When you think about the upper echelon of college basketball programs, i.e. those with at least 4 National Championships, quite often you associate a single coach with that school. UCLA had John Wooden, Duke with Coach K, Indiana was Bobby Knight and UConn, at least up until 2014, was Jim Calhoun. While North Carolina did have multiple titles won by 2 coaches (2 each for Dean Smith and Roy Williams), Kentucky is unique in that five different coaches have won championships here. No other school even comes close.
For Cat fans over the age of 45, we have been blessed to witness all of these coaching greats at Kentucky, if not all of the championships. My first years as a Cat fan included listening intently to every post-game interview with Coach Rupp. He had a no-nonsense approach to answering media questions and he often had rather memorable quotes. It may have even been Coach Rupp that began the tradition of having game day superstitions. Rupp had once purchased a new blue suit to replace his old, rather worn brown version. His team promptly got beaten soundly and he never again wore anything but a brown suit when he coached a game.
While Rupp most assuredly built Kentucky Basketball – 4 National Championships (’48, ’49, ’51, ’58), the Wildcats program goes far beyond Rupp’s accomplishments alone. UCLA may stand alone at the top of the heap with 11 titles, but it should be noted that 10 of those were won during the Wooden years. Nearly 40 years later, only 1 banner has been added to the UCLA trophy case. Conversely, the Wildcats have notched an additional 4 titles since Rupp retired. More impressive perhaps is those titles were won with 4 different coaches. Looking back, each coach had his own set of challenges along the way, but they all brought back the hardware to Lexington.
Joe B. Hall had a near-impossible task of taking over the program after the legendary Rupp retired. Besides replacing the man who built Kentucky basketball into the powerhouse it was, the fans were restless for another championship, having suffered through a drought since 1958. Hall’s tenure was rather successful over his 13 years, racking up 3 Elite 8s, a Final Four, a Runner-up and the coveted championship in 1978. That Hall had been a part of Rupp’s staff was, to me, an advantage when Hall took over as head coach. He knew what Kentucky was, the fans were familiar with him and he understood the tradition that had been built. While it took me a few years to really embrace Hall as the leader of the Cats, he forever holds a place in my heart for the fantastic job he did, a job I feel is often greatly underappreciated by many.
Hall’s successor, Eddie Sutton, did not enjoy the same level of success. Quite the contrary. Sutton may never have been truly prepared to be coach at Kentucky. Without going into great detail, suffice it to say Sutton’s stay at Kentucky was cut short, but not without having first landed the program on probation. It was a dark time, indeed for the Wildcat Basketball program.
Enter Rick Pitino in 1989 and overnight the excitement was back. Even though we had no scholarship player taller than 6’8″, Pitino took a rag-tag bunch of players and managed a 14-14 record his first year, showing that passion and hard work could overcome a lot of talent deficiencies. Each year, the roster added more talent and the Wildcats were once again among the mighty in the college ranks. As a fan, this truly was one of the more exciting periods in Kentucky’s rich basketball history. Enthusiasm was at an all-time high and Pitino was quite the salesman. He brought an NBA flavor to Rupp Arena, adding the music to the player introductions. This era also saw the beginning of hanging the “3” signs for each made three-pointer. Holding his post-game interview show on the Rupp floor, allowing the BBN to listen live was yet another innovation that fans embraced.
In 1996, Pitino led what was arguably the most talented UK team in history to the National Championship. A return to the 1997 title game fell just short and the Cats brought home the Runner-up banner. I’ve always believed had it not been for Derek Anderson’s ACL injury earlier that season, ’97 would have ended with banner #6 hanging in the rafters. The disappointment of the overtime loss to Arizona was tempered somewhat after Pitino gave fans his assurance that he would return for another season. But the Big Blue Nation’s world was about to be shaken up in a very big way.
There are certain moments in every fan’s life that are frozen in time. You remember exactly where you were, who you were with and maybe even what you had for lunch that day. The day Rick Pitino announced he was leaving Kentucky to make a return to the NBA as the head coach of the Bostin Celtics was one of those moments for me. I was on a business trip in Atlanta at the IBM Business Recovery Center. I had stepped into the client lounge while on a brief break and saw the television was tuned to ESPN. In what seemed at the time to be nothing more than cruel fate, I had walked in at the exact moment the regular broadcast was interrupted with the breaking news that Rick Pitino had accepted the position with the Boston Celtics and would be leaving UK.
Stunned, I stood there silently listening to the press conference. Hadn’t Pitino just told us a couple of weeks before he had no intention of leaving Kentucky? Yet, here he was, doing just that. And for the first time since the 1992 game versus Duke, I shed a tear over my beloved Wildcats. Our Camelot days were at an end and the uncertainty of our future cast a cloud of gloom over the BBN. For those of us who lived through the transition from Hall to Sutton, the announcement of Pitino’s departure brought a great deal of uneasiness. Would Kentucky get another Sutton or would we find another coach that could carry on what Pitino had built at UK? It wouldn’t be long before we had our answer.
Coming soon: The post-Pitino era of Kentucky Basketball, third in my series on My Life as a UK Fan