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The Winning Tradition

The Winning Tradition: A History of Kentucky Wildcat Basketball

Bert Nelli
Steve Nelli
Copyright Date: 1998
Edition: 2
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    The Winning Tradition
    Book Description:

    In its 95-year history, the Kentucky Wildcats have won more games than any other college basketball team. Their winning percentage is the highest in the country. They share the record for the most 20-win seasons. They are second in all-time number one rankings. And despite no longer holding the record for winningest coach, Adolph Rupp will always be a giant in the pantheon of college basketball.

    WhenThe Winning Traditionfirst appeared in 1984, it was the first complete history of the Wildcat basketball program. Bert Nelli pointed out that, contrary to the accepted mythology, Adolph Rupp arrived at a program already strong and storied. Nor did Rupp bring an entirely new style of play to the Bluegrass. Instead he adopted -- and perfected -- that of his predecessor, John Mauer. What Rupp did bring was an ability to charm the news media and a fierce determination to turn out winning teams, making him the undisputed "Baron of Basketball."

    This new and expanded edition ofThe Winning Traditionbrings the history of Kentucky basketball up to date. Nelli and his son Steve turn the same unflinching gaze that characterized the honesty of the first edition on the scandals that marred Eddie Sutton's tenure, the return to glory under Rick Pitino, and a full accounting of Tubby Smith's history-making first year.

    The start of basketball season is welcomed in the Bluegrass with an unmatched enthusiasm and intensity. Each year brings a new team, new stars, and new glory. Other books have documented individual seasons, individual players, or individual coaches. ButThe Winning Traditionremains the only complete and authoritative history of the most celebrated college basketball program in the world.

    A book no fan can afford to be without,The Winning Traditionbrings alive the agonies, frustrations, and glories of each season of Kentucky basketball, from the first team (fielded by women) to the surprising victory in the 1998 NCAA tournament.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6523-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Photo Credits
    (pp. x-xi)
  5. 1 The Tradition
    (pp. 1-10)

    Reporter Ed Ashford of theLexington Heraldcalled it “the shot that was heard around the basketball world.” Ashford was describing the dramatic end of a game between the University of Kentucky Wildcats and the visiting Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, then a member of the Southeastern Conference (SEC), on January 8, 1955. Fresh from a loss just two nights before to little Sewanee, Tech was the weakest team on the UK schedule. The Wildcats were more concerned with a game two days hence against powerful DePaul, as Coach Adolph Rupp ruefully admitted later, than with the rival at hand.


  6. Part I: Origins of the Tradition

    • 2 UK’s First Championship Season
      (pp. 13-20)

      Basketball was invented in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1891 in response to a recognized need for a new sport to fill the athletic void that existed during the winter season. Football was the sport of autumn and baseball filled the needs of athletic youngsters in the spring and summer. Gymnastics, marching drills, and calisthenics were popular in Europe but did not seem well-adapted to American needs or interests.

      In December 1891 James Naismith, a young gym instructor at the International Training School of the Young Men’s Christian Association at Springfield (now Springfield College) solved the problem. He tacked peach baskets to...

    • 3 The Illinois Connection
      (pp. 21-30)

      The year 1921 was a glorious one for University of Kentucky basketball. “The student body of the University,” observed the 1922Kentuckian, “became an aggregation of hero worshippers, and the Blue and White quintet became the acme of things basketball.” The future seemed very bright for the “Champions of the South.” The glory quickly faded and the Wildcats were unable to defend their hard-earned title in 1922 or for many years thereafter, but this did not in any way decrease fan interest or support.

      The magnificent “Merriwell finish” to the 1921 campaign should have provided the momentum for another highly...

  7. Part II: Adolph Rupp and the Wildcat Tradition

    • 4 The Baron Arrives
      (pp. 33-43)

      Adolph Rupp. The name conjures up a multitude of fond, proud, and pleasant memories in the minds of the Wildcat faithful. Adolph Rupp, the “Baron of the Bluegrass,” the venerable “Man in the Brown Suit,” who coached at the University of Kentucky from 1930 to 1972. The Baron’s 876 wins was a record that lasted for twenty-five years until North Carolina’s Dean Smith moved ahead during the 1996/97 season.

      In the process of winning more than eight of every ten games during his forty-two years at Kentucky (876-190), Rupp-directed teams captured eighteen Southeastern Conference championships, one National Invitational Tournament Crown...

    • 5 Rupp’s Formative Era
      (pp. 44-57)

      During Adolph Rupp’s first five seasons at the University of Kentucky his teams compiled a phenomenal record of eighty-five victories and only eleven defeats for a winning percentage of .885. The team won one SEC championship, in 1933, and shared the title in 1935. In the last half of the decade the winning percentage tailed off somewhat, to .745, as UK lost twenty-six of 102 contests for an average of slightly more than five defeats a year. Although the roster each season was studded with All-SEC players, the overall quality of the teams during these five seasons was not up...

    • 6 Wildcat Basketball’s Golden Decade
      (pp. 59-73)

      The “glory years” of Kentucky basketball spanned the period from 1943/44 to 1953/54. Although this covered eleven seasons, UK played only ten of them. The Wildcats were under an NCAA suspension in 1952/53 and did not compete on the intercollegiate level, play being limited to four intrasquad games. During this era the Big Blue scaled the heights of glory with championships in both the NIT (1946) and the NCAA tournament (1948, 1949, and 1951), as well as capturing the SEC championship in each of the ten seasons the Cats competed in the conference. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the point...

