After talking about Tech’s departure from the Southeastern Conference last week, I got sent a very intriguing newspaper clipping that talked about the current events of the day, namely Tech’s departure from the SEC. However, what caught my eye was a quote from one Coach John “Whack” Hyder, and, with Rearview Mirror seemingly in full swing on mid-century college basketball, it seemed fitting to discuss a little of our history, but also dig into the sordid past of Kentucky basketball.
Georgia Tech won its first and only officially recognized Southeastern Conference basketball championship in 1938, a tournament title. Interestingly, it was also regular season champion in 1937 and 1944, but those titles are not recognized as official as per the conference history books. Referencing back to Thursday’s Rearview Mirror, the Jackets were forced to play a home slate in the Civil Works Administration Naval Armory for a few years in the 1930s. By the end of this time, they were led by a young man named John Hyder. And, under Hyder, they were absolutely dominant in the Armory. Tech could not be stopped by any opponent, not so long as they were led by a young man who excelled in basketball, baseball, cross country, track, and football in his time at the Institute.
Adolph Rupp was born in a small Kansas farming town to German immigrant parents, fittingly playing basketball from a young age around the turn of the twentieth century. Eventually, he made his way to the University of Kansas, as many great basketball players do. However, he was not a legendary Jayhawk. Instead, he was a reserve that spent the majority of his time off the court. Fortunately, that meant he was almost constantly in the presence of not just one of the greatest coaches in basketball history in the form of Forrest “Phog” Allen - think Allen Fieldhouse - but also directly down the bench from assistant coach James Naismith - thanks to his stint as the Kansas head coach, the only one to have a losing record all-time - quietly was living out his time after, well, inventing the whole dang sport years back at the Springfield, Massachusetts YMCA under the guise of Luther Gulick, one of the most important names in shaping modern American sporting culture. After his time as a varsity reserve in Lawrence for a team that was twice named national champions - these were the days before the advent of the National Invitational Tournament (1937) or NCAA Tournament (1938) - Rupp graduated and moved on to become an educator and coach. His time before he was hired as a head college varsity basketball coach included stops in Iowa, where he won a high school state championship in wrestling, a sport he taught himself on the fly out of a book, and Illinois, where he led the Freeport Pretzels to a third place finish in the IHSA State Championship Tournament, which is commonly regarded as the original “March Madness” event. This was a disappointing finish for Rupp and Freeport, who were the reigning state champions and the class of the IHSA in several sports, and who claim just one state title (1951) in basketball and one in bowling (2008) since hiring the man who would become one of the greatest college coaches of all time.
That trip to the state tournament at the Huff Gymnaisum in Champaign-Urbana was critically important for one reason, though. It introduced Rupp to University of Illinois coach Craig Ruby. After later engaging with the team by speaking at a banquet, it was Ruby who put him up for the job at an up-and-coming Southern Conference school in Lexington, Kentucky. In the summer of 1930, he was hired at the University of Kentucky. He would not depart until 1972, when he was forced into retirement.
Georgia Tech really didn’t see all that much success after Whack Hyder left and the 1938 team won the 1938 tournament title. Sure, Coach Roy Mundorff was a solid presence for Tech - convincing a hesitant William Alexander to offer Hyder a freshman football scholarship in the heights of Georgia Tech athletics’ greatest financial struggle (and one of the Institute’s nadirs) to get the basketball prodigy in the door shows his tenacity and his convincing of the football assistant coach-turned-mediocre baseball head coach to sweeten the deal with varsity baseball shows his dealmaking prowess - but, come World War II, Tech was decent more by default than anything else. Much like during the Great War, Tech’s 1944 regular season title reflected a country at war and a school well and able to capitalize on the increased enrollment due to wartime measures on the Flats.
Things started to change when Hyder, after a few years in the New York Yankees farm system and a few more serving his country, decided to return to the Flats as a basketball assistant coach. In 1951, he was named the head coach of the team. Of course, the squad he inherited was little more than average. Things, however, weren’t going so great for Rupp up in Lexington.
Arguably, on the surface, things were great for Rupp and his Kentucky Wildcats. Long since dubbed the “Baron of the Bluegrass” and the “Man in the Brown Suit” - he had lost a single game at Freeport when he traded brown for blue and the ever-superstitious Rupp never made that mistake again - the man was essentially a legend already. By the time Hyder became Georgia Tech’s head coach, Rupp had already won an NIT title in 1946, as well as NCAA titles in 1948 and 1949, and would win one in 1951, as well. However, the success just masked the scandal that had been brewing beneath him.
