views updated

RUPP, Adolph Frederick

(b. 2 September 1901 in Halstead, Kansas; d. 10 December 1977 in Lexington, Kentucky), basketball coach who led the University of Kentucky Wildcats for four decades, winning four National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championships, a National Invitational Tournament title, and a then-record 876 games.

Rupp was one of six children born to Heinrich Rupp, a farmer, and Anna Lichti Rupp, a homemaker. Both parents were Mennonites who had immigrated to the United States in the latter years of the nineteenth century. Rupp's father died of pneumonia in 1910 and his oldest brother, Otto, quit school to run the farm with their mother. At Halstead High School, Rupp captained the basketball team and reportedly served as the de facto coach in his senior year, when he averaged more than nineteen points per game.

After graduating from high school in 1919, Rupp entered the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where he encountered James Naismith, the inventor of basketball and the university's director of physical education, and Forrest "Phog" Allen, Naismith's protégé and the Jayhawks' coach. Although Rupp was never more than a bench player at Kansas, he studied Allen closely. During his own coaching career, Rupp imitated many of Allen's habits and mannerisms and eventually surpassed Allen's records for most wins by a college coach. After earning a bachelor's degree, then spending additional time working toward a graduate degree, he left Lawrence in 1924 and spent several years teaching and coaching basketball and wrestling at high schools in Burr Oak, Kansas (1924); Marshalltown, Iowa (1924–1926); and Freeport, Illinois (1926–1930). While coaching in Freeport, Rupp spent summers studying at New York's Columbia University, earning an M.A. in educational administration and a college teacher's diploma in 1930.

In four seasons at Freeport High School in northern Illinois, Rupp's basketball teams scored 59–21, earning him an interview for the head coaching job at the University of Kentucky in Lexington in 1930. Asked why the job was given to Rupp, who was just twenty-eight years old at the time and one of seventy applicants, a school administrator said, "Because he told us he was the best damned basketball coach in the United States, and he convinced us he was." Like Allen at Kansas, Rupp ran his practices with military precision. Rupp and his assistants wore starched khaki, and players were silent as they ran through their drills: spot shooting, free throws, defense, and scrimmages. Players who failed to meet Rupp's expectations were subjected to his withering sarcasm. Rupp was intense about everything. He once said it felt like he had lye in his stomach before every game, and that he could not relax even when Kentucky was ahead. "Every time they score," he said of the opposition, "my heart bleeds. I don't care what the score is."

Rupp was also highly superstitious, always wearing a double-breasted brown suit as he sat on the bench during games. From his seat he ranted and raved, berating officials, the opposition, and even his own players. Rupp imported Allen's fast-break style of offense to Kentucky, and his first team went 15–3. On 29 August 1931 Rupp married Esther Schmidt, whom he had met and dated in Freeport; they had one child. Even though Rupp's teams were winners from the beginning, and basketball soon surpassed football as the top sport in Kentucky, the "Baron of the Bluegrass" came into his own as a coach only after the end of World War II. Kentucky dominated the national college basketball scene from 1946 through 1958, winning the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) title in 1946, four NCAA tournament titles (1948, 1949, 1951, 1958), and 302 of 340 games.

Rupp's Fabulous Five team of 1947–1948 won his first NCAA championship. Along with Rupp, the Kentucky starters went as part of the U.S. basketball team to the Olympic Games in London, England, in 1948, where they won a gold medal. Minus one starter, the Fabulous Four repeated as NCAA champions the following year, and the Wildcats made it three titles in four years in 1951. By then Rupp's arrogance had alienated coaches and rival fans throughout the South, Midwest, and East, and it was to the delight of many that several Kentucky players were caught in a federal probe of college basketball point shaving that became public in 1951. Three members of the 1948 and 1949 championship teams—Alex Groza, Ralph Beard, and Dale Barnstable—admitted shaving points in Kentucky's 67–56 loss to Loyola in the 1949 NIT. Bill Spivey, who was still playing on the team in 1951, also was implicated and lost a year of eligibility. Although the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and NCAA barred Kentucky from competition for the 1952–1953 season, Rupp kept his job and then rebuilt his program.

Kentucky won a then-record fourth NCAA title in 1958 with the Fiddlin' Five, a group notorious for "fiddlin' around and fiddlin' around and finally pulling it out at the end," explained the coach. It was Rupp's last great triumph. His final fourteen seasons were marked by a declining (although still robust) winning percentage, as a prideful Rupp struggled to adapt to the increasingly intense competition to recruit good players, particularly the African-American athletes who were remaking the college game. The Rupp's Runts of 1965–1966 reached the NCAA title game. The team, which was all white and rated number one in the country, lost the championship to Texas Western University and its all-African-American starting lineup, leaving a dubious legacy for their coach. Although that game's racial aspect was little remarked upon at the time, it later was viewed as a watershed, leading within a few years to the integration of college sports in the South and a new era in basketball.

In 1969 Rupp signed his first and only African-American player, the center Tom Payne. On racial issues Rupp appeared to be a product of his generation, a man comfortable coaching in the segregated SEC and in no hurry to push integration. Unlike many of his SEC colleagues, however, Rupp was willing to schedule games against integrated teams. In the 1966–1967 season Rupp's team finished with the worst record of any Kentucky team during his tenure (13–13). Rupp was forced to retire after the 1971–1972 season, when he reached the mandatory state-employee retirement age of seventy. He finished out his career with 876 career wins, a record that stood until North Carolina's Dean Smith surpassed it with 879 wins in 1997. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1969.

Rupp suffered from diabetes as well as heart and kidney ailments for years before he showed signs of spinal cancer in 1976. Even though he was ill, he was in attendance on 30 November 1976 when the Wildcats played their first game at Rupp Arena in downtown Lexington. He died at the University of Kentucky Medical Center and is buried at Lexington Cemetery.

Driven by pride, perfectionism, and an intense desire to succeed, Rupp made the University of Kentucky a basketball powerhouse, rebuilding the team even after a gambling scandal nearly destroyed his program. It took time and the sweeping social change of integration to topple Rupp, but not before he compiled one of college basketball's greatest coaching records.

The former Kentucky sports information director Russell Rice used tapes of interviews with Rupp and his own experiences with the coach as the starting point for the biography Adolph Rupp: Kentucky ' s Basketball Baron (1994). Rupp figures prominently in an account of the 1966 NCAA title game by Frank Fitzpatrick, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: Kentucky, Texas Western, and the Game That Changed American Sports (1999). The Lexington Herald-Leader has extensive coverage of Rupp's death and legacy (11 Dec. 1977). An obituary is in the New York Times (12 Dec. 1977). The longtime Kentucky sportswriter Dave Kindred wrote a remembrance of Rupp for the Washington Post (13 Dec. 1977).

Tim Whitmire

Rupp, Adolph Frederick

Updated About content Print Article Share Article