    • 7 The Afterglow
      (pp. 75-90)

      During Adolph Rupp’s last eighteen seasons as head coach (1954/55-1971/72) the Wildcats compiled a record of 384-107 for a winning percentage of .782. Although no longer perennial SEC champions, the Big Blue won the conference title outright nine of the eighteen seasons and shared it in another two. Interestingly, UK not only participated in NCAA postseason play each of the eleven seasons it won or shared the conference title but also represented the SEC three other times: in 1956 when Alabama refused an invitation because it might have to play against teams containing black players, and in 1959 and 1961...

  8. Part III: Joe Hall:: Keeper of the Flame

    • 8 The Passing of the Torch
      (pp. 93-107)

      Joe B. Hall signed on as head basketball coach at UK in 1972. While here he became one of the most successful coaches in the country. Hall’s teams averaged more than twenty-two victories a season, won or shared the SEC championship eight times, won the NIT in 1976, and were runners-up in the NCAA tournament in 1975 and national champions in 1978. Yet it was not unusual for callers-in to Hall’s radio show to demand of him, as one did, “Why don’t you just forget your lame excuses and admit you can’t coach.” Nor was it unusual for newspapers to...

    • 9 Return to Glory
      (pp. 109-121)

      If the 1975 team began UK’s return to its former glory, the 1978 squad completed the journey. The road was not an easy one to travel. In fact, through much of the 1975/76 season it appeared that the Wildcats were trapped in a living replay of the 1973/74 debacle. After the first twenty games the won-lost record was 10-10. The conference record to that date, February 14, was even worse. The Big Blue was able to win only five games while dropping seven. There appeared to be little hope for improvement in the six remaining SEC contests.

      Through graduation UK...

    • 10 Building a New Tradition
      (pp. 123-148)

      For Joe Hall and his Wildcats the 1978/79 season was a series of problems, including injuries and defections. Finally, in the SEC tournament, exhaustion and lack of players—UK was down to seven experienced players for the championship game—caught up with the Big Blue to prevent a Cinderella finish to a frustrating season. Nevertheless, at least one rabid UK supporter was hopeful. At the end of the season Oscar Combs, who in 1976 had sold off his two weekly Eastern Kentucky newspapers and moved to Lexington to launchThe Cats’ Pause, a weekly sports magazine devoted to UK sports,...

  9. Part IV: The Fall and Rise of Wildcat Basketball

    • 11 The Sutton Era, Short but Not Sweet
      (pp. 151-171)

      When Joe B. Hall stepped aside following the 1984/85 season, he left a program unequaled by any other college sports team both in its success and in its importance to its fans. In Alabama, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas, football came close. North Carolina, UCLA, and Kansas had college basketball programs that were proven winners. Kentucky basketball, however, was an unparalleled tradition, a program followed and worshipped by millions of Kentuckians, many of whom had never finished high school. The Wildcats were a way of life, an opportunity for every citizen of the Commonwealth to identify with a winner, to be...

    • 12 Pitino and the Road Back to the Top
      (pp. 173-193)

      The search for a new head coach following Eddie Sutton’s resignation on March 19, 1989, lacked some of the intrigue and possibilities associated with the hiring of the two previous UK basketball coaches. Many coaches who might normally have been very interested instead shied away from taking over a program depleted of star players and going on NCAA probation. Despite the paucity of marquee names in the applications, Athletics Director C.M. Newton was unfazed, as he seemed to know exactly the coach he wanted to hire for the position. And that person, Rick Pitino, was very interested in the job....

    • 13 Two Golden Seasons
      (pp. 195-216)

      The 1995/96 season bore a strong resemblance to 1977/78—”the season without joy.” In both years Kentucky had the most talented and deepest squad in the nation. This fact fueled lofty expectations which, from preseason to the Final Four, permitted nothing less than the Holy Grail of college basketball, a national championship. And in both years, if the Wildcats were not successful, the full burden of responsibility for failure would fall on the head coach. Neither excuses nor reference to past successes would suffice. To illustrate the immense pressures weighing on Pitino’s shoulders as the 1996 Final Four approached, John...

  10. Part V: The Tubby Smith Era Begins

    • 14 The Indecipherables
      (pp. 219-233)

      Not one to rest on his laurels, Pitino began looking forward to the 1997/98 season as soon as the 1996/97 season ended. The 1998 Final Four was scheduled to be held in San Antonio. Among Pitino’s comments about the coming Final Four were, “We’ll take a few days off. Then we’ll work to get to San Antonio.” He added, “I’m convinced we’ll be in San Antonio next year.” After the Wildcats’ return from Indianapolis, the coach commented to the team and its 12,000-plus cheering fans in Rupp Arena, “Repetition is the key to success as well as good habits. This...

    • 15 The Comeback Cats
      (pp. 235-246)

      By the end of the regular season, even the media had come to the realization that this squad was not “indecipherable.” Many observers began acknowledging that UK was a team of winners. Like their coach, they accomplished the all-important goal of winning games, but in their own way. What media and fans alike found confusing was that the quiet and low-key Smith did things differently from the brash and flamboyant Pitino.

      Two days after the South Carolina game ended the regular season, Billy Reed wrote, “Don’t breathe a word of this to Dicky V., Billy P., or any of college...

  11. Wildcat Facts
    (pp. 247-248)
  12. Kentucky’s All-Time Record 1903-1998
    (pp. 249-266)
  13. Bibliographic Note
    (pp. 267-268)
  14. Index
    (pp. 269-276)