972, when the Baron reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. At the time a lot of Kentuckians thought Hall would again fail to measure up to the university's standards. Rupp's retirement was painful for Wildcat fans; he had won four NCAA, one NIT and 27 SEC championships, and what replacement could be expected to do anywhere near that well? Rupp certainly thought he was irreplaceable. When it became clear in 1971 that Hall was going to succeed him the following year, the old coach became more irascible than usual. Kevin Grevey, a freshman then, remembers that when Hall blew his whistle at practice one day to correct a mistake, Rupp jumped all over his assistant. " Coach Rupp said, 'Don't you ever blow your whistle and stop one of my practices again,' " recalls Grevey. "He embarrassed Coach Hall in front of all the players." That year Hall drove Kentucky's freshmen to a perfect season and they played several games before sellout crowds in Memorial Coliseum. Meanwhile, Rupp instructed the managers who officiated the daily scrimmages between the varsity and freshmen to make sure Hall's team never won. It was Kentucky's version of the Civil War, and Rupp's shadow loomed over Hall through the years. Although Kentucky averaged 21 victories during Hall's first five seasons as head coach, he began the '77-'78 campaign with the discomfiting knowledge that a lot of Kentuckians would be dissatisfied with anything less than the NCAA title. His "hate file," a collection of crank letters he had received, was swelling. He would either do his job or lose his job.
Saturday, Oct. 1—We start practice in two weeks, and everybody wants to know if we are going to win the NCAAs! We can be good, but I don't know how good. I do know a lot of fine teams have failed to go all the way. We have almost everybody back from last year's squad, which lost in the Eastern Regional final to North Carolina, and we've picked up Kyle Macy, who transferred from Purdue. The nucleus of our team is our four seniors: Rick Robey, Mike Phillips, Jack Givens and James Lee. But in basketball your strength often becomes your weakness. Seniors tend to be satisfied. If we get complacent and don't work hard every day, we don't have the talent to win. I'm going to have to find a way to keep them happy; maybe I should say they are going to have to find a way to keep me happy.
Discipline has always been part of Hall's technique. At Regis College in Denver, where he was coach from 1960 through 1964, he would check the players' rooms; if anybody was missing, Hall would leave a dime on his bed so the player could call him when he got in.
At Kentucky, Hall has stayed a step ahead of potential recalcitrants. During his second season he suspended his best player, Grevey, for one game after he visited his room late one night and found him absent.
"He lets the players know from the start that it's going to be tough," says Grevey, now a member of the NBA Bullets. On the night Hall visited Grevey's room, Hall stayed—and Grevey stayed away until Hall left. That was at 6:30 a.m. For the rest of that season the players called Hall "Goldilocks" and "Papa Bear" and kept asking Grevey, "Who's been sleeping in your bed?"