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Big Blue Blues: To Stay and Play for UK or Go Away

Ralph Beard reaches a crossroad in his UK career.

Ralph Beard and Dick McQuire Playing Basketball

(This story is Chapter Two of one of six serialized highlights from the Ken Mink book “Big Blue Blues: The Inside Story of Kentucky’s Involvement in the Point-Shaving Scandal of the 1940s-50s.” The complete book is on sale on the Internet through Amazon Books, Smashwords Books and Barnes and Noble. Mink is a former Herald-Leader sportswriter who spent many hours with the late UK basketball Coach Adolph Rupp and other coaches and journalists researching data for the book. He is a native of Vicco, near Hazard, in Perry County.)

Chapter 2: To Stay and Play for UK or Go Away

The 1945-46 team was succeeding, with veteran stars — juniors Jack Tingle and Jack Parkinson leading the way, but Beard was having trouble adjusting to Coach Rupp’s caustic methods.

After one game in which he went scoreless for the first time in his life, Beard went home to Louisville to visit his mother.

He was so upset he broke down and cried.

“I just wish I was dead,” he sobbed.

His mother cradled him in her arms and gently patted him on his back.

“Ralph you are still just a young boy. Those fellas you are playing with and against are all older than you. Just give yourself time to adjust. You know you are as good as anybody, anywhere,” she told him. “Believe in yourself. I believe in you, and so do a lot of others. Play hard and everything will work out.”

Beard had a talk with Tingle about his problems as they sat together shortly before Christmas of 1945, having a glass of milk at the school cafeteria.

“Jack, I don’t think I can s-s-stand any more of Coach Rupp’s constant sarcastic criticism. I never seem to do anythin p-p-please him,” Beard said. “I’m thinking about leaving, going back home.”

“C’mon, Ralph,” said Tingle. “We need you out there. We got a chance to win the national championship with you.”

“Well, podnah, I’m not so sure Coach Rupp feels that way. He is a-a-always on my ass about sump’n or another.”

“He gets on all of us – you know that. He treats us all like shit – that’s just the way he operates. But his bark is worse than his bite. He wants to win, of course, but he wants us to succeed individually as well,” said Tingle, chugging down the last of his milk. “Coach has always been arrogant, scathing, cantankerous, uncompromising, ruthless, vain, mean. He wants us all to hate him. But in the end he wants us all to succeed. That’s just his way of getting us over the top. He once told one of our players ‘I don’t care if your girlfriend leaves you or your pet rabbit dies. I just care if you produce for me on the basketball court.’”

“I talked to my mom and told her I was seriously thinking about coming home, maybe p-p-playing at the University of Louisville,” said Beard. “She said I was just young and homesick and I should really think t-t-twice about leaving.”

“Your mom is right. We have a great bunch of guys here . . . not only talented guys, but good Joes. We really, really want you to stay, Ralph.”

“Guess I will talk to Coach Rupp about things and see h-h-how that goes,” said Beard. “I’ll letchya know how it comes out.”

That afternoon Beard was in Coach Rupp’s office, sheepishly sitting across from him with his head down.

Rupp placed his elbows on his desk, cupped his chin in his hands and looked across at Beard for several seconds, waiting for Beard to speak.

Finally, Beard raised his head. “Coach, it seems that I am n-n-not doing so well for the team and I have been thinking about the idea of maybe l-l-leaving and going back home to Louisville, playing for U of L.”

Rupp sat silent for a minute, then leaned back in his chair. Then, in his native Kansas twang, said, “Young man, I have had many great basketball players come through this office. Quite a few of them in their freshman year get homesick. They were big stars in high school and were not used to coaches yelling at them and getting on their asses and telling them how much they were screwing up on the court. I guess you might say I am something of a perfectionist when it comes to basketball. But I am also a realist – I know no one can be perfect all the time. But, still, that should be your goal. And that means I may frequently call your attention to your imperfections so that you can move closer to your goal of perfection. Young man, I think you have great potential to be one of the best basketball players who have ever worn the Blue and White. But if you have set your mind on transferring to the Normal School, I won’t stand in your way. And, by Gawd, we sure won’t cancel the season because you’re gone.”

