The curmudgeon of a coaching genius, Adolph Rupp, was 70 years old when he stopped a basketball practice at the University of Kentucky. Some poor sinner had hesitated momentarily on a layup, allowing the shot to be blocked. Before there was Wooden, before McGuire, when Smith and Knight and Crum were babes, there was Adolph Rupp. And even at 70, in his last season, the sight of a blocked layup moved him to anger, sarcasm and inimitable theatrics.
"You get the ball like this" - in the khaki shirt and trousers that was his practice uniform forever, Rupp held his hands waist high, hefting an imaginary basketball which he raised slowly overhead as he spoke again to the sinner - "and then you say, 'Our Father Who art in Heaven, hollowed by Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done. I am now going to shoot the damned basketball!'"
We hope our lives will be whole. There is a time for dying, a time when we have loved well and been loved, a day when our best work is finished. It makes sense that way, death does, and so it seemed good somehow that Adolph Rupp would die only minutes after Kentucky beat Kansas the other night. Death stole him from cancer's pain at 76 and the basketball game was undeniable evidence of the wholeness of his life.
Born of 19th-Century German immigrants who wrested survival from the dust of Southeast Kansas, Rupp played basketball in the early '20s at Kansas University. Kentucky hired him in 1930. In 42 seasons he won 82 per cent of his games by creating teams that were models of simplicity and fire.They took hold of the ball and ran like hell. They won national championships and endured point-shaving tragedies.
Rupp's career was epic. In a poor, rural state, he created an eternal wellspring of pride, the blessed Wildcats, and Kentuckians loved him for it. In turn, he gave them his life and it was good that the latest Kentucky team, coached by one of his old players, was ranked No. 1 in the country the night he died. It beat Kansas, 73-66.
The old man would have liked that. He had no patience with obvious namby-pambies who believed that playing well was reward in itself, that winning didn't really matter. "Why in hell do they keep then?" Rupp said. He always worried about winning. "My stomach feels like I've swallowed a bottle of lye," he said one night before Kentucky played a patsy. "You'd think that after 40 years I'd get used to it, but I haven't," Kentucky won by 15.
His efforts to assure victory were mighty and unforgettable. "Rupp was unique," said Bill Spivey, on of his All-Americas. "He wanted everybody to hate him - and he succeeded.He called us names some of us had never heard before." The resulting fear, or loathing, worked twice as hard. "Those that stayed wanted to show Rupp we weren't the dirty names he called us," Spivey said.
The practice floor was Rupp's stage. He once thought Bob McCowan, a guard, dribbled too much. "McCowan," the coach thundered. Practice stopped, as if the Great Coach in the Sky had spoken. The arena was church-quiet. "McCowan, if you want to keep the ball, we'll just give you a ball to take to your room and you can sleep with it. But for now, will you by damn pass the ball?"
A center, Art Laib, timidly pursued a rebound. Rupp's Kansas-plains twang filled the air. His great fleshy ear lobes wiggled in time with his indignation. Sarcasm was the tone when Rupp said to Laib, "What's a nice Christian boy like you doing in a place like this?"
Beyond Rupp's ferocious ability to motivate players and his early realization that running was the way to win, he made basketball important not only in Kentucky but across the country by the power of his robust personality. He set records of vanity that will not soon be surpassed.
When asked in 1930 why he, a high school coach, should be hired ahead of 70 other applicants for the Kentucky job, he said, "Because I'm the best damned coach in the nation." And what was the secret to Kentucky's 1948 and '49 national championships? "That's easy," Rupp said. "It's good coaching."
Newspapermen loved him. If a reporter had nothing to write about, he could always call Rupp, who liked to see his name in print. "Why, I'd put the center jump back and take off the backboards and net. Just leave the hoop. And raise the hoop five feet." Rupp once said to a New York writer who asked how the game could be improved. One of Fupp's players heard the outlandish suggestion and asked if Rupp meant it.
"Hell, no," Rupp said. "But anything for a column."
Rupp's appetites were large, whether the coach was hungry for attention or chili. "Gawdammit, what do you mean, writing that I 'wolfed' down my chili?" he said to an offending writer. Even as he spoke, Rupp wolfed down chili, the spoon disappearing into the darkness of his throat. Working on a steak, Rupp was ruthless. He said you could sort the prospects from the suspects by watching them eat.
"Why, if a boy aggressive with his eating, then he's going to be aggressive on the basketball floor," Rupp said. "Lordy, you should have seen Cliff Hagan!" Rupp poked at his eigh-once filet. "See this? Hagan would have eaten this in three bites - chomp, chomp, CHOMP!"
Rupp sometimes favored a liquid diet. "I'd check the pantry to see how the bourbon was doing," he said. His last year at work, a tired old man, Rupp sat at courtside before practice. His eyes dropped shut.
"The legislature should pass a law," he said, awakening with a smile, "that at 3 o'clock every afternoon, any basketball coach who is 70 years old gets a shot of bourbon. These damned bouncing, bouncing, bouncing basketballs are putting me to sleep."
But he didn't want to retire. At 69, he said, "Retire? Why, what would I do? Time would hang heavy on my hands. It's the competitiveness I like - taking a bunch of boys and seeing what I can do with them. These young squirts come in as coaches at other places, and they say they're going to put an end to Rupp and Kentucky. Well, we'll see about that."
His friend, Happy Chandler, the former Kentucky governor and U.S. Senator, once asked him, "Why Adolph? Do you want to die on the bench?" And Rupp said, "I can't think of any place better."
Though he threatened to fight the university's mandatory retirement-at-70 rule. Rupp finally gave in. He was a wealthy man with interests in cattle, land and tobacco. In retirement he yet appeared at coaching clinics, made speeches and, for a while, had his own television show. He kept an office in Memorial Coliseum, the 11,500-seat gymnasium his success built, and Kentucky game him an easy chair in the front row at the Dazzling 23,000-seat palace they opened last year. It's name: Rupp Arena.
A year and a week ago, Rupp sat in the living room of his home. Silver throphies given him in recognition of his coaching genius were scattered around the room. "I've got 40 more under my bed," he said. A tiny chair near the fireplace, left there for the happy times when his grandson visited, held a plaque certifying Rupp's induction into basketball's Hall of Fame.
Rupp talked for an hour. As he could be cantankerous, so could he be charming. He said he once stopped along a back road to buy a country ham and gave the store owner a check. "I signed it in big letters, Adolph F. Rupp.' and said proudly to the owner, 'Do you know who that is?' The old guy looked at the check and looked at me and said, 'Well, sir, I'm a-hoping it's you."
The cancer was in Rupp then and he said so, but he asked that it not be written in the newspaper. "Just say I'm awful weak," he said. His voice, once thunder, was a whisper, "I'm as happy as I'll ever be. And I'm not a bit bitter about anything."
Walking his guest to the door, Rupp moved slowly, limping a bit. He'd had three operations in three years. It was a cold day and snow covered Rupp's yard. "It's been one of the worst winters I can remember," Rupp said. "I'm looking forward to the spring."