LEXINGTON, Ky. — Last season, Kentucky visited Kansas in a building named for Phog Allen. Saturday, the Jayhawks visit the Wildcats in a building named for Adolph Rupp. They’ll collide as the two winningest programs in college basketball history and as two of the current top five teams in America.
“They’d be really proud,” said Scott Morrow Johnson, who quite literally wrote the book on Allen. “I think it’s pretty incredible: Kansas was the epicenter of basketball for the first 40 years and then Kentucky kind of took the mantle, and I don’t think anybody could’ve predicted that those two schools, 100 years, 120 years after basketball was invented, would be back on top.”
The two programs’ histories are inextricably linked, from the earliest days of the sport to the 2012 national championship game when the Wildcats beat the Jayhawks for their eighth NCAA title. Without Kansas, there likely would be no Kentucky basketball as we know it today: one of the true blue bloods of basketball.
Allen played for and eventually replaced James Naismith, the inventor of the game, at KU. In the early 1920s, a fairly average guard from Halstead, Kan., named Rupp sat on the end of Allen’s bench — and took physical education classes taught by Naismith. The Jayhawks were dominant in Rupp’s final two seasons, eventually earning retroactive Helms national titles, but he was not a major contributor.
“There’s a story in the book about how one of Phog’s kids used to tape a ‘kick me’ sign on Rupp’s back when he was sitting on the bench,” said Johnson, who wrote “Phog: The Most Influential Man in Basketball,” a biography in cooperation with Allen’s granddaughter Judy. Rupp didn’t waste his front-row seat, though. “While Naismith was the inventor of the game, Phog was the first real coach, so all that coaching acumen and how to run practice and how to teach skills, Rupp got all of that from Phog Allen.”
He took it with him to Lexington, Ky., in 1930 and launched a dynasty that changed college basketball in much the same way current Kentucky coach John Calipari and his one-and-done success has altered today’s game. Rupp’s success — and later scandal — also caused a rift between mentor and pupil.
“Phog Allen had built such a program that he literally didn’t recruit for the first 20 or 30 years. He would just have lines of 20 or 30 guys every year wanting to play for Kansas. He would try them out, and whatever the best 10 were would be the freshman class,” Morrow said. “Rupp came along and started recruiting players and really kind of changed the game. That’s where the rivalry was born. Phog suddenly was like, ‘Oh, I guess I’ve got to recruit players.’”
Rupp soon eclipsed Allen, breaking his record for all-time wins and racking up four NCAA titles to Allen’s one. (Dean Smith, another Allen disciple who took what he learned at Kansas and created a powerhouse further east at North Carolina, eventually won more games than both of them.)
“There was probably a little jealousy,” said Andrew McGregor, who grew up learning the lore in Kansas and is now a PhD in the history of sports in America at Purdue. He’s well-versed in the Allen-Rupp dynamic. “Rupp had won three national titles before Allen won his only. He was sort of slipping away as a national figure, as a great coach.”
And then came the point-shaving scandal of 1951, which led to the NCAA’s first (unofficial) “death penalty” doled out to Rupp and Kentucky. Four Wildcats were arrested for taking bribes from gamblers to shave points during an NIT game and UK was forced to shudder the program for the 1952-53 season.
“Phog had hunches this was going on in Lexington as early as 1945, so he had this sort of strained relationship because of that,” McGregor said.
But Allen might’ve done more than harbor suspicions.
“I think Phog was sort of indirectly responsible for the first NCAA probation that Kentucky went on,” Johnson said. “Phog was always really loud and outspoken about all the gambling. He was always talking about how out on the East Coast and in New York City, all they have is guys trying on gamble on games, and he was trying to keep his players away from that element. He said numerous times that a huge explosion is about to happen and we’re about to find out about all this gambling in sports. He talked about it for years and years.
“Then finally, about 1950, he was going on and on about it again and they said, ‘Well, why don’t you give us proof.’ So he said, ‘Go to this tavern in Lexington, Ky., and you’ll find they have a gambling hall in the back.’ And the feds did it, and they found out there was gambling just a few miles from the University of Kentucky campus, and I think that sort of started the ball rolling. Suddenly, Kentucky is under the microscope. I think that was the moment (Allen and Rupp) started to come apart.”
Rupp and the Wildcats recovered quickly after the yearlong exile and won another national title in 1958. As time tends to do, it eventually healed the rift between Rupp and Allen — and caught up with both coaches.
Both men were forced to retire at the age of 70 — Allen missed out on coaching his prized recruit, Wilt Chamberlain, because of it — due to mandatory age requirements by their states/schools. As they grew old, they reconnected.
“Phog Allen learned to appreciate Rupp and their relationship, that they’ll forever be linked,” Johnson said. “Phog had nice things to say when Rupp broke his record, and when Phog was really getting up there in years, long after his career was over, Rupp stayed in touch with him and visited him. He always talked about Phog Allen — he’d say, ‘The old man taught me everything I know,’ which Phog apparently didn’t really take that well. But Rupp kept him in the limelight. They kind of patched it up right before Phog died.”
And fittingly, on the night after Rupp died, Dec. 11, 1977, Kentucky played at Allen Fieldhouse. Coached by Joe B. Hall, Rupp’s former player and assistant who would claim his own national title later that season, the Wildcats won.
Nearly 40 years later, Kentucky and Kansas remain among college basketball’s elite, and they’re ready to tangle once again. Among their 29 previous meetings, plenty have been played at neutral sites, but it’s always extra special when they battle in the buildings that bear the names of Allen and Rupp.
“To me, it’s the best thing that we do (in college basketball), and we should do it more, because there’s something about the history,” McGregor said. “Seeing the banners hanging, seeing the statues outside the arenas, seeing the names on the buildings, that makes it not just the two teams on the court. That makes it history versus history, a cultural clash. You get a feeling that this is what basketball was meant to be.”