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Looking Sharp

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A long forgotten moment in UK history that reminds us of something that is still important today.

The Kentucky Wildcats have a rich and storied tradition in college basketball. Most who follow basketball know that whether they are UK fans or not.

Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that tradition is built upon the times, the places, the people, and the events that begin to link themselves together (sometimes good and at other times not so good) to carve out a history and a legacy.

It was 1930. Adolph Rupp was now coaching the University of Kentucky and had been for seven games. January 21st found the team getting ready to play on the road at Vanderbilt. It was time for the Cats to travel for the first time with their coach. The players gathered at the Southern Depot and waited for Coach Rupp to arrive. When he did, he found that most of the team was dressed in knickers and sweatshirts.

Rupp erupted. “Boys, what in the name of …. Are you guys showing up here for in clothes like that? I’m taking around a bunch of university students, not a bunch of bums. I’m not packing around a bunch of bums. I’m packing around the finest boys from a fine university.”

He was getting ready to send them back to their rooms to change their clothes so they could travel. Rupp then added, “You get out of those knickers and that darn fool stuff and let’s get some class into this organization. This sloppy business is not going to get by as long as I’m coaching this team.”

Years later, as Rupp would recall that event in his first year at Kentucky, he would conclude, “We didn’t have any more trouble after that. The boys learned right quickly.”

The coach was trying to create an image for the Wildcats, and he wanted them to dress for success. The way that sports teams dress for travel has shifted over time as culture moves and changes.

But believe it or not, there is a science to this idea of “dress for success”. A study by Lefkowitz, Blake, and Mouton (1955) proved that business suits portray a form of authority. They tested their findings by playing in traffic.

No kidding. They watched as people were more likely to follow someone dressed in a suit through a crosswalk than they were to follow someone dressed in a sweat suit.

And we all know that you “don’t judge a book by its cover” which is technically true, however, walk through a store and shop, we discover that product designers create packaging with the mind-set that people do judge. We tend to make conclusions based on what we see. The idea Coach Rupp was trying to communicate was that if as a team we take the time, effort and pride into dressing sharp, you will radiate an image of self-respect and self-worth. People will have a strong first impression of you, and you will represent well.

Those are important reminders for all of us in the world we navigate each day. But beneath the ways the Wildcats dressed, when they put on their uniforms to play they still had to dribble, drive, shoot, rebound, pass, and hustle. If they didn’t, they would lose just as many games wearing a suit as they would wearing sweatshirts.

Perhaps the most telling phrase that was spoken and learned was “This sloppy business is not going to get by as long as I’m coaching this team.” The need to replace sloppiness with sharpness is more than just a change of clothes, but it really was an attitude that was going to emerge out of those early days of Wildcat history. Let’s hope that the latest edition of the Wildcats play sharp and not sloppy.