College athletics as we know it would not be the same without the University of Kentucky.
Don’t take my word for it. That comes from Alex Kirshner, one of a few authors for the upcoming e-book Sinful Seven: Sci-Fi Western Legends of the NCAA, brought to you by the fine folks from SB Nation and Banner Society. The part fiction and non-fiction collaboration takes a look at the early years of the NCAA to explain how he got to where we are today.
College athletics is a multi-billion dollar industry. As evident by the ongoing talks amid the coronavirus, its economic footprint leaves an enormous impact on the area surrounding the school and how the institution of higher learning operates. The influx of revenue from TV contracts played a significant role in this development, but Kirshner believes the epicenter is in Lexington.
“Kentucky keeps coming up and plays a central role, both in the football and in the basketball realm. The thing about the football program that is so interesting to me is that I think if Kentucky does not make a decision in late 1945, just after the war, to really scale up its athletic spending and go big by trying to hire a big-name coach, which wound up being Bear Bryant. If they don’t do that I think the entire history of college sports starts to look a ton different,” Kirshner said Friday morning on Kentucky Roll Call.
“Certainly Bear Bryant doesn’t become Bear Bryant. I think in some ways, because of the effect this had on Kentucky’s basketball program as well, the NCAA might not even exist in the form that the NCAA exists today. I think that the decision Kentucky made with Herman Donavon, the president in November 1945, that Kentucky was going to get into the absolute biggest of the big-time in college sports, really start spending and making itself a big-money program, it changes a ton. It’s one of those moments where you see a lot of different threads in college sports history follow it.”
President Donovan, the namesake of the former all-girls dormitory on campus, found a rising star to inject life into the Kentucky football program. By investing into the athletic programs, it paid dividends all over campus and became an example others followed across the country.
Of course, the dynamic between Bear and Rupp was researched thoroughly for this project. Like many others, Kirshner found no basis in the “Cadillac vs. cigarette lighter” story that developed into a myth that explained why the Bear left Lexington.
“Absolutely no truth to it at all,” he said. “Bear is at a kickoff lunch or dinner banquet thing, before Kentucky plays Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl one year. At that point Oklahoma is on a 31-game win streak. They’re the best team in the country. Bear is rising with Kentucky. Of course, Kentucky would win that game, but before Bear is talking about the basketball, football dynamic at Kentucky. He’s kind of fishing for a laugh and says, ‘The other night Adolph Rupp got a car from the school and I just got this old cigarette lighter.’ It wasn’t true at all but it became legendary because of the differences in the football and basketball programs at Kentucky. That wasn’t real but what was real was there was real tension between the two of them.”
Kirshner continued, “Rupp’s position in the athletic department made it untenable for him to stay there. Without Adolph Rupp I don’t think that Bear goes to Texas A&M. I don’t think — maybe he still ends up at Alabama. It’s hard to say. The history of a lot of different programs looks a lot different if not for that dynamic.”
The post-World War II era of UK Athletics and its impacts on the NCAA as a whole are detailed even further in the e-book. Planned to be released in early August, you can pre-order the 12 extensive essays in Sinful Seven: Sci-Fi Western Legends of the NCAA here for as little as 99 cents, with a significant portion of profits going to Feeding America.