Rolling Along With The Blue Machine
BIG BLUE MACHINE, By Russell Rice, Strode Publishers, $9.95
A Review by Rick Bailey
Once upon a time, Gene Stewart remembered, Kentucky was leading Mississippi 25-5 after a few minutes. Even then, the game was already decided when the Rebels called a time out.
As his players gathered around him, Kentucky Coach Adolph Rupp had to say something. He "could only scowl," Stewart recalled, "and stated, '. . . This ain't gonna beat anybody!' Everyone laughed.
"In seeking total perfection, I believe he (Rupp) felt that everyone is always capable of giving a little more or doing a little better. His tongue-lashings and criticism made players achieve more than they actually wanted to."
Gene Stewart, a reserve at Kentucky a decade ago, made these comments to Russell Rice, UK's sports information director and author of "Kentucky Basketball's Big Blue Machine," a volume covering the Wildcats' illustrious hardwood history.
This is Rice's second endeavor to chronicle UK's athletic past as part of Strode's college sports series. A year ago, he published "The Wildcats," a book about Kentucky football.
Volumes like this are often superficial accounts of the past burdened beyond belief by statistics and boring details.
Rice does much better than that. An experienced journalist with a lively writing style, he has put together a readable, entertaining history to interest the most fanatical of Kentucky fans and other followers of the sport.
Rather than just fill pages with meaningless stats and trivia, Rice has chosen other approaches to broaden and enliven his subject.
Life with the Big Blue is seen through the eyes of former players such as Stewart. Rice calls this technique "echoes." He also takes "time out" for special chapters on such Wildcat heroes as Issel, Hagan, Grevey, Cox, etc.
Everything is chronicled in "Big Blue Machine" from the beginning through the years after World War II to the present. It includes the "Fabulous Five," the point-shaving scandal and suspension, the Fiddlin' Five," "Rupp's Runts" and a new era with a new coach.
Some highlights: ^The origin of the "Fabulous Five."
"Patton's Third Army freed Cliff Barker from a German prisoner-of-war camp; a national ruling allowed Wallace Jones and Ralph Beard to play four straight years together; the Army nurtured and developed Alex Groza into one of the finest pivotmen ever to wear the Kentucky colors; the Navy matured Kenny Rollins into a fine floor leader."
^ The prediction of Phog Allen, Rupp's coach at Kansas, speaking in Lexington in 1948.
Allen, Rice writes, said gamblers throughout the country were seeking to control the outcome of football and basketball games, and that colleges and athletic conferences were not doing one thing to protect their athletes from the criminal element. * The prediction of Adolph Rupp.
"The gamblers couldn't get to our boys with a ten-foot pole."
The gamblers, of course, had already gotten to some of Kentucky's best players. The resulting scandal would threaten Rupp's barony in the Blue Grass. In fact, the Southeastern Conference suspended UK for one league year. And the NCAA asked schools not to play the Cats during the 1952-53 season.
But Rupp survived. Five years later he won his fourth NCAA championship with the "Fiddlin' Five." Kentucky has not won since despite two appearances in the title game.
^Cotton Nash's arrival at UK. And the arrival of something else.
Author Rice quotes Rupp about the defense UK used one night to defeat Tennessee: "It was a transitional and shifting man-to-man backed by a hyperbolic paraboloid between the ball and the basket." In other words, the zone defense came to Kentucky. V The latter years of Rupp's coaching career. Rice writes that assistant Joe Hall, failing to receive assurance he would succeed the Baron, left for St. Louis. A week later, he was back in Lexington. Three years later, but not without acrimony as Rupp fought mandatory retirement, Hall was Kentucky's coach.
It's all here in "Big Blue Machine." He is thorough and interesting in his travels through the years of Wildcat basketball including Hall's NIT championship team. The journey is a worthwhile for basketball fans in general and Kentucky fans in particular.
Rick Bailey is a columnist-staff writer in The Herald-Leader sports department.