This summer, ESPN has been running a series on the programs in college basketball history with legendary coaches, and how they have — or have not — moved on from them. Today was Kentucky’s turn, and the ESPN staff ranked Adolph Rupp’s successors as such:
- 1. John Calipari
- 2. Rick Pitino
- 3. Joe B. Hall
- 4. Tubby Smith
- 5. Eddie Sutton
- 6. Billy Gillispie
What’s more interesting is the debate that follows. Jeff Borzello, Joe Lunardi, and Myron Medcalf tackled the issue of Rupp’s legacy, and whether or not Calipari can ever surpass him. The latter is pretty obvious, but the former?
“There are conflicting stories on whether Rupp actively recruited black basketball players before ultimately landing Payne,” Borzello wrote. “And that’s not even looking at the point-shaving scandal or rules violations under Rupp’s watch, leading to what the NCAA considers its first “death penalty.” So, yes, ‘complicated’ is certainly apt. I think as we get further away from his on-court accomplishments — the four national titles and six Final Fours — those begin to fade.”
“Rupp was a product of his time and place, in many ways the Bear Bryant of college basketball,” Lunardi argued. “That characterization alone cements a legacy of unparalleled success, conflicted priorities and societal impact. Viewing that impact positively or negatively may depend on whether or not you are a Kentucky fan.”
As the only African American on the panel, Medcalf had the strongest point of view.
“I get the numbers. I get the legacy. I get the history attached to his time at Kentucky, one of the greatest programs in college basketball history. But I see him as a man who wielded his power and influence to ban black players from one of the country’s most influential programs and extending the widespread discrimination among elite teams. I don’t reward Rupp or his peers for subsequently embracing the idea of integrated teams because I don’t believe they made those changes for anything but competitive reasons. Their morals hadn’t changed. They just wanted to win.”
As for Calipari vs. Rupp, I think you’ll like Lunardi’s answer.
“It’s not apples to apples. Kentucky for most of Rupp’s time was among the few state schools to really care about basketball. The competition was nowhere near where it is today, with the sport heavily concentrated among urban, and in many cases, private schools. Given that, Calipari won’t surpass Rupp in NCAA championships. He may already have exceeded the Baron, however, in terms of impact on the game. He is the perfect man to thrive in and survive the Kentucky crucible. And ‘Calipari Court’ at Rupp Arena sounds like the perfect ending.”
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