Football takes a backseat in the Bluegrass State

Joe Beasman Hall spent his childhood in a place called Cynthiana, a quiet little town in the north-central part of Kentucky. This was the final years of the depression, right up through World War II, and Hall passed the time the way a lot of Kentucky boys did: With a basketball.

Just down the road, in Lexington, a young coach from Halstead, Kan., was building something special at the state university, and people throughout the state had begun to take notice. Adolph Rupp, a disciple of legendary KU coach Phog Allen, had brought some of that Blue Blood magic to Lexington, and the victories began to mean something more than state pride. Basketball served as a unifying force for the entire state, a place defined by geographical and cultural differences. The mountains in the east. The plains in the west. The Bluegrass Region in the center that surrounds Lexington. All these boys carried the same dream — to suit up for Rupp, the Baron of the Bluegrass — and Hall was one of them.

“It’s the people of Kentucky,” says Hall, who would go on to succeed Rupp in 1972 — and is known in the Commonwealth simply as, “Joe B.”

Fast forward to a night in New Orleans last April, more than 80 years after Rupp first arrived in Lexington. Hall watched as 70,000 fans crowded into the Superdome and watched Rupp’s old program beat Allen’s for the 2012 NCAA championship, the first title for Kentucky in 14 years.

You won’t find another place like Kentucky basketball, Hall says, within the confines of the Southeastern Conference. This is a historic blue-blood program where coaches win titles — and still become persona non grata in the Bluegrass State. See Hall, who was target of much criticism in his final years at UK, and Tubby Smith, who won a title in his first year in 1998 before escaping the program in 2007 to take a step-down job at Minnesota.

“The fans here in Lexington and the state of Kentucky are so avid, that they are always good fans,” Hall says. “But the program is a result of their demands.”

This is the SEC basketball culture that Missouri has entered — a league dominated by a team in blue with the letters “U” and “K” on its shirts. After leaving the Big 12 and historic rival Kansas — another blue blood with three NCAA titles and a museum’s worth of history — Mizzou suddenly finds itself pitted against a school that looks an awful lot like its old rival. Maybe Kentucky isn’t bizzaro Kansas, but some coincidences are hard to ignore, right down to the name and history and the odd fact that both schools were founded in 1865.

In 109 seasons, the Wildcats have won 2,090 games, the most in NCAA history, and eight NCAA titles, second behind only UCLA. But the basketball roots go deeper. For years, Hall has told stories of Rupp taking his team to Lawrence to play KU in his later years, to take on the program that shared the same history, passion and bloodlines. On those trips, Rupp would always make it a point to visit Allen, his old coach. To those that saw those conversations, a new image of the Baron emerged.

“Coach Rupp was like a pupil again,” Hall says.

During the Wildcats’ run to the NCAA Title in 2012, Kentucky coach John Calipari talked about his own KU stories from his time as a low-level assistant at Kansas in the early 1980s, when his most pressing job was running the training table.

“I would be in the line,” Calipari said then, “(I would ask) ‘would you like peas or corn? Peas? Great.’”

Now a new conversation is taking place in Lexington. In places like Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge, talk of the “New SEC” centers on football. But in Kentucky, fans and observers say, there is a legitimate curiosity surrounding Missouri basketball — and what the Tigers could mean for the league’s hoops landscape.

Kentucky is also a place where a Duke-educated lawyer can forget about his law career to focus on a blog dedicated to Kentucky sports. Matt Jones grew up in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. To say that he is a diehard Wildcats fan is accurate. But then again, it may be redundant. Most UK fans are.

Nearly seven years ago, Jones helped found a low-fi blog with the counterintuitive name “Kentucky Sports Radio.” Now Jones is a media voice with more than 50,000 Twitter followers and enough daily website hits to quit his day job.

To explain the Kentucky phenomenon that props up his own career, Jones taps into the state’s cultural psyche.

“Kentucky has always been a looked-down-upon state, with jokes about hillbillies and rednecks,” he says.

Kentucky basketball has the power to change that perception, he says, to give Kentuckians a reason to puff out their chests. And among his audience, and communities throughout the state, Jones says there’s a genuine interest in the Missouri basketball program.

“There’s a belief that Missouri, upon entry, could be the second-most passionate basketball school in the conference,” Jones says.

Still, Hall argues that the SEC is a better basketball league than its national perception.

The basketball programs at many SEC schools may be second-class citizens to their football counterparts, but that doesn’t mean the basketball is second rate. In Gainesville, Fla., the Florida Gators are still just five years removed from winning back-to-back NCAA titles; Vanderbilt has been to six NCAA tourneys and two Sweet 16s during the last nine years under former KU assistant Kevin Stallings; Arkansas and South Carolina are rebuilding under Big 12 expats Mike Anderson and Frank Martin, respectively; and LSU has basketball legends in its rafters — Pete Maravich, Bob Pettit and Shaquille O’Neal — even if those names never won much hardware on the court.

“It’s not strictly a football conference,” Hall says. “It has very competitive basketball.”

Hall believes Missouri will be a nice fit in the SEC basketball culture. He remembers going to Hearnes Center when one of Norm Stewart’s teams upset a top-ranked Kansas team. He was working the broadcast that day, and the environment left an impression. Missouri, he says, felt like a place where basketball matters.

“I think Norm Stewart built the program there on sound ground,” Hall says.

There’s irony in this memory, of course. Mizzou was playing Kansas that night, the one school that sparked the most intense hatred and emotion. Now the antagonist is gone.

And while it is easy, perhaps, to imagine Missouri fans packing Mizzou Arena for a primetime matchup with Kentucky, it is, likewise, hard to imagine those games producing the same raw vitriol (in a loss) or pure joy (in a victory).

Of course, maybe the answer is time. For now, Jones says Kentucky fans will certainly be ready to introduce the Mizzou program to Big Blue Nation when the Tigers enter Rupp Arena on Feb. 23. There will be 24,000 of them, dressed in blue, screaming and yelling. And for Mizzou, it may feel strangely similar.

“Kentucky fans,” Jones says, “want there to be at least one program that cares about basketball.”

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