We here at A Sea of Blue would like to wish everyone a safe and Happy Holidays, as well as thank you for your loyal patronage of the site. Without you, the readers and contributors, Tru and I would be talking to ourselves.
History is full of heroes. Heroes whose names we know, whose accomplishments have been cheered and celebrated for decades after the fact. Kentucky basketball, the richest, most tradition-filled college basketball program in the annals of the sport, boasts a cavalcade of great players and coaches throughout the programs gilded history. To us, they are heroes, hardwood heroes. The names are familiar to us all -- Coach Adolph Rupp and his many great teams, including the Fabulous Five, Fiddlin' Five, and Rupp's Runts -- Continuing the legacy, Dan Issel, Mike Pratt, and Mike Casey ensured Rupp's final years were not bereft of talent, or, the almighty win -- Later, coach Joe B. Hall brought us Kyle Macy, Jack Givens, and Rick Robey, who in turn made Kentucky cheer as they brought home yet another championship -- They didn't win titles, but Kenny Walker and Rex Chapman graced the '80's with their unique talent and "sky-ability" -- Coach Rick Pitino gave us The Unforgettables, as well as title number six, along with Jamal Mashburn, Ron Mercer, Travis Ford and Anthony Epps -- Coach Tubby Smith brought to Lexington two of the most endearing boys in blue, players who personified what UK basketball is all about, Tayshaun Prince and Chuck Hayes.
Over the last several days the luminaries of UK basketball have been written about, discussed, and lifted up as the caretakers and originators of the program. They have been rightfully praised as the players and coaches responsible for Kentucky basketball reaching the historic 2,000 win plateau quicker than any other program. But, alone in their efforts, they were not.
Also responsible, and worthy of praise, is the man who hired legendary coach Adolph Rupp to UK, Stanley Boles. Boles, the athletic director at Kentucky from 1917 to 1933, deserves great credit for believing a young high school coach from Illinois, when, after asking Rupp why he should hire him, The Baron responded, he was "the best basketball coach in America." Truer words were never spoken, and thankfully, Mr. Boles believed the young, brash Rupp. And as quick as one can say, "you're hired," the dawn of an Age was upon us. A Big Blue thank you to Stanley Boles.
To the surprise of many, Kentucky did field a basketball team prior to the arrival of Adolph Rupp in 1930. The most successful and long-tenured of the pre-Rupp UK coaches were: George Buchheit (1920-'24) who won 44 games and lost 27, as well as Rupp's predecessor, John Mauer (1928-'30), who won 74.0% of his games -- 40 wins to only 14 losses. A Big Blue thank you to the coaches lost in the revelry of Rupp.
Contributing to Rupp's 876 UK victories were his first two assistant coaches, along with being the first two assistants in the history of the program, Cecil Combs and Birkette Pribble. Although neither coach assisted Rupp after the 1930-'31 season, they are to be recognized for their contributions to the genesis of a basketball giant. A Big Blue thank you to Combs and Pribble.
Another longtime Rupp assistant often forgotten through the passing of time is Paul McBrayer. McBrayer played for UK from 1927-'30 and was named UK's fourth All-America. Before McBrayer became synonymous with Eastern Kentucky University basketball, where he posted a 219-144 in 16 seasons, he assisted Rupp from 1935-'43. Victories during McBrayer's tenure -- 138 -- A Big Blue thank you to Paul McBrayer.
And finally, the man most often associated with Adolph Rupp, Harry Lancaster. Lancaster was Rupp's trusted assistant in the 1943-'44 season, and then from 1946 to 1969. Lancaster, during his time as second-fiddle to Rupp, coached 15 Kentucky All-America's and was an integral cog within the program. It's assumed he had many opportunities to leave UK for head coaching jobs, but his loyalty to UK, and Adolph Rupp, always trumped the dangled carrot of supposed greener pastures. Kentucky won 542 games, four NCAA national championships, and recorded its only undefeated season since 1912 (25-0 in '54) under his leadership. Since the ultimate thank you -- his jersey hanging in the arena named for his longtime boss -- probably isn't forthcoming, a Big Blue thank you for Harry Lancaster will have to do.
Other longtime assistants who have contributed mightily to the success of Kentucky basketball are Dickie Parsons and Leonard Hamilton. Parsons, who played for UK from 1958-'61, assisted both Adolph Rupp and Joe Hall in his coaching tenure, 1969-'80. Parsons is also a unique figure in UK lore, having won a national title with the Fiddlin' Five in 1958 (Note: Parsons was a freshman in the '57-'58 season, and thus ineligible for varsity competition, but obviously, he was part of the program), and another as an assistant to Joe Hall on the 1978 title team. After leaving the sidelines, Parsons continued to work for UK for many years as Director of Planned Giving. He's spent nearly his entire life associated with the university, and took part in 359 wins as a coach and player. A Big Blue thank you to Dickie Parsons.
Leonard Hamilton is most fondly remembered as Joe Hall's, and for one year, Eddie Sutton's, chief recruiter from 1974-'86. Under Hamilton's deft recruiting touch, players such as Jack Givens, Rick Robey, Mike Phillips, Truman Claytor, Dwight Anderson, Dirk Minniefield, Derrick Hord, Sam Bowie, Melvin Turpin, Kenny Walker, Jim Master, Ed Davender, Winston Bennett and James Blackmon, all opted to wear the blue and white. Hamilton's incredible recruiting acumen led him to take the head coaching position at Oklahoma State in 1986. In his time at UK, though, the Wildcats won a national title in '78, with Final Four appearances in '75 and '84. Hamilton took part in 309 UK victories in his time in Lexington, and because of this, a Big Blue thank you to Leonard Hamilton.
Lastly (but not "leastly"), one of the most important aspects of the incredible, enduring success of Kentucky basketball, the fans. The fans, who from 1902-1909 filled Kentucky's State College Gymnasium and cheered the 'Cats to 17 wins; The fans who traveled to the Buell Armory Gymnasium from 1910-1924 to watch their 'Cats win 59 games; The fans who packed 2,800 seat Alumni Gym from 1925-1950, and propelled Kentucky to 248 wins; The fans who made Memorial Coliseum the most feared venue in college basketball from 1951 to 1976, and were rewarded with a total of 307 UK victories; And the fans who today travel from all corners of the Commonwealth to visit the pristine palace named for the preeminent college basketball coach to ever stroll the sidelines, Rupp Arena, home of 435 Kentucky wins ... and counting.
Kentucky basketball fans, while castigated by some as the truest testament of fanaticism, are responsible in a very direct way for what has become the larger-than-life nature of UK basketball. For without the fans' ubiquitous interest in all things UK ... For without the fans fanatical following of the 'Cats ... For without the fans holding those in charge of UK's destiny responsible for every aspect of the program ... For without the fans settling for nothing less than excellence ... For without the fans refusing to allow UK to lose ... UK basketball would be Louisville basketball, and that, my friends, is unacceptable.
So to all the fans, from the onset of Kentucky basketball in 1903, to the modern day painted warriors, take a bow, and accept our Big Blue thank you!
Thanks for reading, Merry Christmas, and Go 'Cats!