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Archive for Sunday, March 16, 2003

Mayer: Back in 1953-54, Rupp just said no to NCAAs

March 16, 2003

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Ever hear of a college basketball team that posted a 25-0 season record but sat at home during the NCAA Tournament because its coach chose not to let it go?

Happened in 1953-54. Adolph Rupp, a Halstead product and a Phog Allen protege, was the eye of a furious, devastating three-year storm.

For all his success and achievements, the Baron of the Bluegrass took some huge personal and professional lumps in the early 1950s. There were shocking fixing scandals which ultimately involved a batch of his "boys."

Adolph's program got an NCAA "death penalty" -- enforced idleness -- in 1952-53, because of the fixing taint. Then came the forced ineligibility of three of his key men for the 1954 tourney. That happened after the Wildcats spent all of '52-53 practicing and snarling over the chance to get revenge in '53-54.

Adolph and his dedicated boys boldly announced their goal was the 1954 NCAA title. Yet three Kentucky starters were ruled ineligible for the tourney because they had already graduated (the rule since has been changed). They were Cliff Hagan, Frank Ramsey and Lou Tsioroplous. They delayed their pro careers a year, eager for a vengeful '54 conquest.

You now can hold a degree, a la Kansas University's Jeff Carey, and still compete. Kentucky figured you could in '54, so the university appealed early in the year, saying the rule was never intended to cover the '52-53 layoff. The NCAA didn't respond until after the Wildcats had secured the SEC championship with a playoff victory over Louisiana State. The NCAA declared the rule stood, that the three guys couldn't play in the tourney.

Without those stars, Adolph, battling stress-induced heart trouble, overruled the other players on the squad and chose to keep Kentucky home. Current Georgia and St. Bonaventure guys can identify.

A Kentucky tourney appearance with the Big Three could have been a romp. In going 25-0, UK beat everyone by an average of 27 points. The 'Cats also posted an easy 73-60 victory over Tom Gola-led La Salle, which eventually won the college title.

During the '52 season, Kentucky went 27-2 before losing to St. John's in the NCAA Regional finals. That's the same Frank McGuire team that reached the national finals against Kansas and was dispatched 80-63. What if fate had matched professor Phog Allen and Kansas against pupil Baron Rupp in the championship match?

Kentucky won the 1948 and 1949 NCAA titles and featured Alex Groza, Ralph Beard and Dale Barnstable. Players at City College of New York, Long Island U., New York U., Bradley and others were nailed in 1951 for fixing and point-shaving. Few dreamed that Kentucky, the most dominant program in college at the time, might also be harboring crooks in short pants.

Along with Groza, Beard and Barnstable, UK eventually also had Walter Hirsch, Jim Line and seven-footer Bill Spivey involved. Spivey led Kentucky to the 1951 NCAA title and was primed for a great senior season in '52. Hagan and Ramsey were among his teammates.

Spivey, however, had knee surgery that forced him to sit out a while. When point-shaving talk engulfed him, Rupp decided to bench him until his name was cleared. Spivey was indicted but claimed under oath he was innocent of dumping games. He was ripped for not reporting crookery he knew existed and was indicted for perjury.

Spivey got a 9-3 acquittal in the perjury trial and was never formally convicted of wrongdoing. He continued to proclaim his innocence and passed a lie detector test. But before his trial even began, the Kentucky athletic board voted to terminate his UK eligibility. He was blacklisted by the pros and wound up understandably bitter and frustrated. He might have been an NBA all-timer.

With all that dirt on the table, the Southeastern Conference voted to ban Kentucky from conference games in 1952-53. Rupp and his athletic director, Bernie Shively, turned heaven and earth to get nonconference games and AAU foes but the NCAA then voted to prevent Kentucky from playing any schedule.

Practice, practice, practice. UK played four exhibition games in '52-53 and sold out three. The fourth still drew 6,000 despite one of the worst ice storms in Lexington history.

Then followed the banner '54 campaign, 25-0. The contentious coach decided not to tempt his rivals to to rip him in NCAA play.

The volatile Rupp was walloped verbally, such as by a judge who called the Kentucky athletic program "the acme of commericalism and overemphasis." Judge Saul Streit claimed Rupp "failed in his duty to observe the amateur rules, to build character and to protect the morals and health of his charges." The bloody but unbowed Baron vowed never to take one of his teams back to New York City where the fixes had originated. In 1976, he went to Madison Square Garden with a Joe Hall-coached team for an NIT event. But he never got over the way the conference and NCAA walloped him. He declared he would never retire until the man who denied him his 1952-53 season (NCAA chief Walt Byers) handed him the championship trophy. Rupp had to wait until his Fiddlin' Five won in 1958.

Commented the Bloody Baron: "People told me I should have known what was going on. Hell, we won the NCAA and the NIT and we sent the team to the Olympics with those players. If I was supposed to know what was going on when a team like that is winning, then why doesn't a coach of a losing team think his players are fixing games?"

Anybody see similarities to the self-serving comments by Jim Harrick, the onetime Lizard of Westwood, where Wizard John Wooden still holds court?

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