Kentucky Wildcats Football: Rupp and the Bear


Outside of the Commonwealth of Kentucky Adolph Rupp is viewed in an entirely different light

than it is by those who revere the Wildcats basketball program. Social issues. Scandals. Cheating accusations. Not to mention plain old jealousy. Rupp put Kentucky amongst the elite basketball programs in the country. He was undeniably one of the best coaches in the country.

But some of that other stuff is true. There was a gambling scandal. The social and racial issues are a little less clear. There seems to be some truth in there. They are parts of an unpleasant truth that gets swept under the rug because no one wants to talk about it. But there is another group that has reason to dislike Rupp, but they just don’t talk about it. It wouldn’t go over well. But Kentucky football fans have their own reasons to dislike Rupp.

Obviously there is a jealousy factor. I’ll be the first to admit that. Rupp helped turn Kentucky basketball-crazy in a football conference. But most egregiously, he helped run off the greatest football in coach in college football history. For those who don’t know or remember, Paul “Bear” Bryant coached at Kentucky at the same time. He even won a national championship with the Wildcats. Imagine for a moment Kentucky winning a national championship in football today. There would be statues built and songs written. Commonwealth Stadium would be home to Coach X Field.

Weird how there is no tribute to Bryant in Lexington. The field is inexplicably named after an athletic director who did Kentucky football no favors while pulling the basketball program from probation. Meanwhile the Wildcat football program has toiled through peaks and valleys for half of a century since Bryant left for Texas A&M. The university adopted a “basketball-school” mentality and hasn’t looked back. And how is this related to Rupp? So much of it comes back to a car and a lighter.

I got this picture in my den of Bud Wilkinson laughing at a banquet over a story I told about that time we won the SEC championship at Kentucky, the only time a Kentucky football team ever has. Rupp had won it in basketball for the umpteenth time, and they gave him a great big blue Cadillac with whitewall tires, and I said at this banquet, “And here’s what I got.” And I held up this little old cigarette lighter. Well, when the thing came to a head I remembered that cigarette lighter, and I knew I was too far behind to ever catch up.”

The above is except from an interview with Bryant from 1966. You can read it in its entirety here. You see, Bear Bryant loved it at Kentucky. His family loved it. He said that leaving Lexington was the stupidest thing he ever did. He called the decision “pigheaded”. But it really came down to competition and no one wants to be treated like they are second-best.

“When I try to put my finger on it I can’t say exactly why I left Kentucky, but one thing I want to make clear. I never tried to get Bernie Shively’s job as athletic director, and the athletic directorship had nothing to do with what you could call a clash of objectives between me and Adolph Rupp. I guess, to be perfectly honest about it, that was the crux of the matter, me and Coach Rupp. If Rupp had retired as basketball coach when they said he was going to I’d probably still be at Kentucky. The trouble was we were too much alike, and he wanted basketball No. 1 and I wanted football No. 1. In an environment like that one or the other has to go.”

This may come across as Big Blue heresy, but count this writer as one who wishes it had been the other one to leave. There is a pocket of Kentucky fans who feel the same, even if they won’t come out and say it. If Rupp had been on the outs when he should have been following the cheating scandal, who knows how big the Kentucky football program would be right now. With Bryant at the helm, it would have become a national brand like Alabama has been for some time, there is little doubt in my mind.

Little blame can really be laid at Rupp’s feet for this though. He was a basketball coach, of course he wanted basketball to succeed above all else. He didn’t want to retire and wasn’t forced to, so he didn’t. He was in basketball heaven, evidenced best by the contrast of that great big blue Caddy he drove around. The administration is at fault for the University of Kentucky hitching up to the wrong wagon. And it was the wrong wagon. Football has become and will continue to be the most popular and profitable sport in America for quite some time. College basketball is a niche that generally sees little billing outside the month of March. The difference between a good football program and a great basketball program is the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars for the University of Kentucky. That’s another unpleasant truth.

The good news is that Kentucky now employs an administration that believes in football, wants to see it succeed rather than trying to hold it back. Kentucky has a basketball coach and football coach who both believe that Lexington is big enough for the both of them. The fans want to believe again. Because, make no mistake, this is a football state. Yes Kentucky basketball is popular. They win, of course they are. They have an awesome charismatic coach. Everyone loves that. But look at how popular high school football is in this state. Folks still talk about how the in-state basketball talent has dried up. Those athletes are football players now. The state is a growing talent base. All it needs to take off is for Mark Stoops to post a couple of winning seasons.

Before the rants and comments start, this isn’t about wanting basketball to fail. It’s about equal billing. It’s about an end to Kentucky fans who watch Ohio State during football season. It’s about an end to the countdowns to basketball during football season. The snide remarks. The elitist attitudes. The question is, when Mark Stoops wins at Kentucky and I do mean when, does he get a Cadillac?