In 1952, Kentucky was forced to sit out the entire season due to what was retroactively dubbed the first application of a “death penalty” from the NCAA as a part of the City College of New York point shaving scandal that very well almost killed college basketball. When it was all said and done, nearly three dozen players, seven schools, and 86 games were implicated in the fix. More remarkable at the time was the Powers That Be that it brought down. To once more lean a little bit into the insight from Dr. Smith’s History of Sports in America class, it almost made sense that something like this would happen, at least in New York. The college game was growing like a weed, and, with spectacles filling Madison Square Garden while players scrimped to make ends meet, it made sense that the need for money from athletes and the interest in gambling would meet on common ground in the organized New York syndicate. But not a team that was seen as a bastion of middle America, led by a well-respected man, especially one who stated that gamblers couldn’t touch his players. But, yet, they did. Not only did the scandal rock respected coaches Nat Holman and Clair Bee - two of the greatest to ever lead a college basketball team, with the former being the only to ever lead a team to the no-longer-possible “college basketball grand slam” of winning the NIT and NCAA in the same season and the latter the winningest coach of all time by winning percentage, only for the scandal to be his Woody Hayes moment - but it also relegated their schools, City College of New York and Long Island University, from the sports preeminent powers to Division III and low major status, respectively. In New York, Manhattan College and New York University were also implicated. The three other schools outside New York, though, proved that it was more than just a big city problem. These three, Kentucky, Toledo, and Bradley, were all schools of mid-tier Midwestern and Southern cities. They were supposedly the models of what was right with America.
It is, perhaps, justified that all seven programs were severely punished. Five never recovered. Bradley, the unfortunate loser of the 1950 NCAA Tournament, and only minimally exposed to scandal, would rebound to another runner-up finish in the 1954 editions, and have added four NIT titles in the years since. Thanks to winning Arch Madness this past year, they were in the NCAA Tournament representing the mid-major Missouri Valley this past year. Toledo, though, was not so lucky. They have one win in four appearances in the NCAA tournament and two wins in seven in the NIT. Beats being the New York schools, though.
It is understandable, though, that Kentucky was dealt the most severe punishment from the NCAA. Unlike simple point shaving and outside scandals, the Wildcats were also found to be heavily reliant on booster culture to provide players with illicit cash. Payments from the organization were not uncommon. Thus, one of the better programs in the country ceased to exist for a whole calendar year. The next, they sat out the postseason after going undefeated due to using ineligible players.
“Worry about Kentucky? Oh, no! We never worry about Kentucky. We never worry about Kentucky, because if Kentucky beats you, they are only doing what they are expected to do. If you beat them, great. When I get home and get to thinking about it, I can see how Kentucky ‘might’ beat us. I wouldn’t admit it to old Adolph. But I tell you that those boys at Georgia Tech don’t ever believe Kentucky can beat them. Jim Caldwell and R.D. Craddock and Ron Scharf and Charlie Spooner and Bill Eidson and all the boys just don’t think they can lose. I’m with them.” - Whack Hyder, 1964.
The win that put Georgia Tech basketball on the map came in 1955, in Kentucky’s third year back in existence. See, Kentucky was sitting on a home winning streak dating back to 1943. The 129 game streak had spanned not just most of the American involvement in World War II, but also the Korean War. There were 12 year old residents of Lexington that had never Kentucky lose a basketball game with their own eyes. In fact, I found this quote after writing the article:
“A lot of people in the crowd that night had never seen Kentucky lose. The games weren’t on TV in those days, and the fans didn’t travel with the teams like they do now.” - Hyder, for Sports Illustrated
Perhaps more significantly, Georgia Tech had not lost to a Kentucky team by less than 20 points since January of 1950. In the nine games since, Kentucky had entered each game ranked in the top 5 teams, including being first overall six of those times. The matchup on January 8th, 1955, would be the fifth straight time. The previous four games had ended with a Kentucky margin of victory of 51, 21, 52, and 51, respectively. All were in Lexington, presumably for similar reasons as to why almost all Tech football games used to be at Grant Field. This was Adolph Rupp’s game, everyone else was just playing it. Tech entered the night 2-4, with wins over Sewanee and Idaho State and losses to Georgetown, Canisius, South Carolina, and Sewanee in their second trip to Atlanta the previous outing. Kentucky hadn’t lost an SEC game in 16 years.
However, Tech came out of the gate hot. They were well on their way to doing the unthinkable - especially for a team that had gone 2-22 the previous season - and led by eight points in the second before fading down the stretch. It seemed that it would all be a mirage, as Kentucky led by three with less than two minutes to play. Joe Helms snagged the ball on an inbounds play and drilled a shot with 12 seconds to play. Tech led by one, and that was all she wrote. Five players played every second of the game. By the time Tech returned to Atlanta, a crowd was waiting for them at the airport.