Beard sat somewhat stunned. It seemed obvious Coach Rupp was going to continue using his methods, no matter what Beard decided.

“Coach, maybe I just n-n-need some growing up, like my mom says. I’m still a teenager with half a brain, I reckon. I think I will just stick it out with our t-t-team and hope to make you happier before the season is over,” said Beard.

Coach Rupp stood up and extended his hand. Smiling, he said, “You’re a good boy, Ralph, I know everything will work out.”

And things did work out, indeed.

Beard went on to score in double figures 12 games his freshman year, but his numbers would have been even better had he not had a poor 51.8 per cent shooting percentage from the free throw line. But he was a ball of fire as a playmaker and a fierce defensive demon. He led the team in steals and assists, though no official stats were kept in those categories.

Beard always drew the opposing team’s best backcourt player as his defensive assignment. Prior to one game, Coach Rupp told Beard he was going to have to guard the other team’s star guard. “I expect you to strangle him,” Rupp said.

Beard was obsessed with trying to hold his man down defensively. As he lay asleep in his dorm bed the night before the game, Beard startled some of his teammates when he suddenly sat up in bed with his hands wrapped around his pillow in a strangle hold yelling, “I gotcha now, Burl, you sumbitch, I gotcha now,” said Beard.

“Wake up, Ralph, you’re having a nightmare,” said Tingle.

Wah Wah Jones also had a productive freshman season, scoring in double figures 17 times and leading the team in rebounding.

Kentucky in late January 1946 won the prestigious NIT Tournament in New York City, beating Arizona 77-53, West Virginia 59-51 and Rhode Island 46-45.

They finished the season with a 28-2 record (losing a close game to Temple – later avenged – and a close game to Notre Dame). They were generally considered by some sports media organizations as the No. 1 team in the country.

The Wildcats did not play in the NCAA that season. At that time the NCAA was an invitational tournament, with teams selected by a committee. UK did not receive an invitation, greatly irritating Rupp, even though the NIT was considered as big – or bigger – a tournament at the time.

The NCAA tournament of 1946 had eight teams: Baylor, Harvard, NYU, North Carolina, Ohio State, Oklahoma A&M, California and Colorado. Oklahoma A&M beat North Carolina 43-40 in the championship game.

“That was one of the biggest mistakes the NCAA ever made, as far as I am concerned,” said Rupp. “I felt we could have beaten any of those NCAA tournament teams.”

The NIT tournament was March 16-20 and the NCAA tournament was March 21-26. So, it was possible for UK to have played in both, though the travel arrangements might have been tough.

Several UK players won all-star honors for 1945-46, including:

Junior Jack Parkinson (6-0), All-American; junior Jack Tingle (6-3), All-American; freshman Jones, All-SEC; freshman Beard, All-SEC, and senior Wilbur Schu (6-4), All-SEC (2nd Team).

The 1946-47 season prospects looked great, with so many stars returning and with Alex Groza coming back after serving a stint in the Army.

Groza as a 6-5 freshman had led the 1944-45 team in the first half of the season, averaging more than 16 points a game through his first 10 games. But it was at that point in January he was drafted into the Army and would not return until the 1946-47 season.

When Groza got drafted a reporter asked Coach Rupp why he was so sorry to see that happen. “Well, we are going to miss that young man very much,” said the coach.

The reporter asked Rupp why Groza was so important inasmuch as there was a lot of other talent on the UK team.

“But you don’t replace a Caruso with a barbershop singer,” Rupp replied.

While in the Army, Groza worked in a military hospital, but spent most of his time playing for military basketball teams. He earned all-service honors with the Fort Hood, Texas, team.

Rupp was delighted when Groza returned for 1946-47, two inches taller and 70 pounds heavier.

In the fall of 1946 Groza and Beard became friends as the team prepared for the season.

Groza came to UK from Martins Ferry, Ohio, High School, where he twice made all-state and scored a state-record 628 points as a senior in 1944. He was honorary captain of the All-Ohio high school team and had hoped to play for Ohio State University, where his brother, Lou Groza, was a star football player destined to become an NFL great.

But, strangely, UK was the only big school to offer him a scholarship.

NEXT: Rupp and Bryant Discuss Wah Wah Jones’ Future