Small town boy meets coaching giant
With four NCAA titles, 27 SEC titles, and 876 victories, Adolph Rupp is regarded as one of the most famous and significant icons in not just Kentucky basketball history, but college basketball history as a whole. A fan would have given almost anything to have some sort of social interaction with “The Baron of the Bluegrass” before he passed away in 1977.
Dixon Bank President Frank Ramsey had the pleasure of interacting with the coaching giant nearly every single day from 1950 to 1954 when he played basketball for the Wildcats, and the way Ramsey was led to Lexington and Rupp came through a friendship he shared with a man named John Baldwin.
Baldwin was a friend of Ramsey’s during his teenage years. He was a year older than Ramsey and had gone up to UK the year before to play football for the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant. Baldwin was a member of the 1950 national championship team at Kentucky, or one of “Bear’s Boys”. The famous Alabama Crimson Tide coach was at the helm of the Wildcats from 1946 to 1953 before going on to Texas A&M and eventually Alabama—where he won six national championships.
Ramsey would go to see Baldwin in Lexington, and it was here where he met assistant coach Harry Lancaster---the man that would prove to be the key to Ramsey’s future success.
“I would go up to visit (Baldwin) in Lexington,” said Ramsey. “The perfect contact for me was assistant coach Harry Lancaster. When I was offered a scholarship I was so surprised and accepted immediately. Then I got to meet Coach Rupp.”
The first time Ramsey met Rupp was in Rupp’s office in the old Alumni Gym, and the setup of the legendary coach’s office is not what one might expect from someone of such high stature.
“Coach Rupp’s office and Harry Lancaster’s office was about the size of that bathroom right there,” Ramsey said, pointing to the bathroom inside his office at Dixon Bank. “It didn’t have a door or a roof on it. It was just a boxed off corner of Alumni Gym.”
However Ramsey knew when he went to Rupp’s office that he had to pass one major test if he wanted to play for the legendary coach.
“He had a two-by-four that held the sides (of the office) together that was six feet, two inches tall and if you didn’t hit your head on it he would not talk to you,” said Ramsey, who stands at 6-3. “So I made sure I hit my head on it by tiptoeing.”
So this is how Ramsey’s remarkable basketball career at the University of Kentucky began. But according to Ramsey, the environment at Alumni Gym (where he played his freshman season) is very different from the large crowd of approximately 24,000 fans that Big Blue Nation is accustomed to seeing pack Rupp Arena for Wildcat home games today.
“Up there (in Alumni Gym) they could only seat about 2,000 or 2,500 people,” said Ramsey. “And each student had an ID card, and one game the even numbers would get to go the game and the next game would be the odd number. I went up and watched a game with John Baldwin and that’s how I got to see Kentucky play (while he was still in high school). That was the Olympians, with Beard, Groza, that went to the Olympics and everything.”
Ramsey also said that one thing out of the ordinary was that people who were well-established in Lexington would accept jobs as ushers just to be able to see this remarkable team play.
“I got to know some of the people up in Lexington, and they got to laughing when Memorial Coliseum opened,” said Ramsey. “They would work in Alumni Gym as ushers just to see Kentucky play. Because nobody could get into games unless they were students. There were some doctors and lawyers that worked as ushers just to get in and be able to see Kentucky play.”
Many did this to be able to see the legendary Adolph Rupp stroll the sidelines, but only Ramsey and a few select others can tell you what Rupp was like behind closed doors.
“He was the absolute boss,” said Ramsey when asked about what it was like to play for the legend. “You have to remember that the people that were playing for him was from Kentucky. Jerry Bird was from Corbin, Billy Evans was from Berea, and Bobby (Watson) and Cliff (Hagan) were both from Owensboro. You had all Kentuckians up there and we were in awe of him.”
“Nobody got into our practices. The gates were closed at 3:15. If you didn’t have a good reason to be late for practice then you didn’t eat that night. There was no talking during practice and unless you could improve on the total silence all you heard was the bouncing of a basketball. He was just disciplined, he was the absolute boss, and it paid off for us.”
According to Ramsey, the Wildcats lost just four games during his time in Lexington.
Kentucky won the national title Ramsey’s sophomore season in 1951, defeating Kansas State 68-58 to finish with a record of 32-2. Named as a third-team All-American, Ramsey averaged 10.1 points and 12.8 rebounds a game for the Wildcats.
In 1952 the Wildcats made it to the Elite Eight before falling to St. John’s, snapping a 23-game winning streak but still finishing the year at an impressive 29-3. Ramsey averaged 15.9 points and 12.0 rebounds per game and was named as a second-team All-American.
All was well in Lexington…until the fall of that same year. Kentucky was forced to forfeit its entire 1952-1953 season, as the NCAA told teams not to schedule the Wildcats due to the team’s involvement in the CCNY Point Shaving Scandal.
“This is all happened while we (Ramsey and his teammates) were still in high school,” Ramsey said. “All this came out when we were juniors and our senior year Kentucky was not allowed to play any games at all. We were students, which was great. The seniors all graduated that year, we took our hard courses, and the year we came back we were graduate students.”
Reach Cameron Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org