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Kentucky by Heart: James Duane Bolin pens first in-depth, critical biography of ‘Baron of the Bluegrass’

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

There was a day when collegiate basketball in America was “just a sport,” when college gyms were marginal — often smaller and less attractive than those of today’s high schools — and most followers did so from sources via radio, newspapers, and information from friends. No cable TV, no ESPN, no 24-hour coverage… and March Madness as we know it was a couple of generations away from being a clanging bell announcement of springtime.

Then, in 1930, a person with a non-Kentucky sounding name and a high school coaching resume, Adolph Rupp, became the University of Kentucky’s head basketball coach. He almost immediately made a splash, and by the time he left the sidelines, a mandatorily forced retirement in 1972 because of his age, the “Baron of the Bluegrass” helped promote the sport to a national level of cultural and economic prominence. In his iconic tenure at Kentucky, he helped turn fandom of the Wildcats into a near religion.

Professor James Duane Bolin (Photo provided)

Old-timer Kentucky hoops fans and those individuals closely connected to him all had their favorite stories about Rupp, who held the record for most college coaching wins (876) until 1997. They spoke tales of his classic one-liners, his half-time talks, his salty language, his brutal practices, his skills as a businessman, and his acclaimed work with the Shriners Hospitals for Children. Many were interested in his overall perspectives on life, of which he had little hesitance in sharing.

Rupp was beloved, especially in Kentucky; he was also hated, especially outside of Kentucky. He was simply not one universally adored, but he was universally recognized.

There had to be a reason.

Historian Dr. James Duane Bolin, of Murray, has authored Adolph Rupp and the Rise of Kentucky Basketball (University Press of Kentucky, 2019), going “beyond the wins and losses to present the first full-length, critical biography of Rupp.” Duane has based his significant work, 340 pages in length and 26 black and white photos, on over 100 interviews with both “admirers and critics” of Rupp, as well as accounts in print and other archival materials.

Duane does magnificent reporting in the book, and there is plenty of ammunition for either lovers or haters of the strong-minded Rupp to make their cases. Consequently, when one writes in depth about controversial figures, some fierce criticism can be expected if the information doesn’t fit neat and tidy with readers’ pre-conceived notions.

I talked with the recently retired (but still very busy) professor, and I asked him if he expected pushback on his book.

“I do expect some pushback from the Big Blue Nation, although I am a member of the Big Blue Nation myself,” he said. “As a historian, however, I tried to remain true to the sources to present a balanced account.”

And he appears to have done so, at least as I read it. In handling the question of whether Rupp was a racist, the author mentions sportswriters such as Billy Reed, Dave Kindred, and Earl Cox—all with long associations with Rupp—defending Rupp “as a great, if curmudgeonly, coach whose reputation as a racist is unwarranted.” In contrast, Duane also noted that Harry Lancaster, a long-time Rupp assistant coach, attributed the use of the n-word to Rupp in Lancaster’s book, Adolph Rupp: As I Knew Him, along with making other comments that could be construed to be less than ingratiating towards blacks, particularly regarding recruiting.

The issue of racism in Duane’s book is treated much more in-depth than these mentions I’ve offered, with the focus being in chapter 11, “Rupp and Race.” I found plenty of other interesting items in the Rupp story that I think were surprising. Here are a few teasers. There are reports, according to the author, that Rupp had a religious awakening on his death bed. And–perish the thought for the Kentucky Wildcat faithful!—Rupp was offered the coaching job at Duke, but turned it down after considering it. There’s more in there, a lot more.

The book, ironically, emerged as a “hand off” from Dr. Humbert Nelli, Bolin’s professor/mentor at the University of Kentucky. Nelli, according to Duane, had planned to write a definitive biography on Rupp but decided against it. He turned over his research materials to his protégé, asking him to finish the work, and Duane agreed to do so.

There was still much to tackle, however—a huge undertaking, really. Duane described the process: “I first had to deal with the vast amount of material that Dr. Nelli had given me before forging ahead with my own further research. I also conducted interviews of my own in addition to the over 100 interviews that Dr. Nelli had already completed. I had to find ways and resources to have the interviews transcribed as well. In all, I worked on the project for 18 years.”

What sets it apart, he noted, is the “research that went into this book, Dr. Nelli’s and my own, {and} has never been duplicated.” He added that it is “a more balanced book than has thus far been written on Rupp.”

It also covers a panorama of happenings accumulated over the Rupp years. Here’s a sampling: his time playing for Kansas University under Coach Phog Allen, great teams like “The Fabulous Five,”“Rupp’s Runts,” “The Fiddlin’ Five,” the influence of World War II on the sport, and his successful cattle farming business. That’s just getting started.

Adolph Rupp made a mark, for sure.

It might be interesting to consider how a reincarnated Coach Adolph Rupp would do in today’s college basketball world. Remember, he was known to be pretty rough on his players. In Duane’s opinion, the answer is pretty simple. “I’m not sure Rupp would get away with his coaching methods today. Players would not respond.”

It’s pretty easy to surmise that Rupp figured the players were there to please him, not he to please them.

Duane will be busy promoting his project in the near future. “I have a series of speaking engagements and book signings lined up and I hope there will be many more,” he said. “I think this will be an important book.”

I expect that it will be, too.

Other books authored by Duane Bolin include: “Bossism and Reform in a Southern City: Lexington, Kentucky, 1880-1940; Home and Away: A Professor’s Journal; Kentucky Baptists, 1925-2000: A Story of Cooperation.

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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