Besides writing the award winning Jack Dantzler mystery series, Tom Wallace spent many years as a sports journalist, twice being honored by the Kentucky Press Association for having written the best sports story in the state. Tom is particularly fond of his days working for legendary UK play-by-play man Cawood Ledford. His duties included working on Cawood in Kentucky, a weekly publication, and helped to write Cawoods Comments, both familiar to any Kentucky basketball fan. And he’s the author of the Kentucky Basketball Encyclopedia. Another thing he did is soak up the stories Cawood would tell about larger than life coach Adolph Rupp. Tom has been kind enough to share some of those stories here on HydraPublications.com:
Virtually everyone associated with sports will at one time or another (or countless times), equate the battle on the playing field or the arena with the term “war.” When a player does something super spectacular, he has invariably “gone to war.” We hear announcers say it all the time. Well, as a guy who was in a war (Vietnam), let me assure you that an athletic battle, no matter how fierce, ain’t war. Serious business? Yes. Hotly contested? You bet. But nobody dies. And therein is the difference.
Folks take sports seriously, oftentimes too much so. Remember, fan comes from the word fanatic. In Kentucky, my home state, the outcome of a University of Kentucky basketball game is almost a matter of life or death. And the outcome doesn’t always bring out the best in some Wildcat fans. Take the Wildcats’ recent NCAA tourney loss to North Carolina. Big Blue Nation blamed that loss on one of the officials. It didn’t matter that UK had a five-point lead with a minute or so left to play and couldn’t hold on for the victory. Nope, the Cats lost because they were hosed by one of the zebras. So, what did some UK fans do? They sent death threats to one official in particular. UK doesn’t need fans like that. No school does.
Now, having presented the dark side let me say that there is plenty of humor to be found in the sports world. In my days as a sportswriter, I had the good fortune to work for the legendary Cawood Ledford from 1986 until he retired in 1993. Cawood was one of the greatest men I ever met. And while working for him I heard some really terrific and humorous tales. Let me share a few with you.
Ermal Allen played football and basketball for UK back in the early 1940s. He was a good player, not a great one, but he was a starter for Adolph Rupp on the basketball team. Rupp was famous for many things, one of which was he seldom changed his starting lineup. Subs didn’t get much playing time, and unless something unusual occurred, they rarely came off the bench.
At some point during the season, Allen became ill and had to miss a couple of games. When he got well and was ready to get back into action, he had been relegated to the dreaded role of substitute. Well, Allen wasn’t content to remain on the sidelines. He had to find a way to get back into the starting lineup. And that’s exactly what he did.
On the bus ride to UK’s next game, Allen just happened to be sitting next to the player who had replaced him as a starter. When the guy wasn’t looking, or perhaps had dozed off, Allen quietly reached into the guy’s gym bag, removed his sneakers and tossed them out the window. You can figure out what happened next. The team gets to the arena, and the player discovers that he has no sneakers. Well, you can’t play basketball without shoes, so he had to sit out the game. And who got the starting nod? You guessed it. Wily old Ermal Allen, that’s who. Maybe not the kosher thing to do, but it worked.
Rupp was also legendary for demanding silence during practice. His famous injunction was, “Don’t speak unless you can improve the silence.” One of Rupp’s closest pals and confidants was Happy Chandler, the former Kentucky governor and ex-Major League Baseball commissioner. Chandler was a frequent visitor to UK practices, one of the few people Rupp allowed to attend.
At one practice, when the players were not performing very well, Rupp raised his head and prayed, “Dear God, would you please send me someone worth a damn?” Immediately, Chandler appeared, prompting Rupp to say, “Thank you, God.”
However, moments later, Chandler, a nonstop talker, committed the ultimate transgression by shattering the silence. An angry Rupp turned to his buddy and sternly said, “I don’t care if you are the governor, either shut up or get out.” Chandler was silent for the remainder of practice.
Read Morgan is a former UK player you’ve never heard of but have surely seen. He became a longtime character actor in movies and on TV, appearing in such movies as Kelly’s Heroes, Maverick, Dillinger and Back to the Future. He also spent several years playing “Sarge” on the TV show The Deputy, starring the legendary Henry Fonda.
Morgan may have been a decent hoops player, but he was on a team that included Cliff Hagan, Frank Ramsey, Bill Spivey and Bobby Watson. In other words, you had to be a lot better than decent if you wanted to get any playing time on that club.
Since Morgan wasn’t seeing much action, Rupp decided it was time to cut him from the team. Word was sent to Morgan that he was to be in Rupp’s office at a designated time. Cutting a player from the team is never easy, so Rupp, not wanting to deliver the news alone, ask assistant coach Harry Lancaster to join him for the meeting.
However before the meeting took place, Morgan got wind of what was about to happen. Thanks to the person who leaked the information, Morgan didn’t go into the meeting unprepared. When Morgan showed up, Rupp and Lancaster were sitting there, ready to inform him that his basketball services were no longer needed. But they never got the chance, because when Morgan showed up, he immediately said, “Coach Rupp, I’m here to let you know that I’m quitting the basketball team. I have no further interest in playing basketball. Instead, I’m going to concentrate on my acting career. What this means is that the next time you see me perform, you’ll have to pay to get in just like everyone else.”
With that, Morgan did an about-face and marched out of the office, leaving Rupp sitting there silent, flabbergasted and totally one-upped.
Two final Rupp stories (there are only about five thousand). Right before halftime during a 1958 game against Auburn, the opponent UK forward Johnny Crigler was guarding laid in a bucket that tied the score. Naturally, Rupp was steaming when the team got to the locker room. He then went after Crigler, rattling off what has to rank among the most hilarious critiques ever uttered by a coach:
“John Lloyd, 150 years from now there will be no university, no field house. There will have been an atomic war, and it will all have been destroyed. But underneath the rubble there will be a monument, which will be inscribed, ‘Here lies John Lloyd Crigler, the most stupid basketball player ever at Kentucky, killed by Adolph Rupp’, because boy, if you don’t play better, I’m going to kill you.”
After the 1958 Fiddlin’ Five team won the NCAA title, Johnny Cox was the only returning starter for the 1958-59 campaign. One of the new guys on that club was Sid Cohen, a Brooklyn native who played junior college hoops in Texas. During an early practice session, Rupp was displeased with the way Cohen was running the offense. In particular, Rupp wasn’t happy because Cohen kept working the ball away from a certain player. Finally, Rupp blew his whistle, walked out onto the court, and addressed Cohen:
“Sidney, I want you to meet Johnny Cox from Hazard, Kentucky. He’s working over on that side of the court. He’s a pretty good basketball player. He just won the national championship for us last year. But he won’t have a chance to do it again this year unless you let him feel the ball once in a while. Sidney, I would appreciate it very much if you would pass the ball to Johnny.”