Sidenote: why don’t we do stuff like that for teams anymore? That seems fun. Same with shirttail parades and 1990 Virginia game-esque giant furniture bonfires that melt stoplights into the streets? On second though, maybe it’s a good thing we don’t do that last one anymore...
“We caught Kentucky off guard that night. It was the first time I ever saw grown people cry over a basketball loss. They just sat there, too shocked to move.” - Hyder, for Sports Illustrated
Rupp was solemn and displeased. He did not mince words, letting know they were the team that let the streak break, and the world reacted accordingly to “the shot heard ‘round the basketball world.” Folks associated with Kentucky would use their upcoming game against Chicago powerhouse DePaul as a convenient excuse for having looked past the game. 23 days later, Kentucky, still ranked number one in the nation, had the chance to avenge the Tech loss in Atlanta. In the meantime, Tech played 8 games. They lost six of them, including one of Tech’s highest scoring effort in a loss not including overtime games at the hands of Furman, and one to the School in Athens for good measure, though that’s not as bad as the loss to the Macon YMCA by 60 points in 1920. Except, the thing is, Tech messed around, did the thing, and beat Kentucky again, this time at home at the cozy, 1,800 seat Heisman Gym, rather than the cavernous 11,500 seat Lexington Memorial Coliseum. Those two losses were the only ones the country’s consensus best team would take in the regular season, and the second one came by a healthy six points. These two wins were the first of Tech’s eight against teams ranked first in the AP Poll, good for fourth most all-time.
Hyder’s teams would trend upwards from there, as is probably unsurprising, given that he was able to coach a mediocre squad that would eventually finish 12-13 to two of college basketball history’s quietest, yet most significant upsets. The move from the Old Gym to the Alexander Memorial Coliseum in time for the 1956 season probably didn’t hurt his success, as did his increased ability to poach solid midwestern talent. Netting Roger Kaiser, who was also a three year star and team captain in baseball in addition to leading Tech basketball to its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance in 1960 en route to being named SEC MVP in 1961 and a consensus All-American both seasons, certainly helped, too.
Ultimately, Hyder would finish his career 9-16 against Adolph Rupp and the Kentucky Wildcats. In his last ten games, he won six of them, including winning three of the last four matchups before Tech left the SEC following the 140 Rule vote. Ironically, his quote about not worrying about Kentucky, who was supposed to beat Tech, was coming off of a three game win streak in January of 1964. The game the next day would be his last against the Wildcats. Tech lost.
Adolph Rupp would coach at Kentucky until he hit the mandatory retirement age of 70. In 1966, his Wildcats, all white, played Texas Western, now known as the University of Texas-El Paso, who were all black, in the NCAA Tournament Championship Game at Cole Field House in College Park, Maryland. Rupp is frequently incorrectly portrayed as racist in literature and coverage, though this past is more complicated than it seems. However, of all of the games in all the situations that the man coached, what this one meant for race in America made the game all that more significant. He is memorialized in the name of the current home of Kentucky men’s basketball, Rupp Arena, which seats a mammoth 20,500 and was completed shortly before his death. Hyder, who eventually became his friend, was quoted as saying the biggest travesty about it was that they didn’t leave a seat permanently open for the Baron of the Bluegrass. As for Hyder, he would continue his stint as Tech’s first great coach into the 1970s. He would eventually trail off, and was replaced by Dwayne Morrison. He did, however, manage to recruit Rich Yunkus, still Tech’s all-time leading scorer, and secure two trips to the NIT late in his career on the Flats.
Whack Hyder, twice named to the Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Fame, both for his exploits as a player and his roughly two decades as a coach, would remain Tech’s all-time winningest coach in any sport until he was passed by Jim Luck of baseball and in basketball until he was topped by the only other person worthy of being called one of Tech’s greatest-ever basketball coaches, Bobby Cremins. Hyder passed away in 2003 at the age of 90.
Tonight at 5:00 p.m. at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Georgia Tech and Kentucky tip off in their 72nd meeting all-time. The Yellow Jackets are 15-56 against the Wildcats, and last played each other in 2000-01, the last of six consecutive seasons with meetings, a game Tech won, 86-84, the only win in that stretch. The game can be viewed on the Worldwide Leader in Sports, ESPN, and, as always, the voice of the Yellow Jackets, Andy Demetra, can be heard over the air on the usual suspects, 680 AM / 93.7 FM and the Georgia Tech IMG Basketball Radio Network
If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to look into adding it to the schedule. What is old is new again, or at least liable to be featured in the future. Thank you for reading this latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror. To those that have suggested events post-1960s over the last year - I promise we will get there soon! They’re on the schedule!