Is Stoops-Calipari destined to be UK’s next Bryant-Rupp split?

Adolph Rupp is the greatest men’s basketball coach in Southeastern Conference history. Before Nick Saban, Bear Bryant was the greatest football coach the SEC had ever seen.

For eight glorious school years (1946-54), filled with New Year’s Day Bowls and Final Four championships, the University of Kentucky employed both.

Then, Bryant up and left for Texas A&M. For almost seven decades now, Kentucky Wildcats sports fans have been haunted by that departure.

After the unprecedented events of last week — with UK’s winningest football coach since Bryant, Mark Stoops, in a public feud with another successful UK basketball coach, John Calipari — Cats fans are fretting that they may be watching history repeat.

Last Saturday, at a memorable Kroger Field news conference, I asked UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart how fearful the Big Blue Nation should be about the same dynamic that drove Bryant away happening again. Barnhart’s reply (presented in full here) was blunt.

“I have two coaches who have been with me, one 13 years (Calipari) and one 10 years (Stoops),” Barnhart said. “I can’t speak to (whether one might leave). That is their call.

“But, I’ll tell you, I will be there with them, I will walk with both of them. I hired them both. I gave them opportunities to coach here, their families to come here, to win championships here, to go to bowl games here. I have walked with both of them here, through both good and bad, and they both know it.

“They don’t have to fear the (UK) administration. The administration has been right here the whole time. We’ve got a (school) president (Eli Capilouto) that has been right here the whole time. And that isn’t changing.

“And (Stoops and Calipari) have been provided every opportunity to do the very things they want to do to be successful. That isn’t changing as long as I am in the (AD’s) chair. We will have that support.

“If that’s not good enough, coaches change a lot in today’s world. They do.”

We are at an extraordinary moment in the history of Kentucky Wildcats sports, potentially headed toward a crossroads as significant as when Bryant left the successful program he had built in Lexington to become an Aggie.

The spark that ignited last week’s fireworks came while Calipari was in the Bahamas with his 2022-23 team on a four-game exhibition tour. While there, Calipari used the media to try to pressure his bosses into green-lighting construction of a new men’s basketball practice facility.

In justifying the need, Calipari said “(Kentucky) is a basketball school. Alabama is a football school. So is Georgia. No disrespect to our football team. I hope they win 10 games and go to bowls. But this is a basketball school.”

The “basketball school” mantle has been used by rival recruiters against Kentucky football coaches for decades. When opposing recruiters say that, they are not saying “UK has a long tradition of basketball success.” They are saying “UK cares about winning in basketball a lot more than they do football.”

In the 21st century, that is not Kentucky’s reality. UK Athletics is fully mobilized in trying to win in all sports. But Calipari’s words potentially revitalized old recruiting obstacles for Kentucky football coaches.

Stoops’ program has finished second in the SEC East two times in the past four seasons. The next rung up the ladder for UK is to get past Georgia for SEC East supremacy.

That may not seem realistic to some, but Stoops didn’t get UK from 10 losses his first year to 10 wins twice in the last four seasons by accepting ceilings on what his program can accomplish. “We want more,” he said at his own Saturday news conference.

After Calipari’s remarks, the kind of football recruits Kentucky needs to attract to take down Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs have been told by the most famous person with a connection to the University of Kentucky that Georgia is an authentic football school and UK is not.

That’s why Stoops has every right to be unhappy with Calipari.

Mark Stoops and John Calipari have both enjoyed success at Kentucky. After last week’s public feud, can they both still get what they want in Lexington? Pablo Alcala

Meanwhile, Barnhart made it clear Saturday that Calipari’s desire for a replacement for the $30-million, 15-year-old Joe Craft Center is not presently a priority of the Kentucky administration.

Barnhart instead listed new indoor facilities for UK’s track and field and tennis programs; renovation of football’s Nutter Fieldhouse; new video boards for Kroger Field; and a renovation of Memorial Coliseum as projects presently “in the queue” of UK Athletics.

If Capilouto, Barnhart and Co. hold their ground, how will the hard-charging Calipari react to not getting his way?

By all accounts, when Rupp and Bryant shared the UK campus, there was not the kind of open coaching warfare we watched last week.

In 2015, Humsey Yessin, who was a Kentucky basketball manager for Rupp during the time when Bryant was UK’s head football coach, told me that Bryant frequently sat in on Rupp’s basketball practices.

“I’ll never forget, on the first (football) road trip, Coach Bryant invited Coach Rupp to go,” Yessin said. “And (Rupp) said, ‘I’ve never had a football coach ever invite me to go on a road trip with him.’ Rupp was absolutely fascinated. … They learned a lot from each other.”

From the 1946-47 school year though 1953-54, the University of Kentucky employed Paul “Bear” Bryant, left, as its head football coach and Adolph Rupp, foreground, as its and men’s basketball coach. Herald-Leader file photo

Ultimately, it was ego that led to Bryant’s departure. The Bear wanted to be the clear No. 1 coach on a campus. He thought that was set to happen for him at Kentucky after some of Rupp’s players were implicated in 1951 in a point-shaving scandal.

When UK didn’t fire Rupp in response, Bryant soon left to be No. 1 somewhere else — and UK football has never made it back to the level the Bear had it.

Now, Stoops has Kentucky football at a higher, consistent standing than it has been in decades. Can UK keep the the most-regretted occurrence from its sports past from happening again?

This story was originally published August 15, 2022 12:23 PM.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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