From the Editor: This is the second in a series of short essays from A Sea of Blue member oldcat'69, who played as a walk-on on Kentucky's freshman team in 1965-66 during the Adolph Rupp era.
Under Coach Rupp, varsity practice was from 2:00 to 4:00 every weekday and freshman practice followed and lasted until about 6:00.
Not only was the time firmly established, but each practice was closely scripted. While I wasn’t privileged to see the daily schedule, Coach Rupp had a detailed game plan for every practice to work on specific issues he thought were most important at the time. First, there was a shoot-around for about 30 minutes, but after that, it was 13 minutes of this, 22 minutes of that, 11 minutes of the other, and so forth.
In addition to the tight schedule, there was no doubt who was in control. Both Coach Rupp and Coach Harry Lancaster, his longstanding Sancho Panza, were there most of the time, dressed in their khaki pants and shirt and basketball shoes. Coach Joe B. Hall, in his first year as the "Assistant Freshman Coach" (read: head recruiter) was there if he wasn’t on the road.
For the life of me, I can’t remember whether Coach Rupp used a whistle to control practice or not, but it wouldn’t have made any difference if he did or not. When he said something, everything stopped and you could have heard a pin drop. Questions were mostly rhetorical. No one would have dared answer, "Why didn’t you keep running that play when it worked three straight times before?" delivered in his nasal tones, dripping with sarcasm.
Not everything was negative motivation, however. Often, Coach Rupp or Harry would give some specific instructions as to positioning or thought process, or what to look for on a particular play, but, to my memory, almost never instruction on individual skills. The players were expected to see to their own skill development during the shoot-arounds.
I’ll discuss Coach Rupp’s offensive system in detail in another installment, but suffice to say it involved a lot of motion and a lot of picks, both moving and stationary. Despite what many believe, free-lancing was encouraged, within the overall flow of the offense. A back-door cut, for instance would never be chastised if the player followed through with it and cleared his defensive man out of the flow of the play, even if he didn’t get the ball and/or score.
And fast breaks, oh, my goodness, the fast breaks. The quickest way to get yelled at if you were a Kentucky player was to have a man (or two) advantage and not push the ball up the floor. Coach Rupp simply believed that everyone should be able to handle almost any role on the fast break. Okay, maybe you wouldn’t want Thad Jaracz to be running the middle dribbling the ball, but he could do it if that’s what worked out. And the other four guys were masters at it. Riley, Dampier, Conley, and the late Tommy Kron could all handle the ball, and they all had better hit the open man if they wanted to stay out of trouble.
Some younger people have the idea that all basketball pre-Pitino was a slow, methodical process involving five minutes of figure-8 weaving before someone took a two-handed set shot. It wasn’t so. The Rupp’s Runts team, with no starter taller than 6’5", were ball-handling wizards. Riley was the only one who was a really great athlete, but the teamwork and economy of motion made them a thing of beauty to watch. And it all started in those scripted practices.