Misconception

The reason Paul "Bear" Bryant left the Kentucky football job was that at a banquet, Adolph Rupp was presented a Cadillac by the University while Bryant was awarded only a cigarette lighter. This symbolized Kentucky's emphasis on basketball to the detriment of football.


The Facts

Oklahoma-Kentucky Sugar Bowl Program
Paul "Bear" Bryant was hired as head football coach at Kentucky in 1946 after showing promise as one of the top young coaches in the country at the University of Maryland. Bryant went on to lead the UK football team to eight consecutive winning seasons, including four bowl games (1947 Great Lakes Bowl, 1949 Orange Bowl, 1950 Sugar Bowl and 1951 Cotton Bowl) along with claiming their first SEC championship in 1950. In the 1950 Sugar Bowl, Kentucky beat defending national champion Oklahoma 13-7 and broke the Sooners' 31-game winning streak.

In the weeks prior to a national showdown with No. 1 ranked Oklahoma, Bryant attended the Quarterback Club luncheon in Oklahoma City with Sooners Head Coach Bud Wilkinson. Bryant was quoted in an Associated Press article (with no byline) as saying "The other night we had a joint basketball-football banquet and Adolph Rupp (Kentucky basketball coach) was presented with a big four-door Cadillac. All I got was a cigarette lighter." (Joplin (MO) Globe, "Cites Stonewall Wildcat Defense," December 9, 1950)

The Kentucky football team went on defeated the top-rated Sooners. Bryant continued to coach at UK for a number of seasons. Despite the tremendous success, Bryant finally chose to leave Kentucky after the 1953 season for a position at Texas A & M. He left Lexington with nine years remaining on his contract. Bryant later moved to the University of Alabama where he cemented his position as a football coaching legend. His UK record of 60-23-5 remains a record at the school for wins.

Rebuttal

With two highly successful coaches at the same school, as there was with Adolph Rupp and Paul Bryant, it's not unexpected that the situation would get testy from time to time. There was speculation at the time about how the two got along, and concerns about Rupp's tendency to overshadow the football program, as had happened in the past with previous football coaches. The gambling scandal and it's aftermath no doubt did cause a strain in relations, and it is known that Bryant had expected that Rupp would resign as coach in the scandal's aftermath.

Paul "Bear" Bryant
Despite the potential for clashes, there was actually relatively little confrontation between the two. In fact, they were known to often support each other and their respective teams, sometimes travelling with the squads to away games. Beyond that, after Bryant left Kentucky and speculation centered on Rupp and the basketball program, UK President Herman Donovan noted that he could not recall when the athletic association ever had refused any of Bryant's football requests. ("Enraged Wildcat Fans Take Squawk to NCAA," Atlanta Journal Constitution, February 6, 1954.)

As far the specific claim made by Bryant in the December 9, 1950 article concerning a Cadillac and a lighter, this simply did not happen. Looking back through the Lexington Herald the week prior to December 9, there was no joint football-basketball banquet as claimed. Instead there was a football banquet hosted by the UK Athletic Association which was scheduled for a later date, December 13. There was also a ceremony scheduled for December 9th to reveal a plaque commemorating the accomplishments made by prior basketball teams in Alumni Gymnasium, a few hours prior to the game against Purdue dedicating the newly-built Memorial Coliseum. But there was no ceremony (joint or otherwise) as Bryant described and no gift of a car.

Further reading of the local Lexington paper after the 'quote' was seen nationally confirms that Bryant's claim was untrue. Sports Editor of the Herald, Ed Ashford, commented on the issue in an article where he wrote the following about Bryant's quote at the banquet in Oklahoma City:


Ed Ashford shoots down Bryant's 'quote' as simply an attempt at humor, in an article in the Lexington Herald ["It Says Here--" (December 12, 1950)]

In a twist that may help explain why the Bryant myth became so entrenched in sports folklore, it is actually true that Rupp received a Cadillac, but it was in 1955 (a year after Bryant had left the school) This was in recognition of the Baron's 25 years at the school and the car was provided by UK boosters, not the university. [Note - More information about the ceremony can be found in the Kentucky Alumnus article (page 1, 2)]

Rupp is presented a new Cadillac for his silver anniversary at the school in 1956

Further Information about 'Bear' and the 'Baron'

As mentioned, there were likely many additional reasons that could be looked at as to why Bryant left UK. The 1951 basketball scandal which rocked the basketball program led to increased scrutiny and recruiting restrictions (such as limits on recruiting out-of-state players) on not only the basketball program, but other athletics at the school including football.

In an article by Atlanta Journal and Constitution sports columnist (and UK alum) Ed Danforth, the overemphasis of the basketball program by the school and the after-effects of the scandal were prime reasons in Bryant's decision. Reportedly wrote Danforth in a column, "Kentucky is basketball crazy, devoted to perpetuating the whims of an embittered coach, Adolph Rupp, and in so doing has maneuvered itself into a position of disfavor with the NCAA and with its sister colleges." Danforth went on to say that Bryant is "running into backfires from the basketball scandal, the price the university paid for overemphasizing the sport." ("Bryant Irked by Cage Situation ?," Lincoln Nebraska Journal and Star February 7, 1954.)

In some ways, the scandal may have been a blessing in disguise for Bryant. In fact, the NCAA had been investigating the UK football program at the time for questionable recruiting practices, but by NCAA Executive Director Walter Byers' own admission (in his book Unsportsmanlike Conduct) they were preoccupied so much with the Kentucky basketball program that the football program got by relatively unscathed.

Below is an excerpt from the second of a four-part interview with Paul Bryant in the August 22, 1966 edition of Sports Illustrated. This passage discusses his leaving Kentucky and the reasons he gave for it, including reference to the lighter.

Well, we won at Kentucky, and I don't think I'd have ever left if I hadn't gotten pigheaded. It was probably the most stupid thing I ever did. I could have had just about anything I wanted, and Mary Harmon loved it. We had a social position coaches seldom have - good friends with Governor Wetherby and all - and we lived right there near the Idle Hour Country Club. Mr. Guy Huguelet got us an honorary membership, and that's a club that some people wait years to get into. We had built a new house, and I was on the verge of making some real money. I had turned down half a dozen good jobs. A member of the board at LSU said to me, "Dammit, everybody has a price, Bear. What's yours?" And I put it up there pretty good for those days - something like $25,000, a home, a TV program and everything-and he said, "It's a deal." No school could do that, but he said he'd give me a contract through his company. Then I backed out. Alabama people came to see me and I wouldn't even talk to them, and Texas A&M and a couple others also approached me.

1966 Sports Illustrated
When I try to put my finger on it I can't say exactly why I left Kentucky, but one thing I want to make clear. I never tried to get Bernie Shively's job as athletic director, and the athletic directorship had nothing to do with what you could call a clash of objectives between me and Adolph Rupp. I guess, to be perfectly honest about it, that was the crux of the matter, me and Coach Rupp. If Rupp had retired as basketball coach when they said he was going to I'd probably still be at Kentucky. The trouble was we were too much alike, and he wanted basketball No. 1 and I wanted football No. 1. In an environment like that one or the other has to go.

I got this picture in my den of Bud Wilkinson laughing at a banquet over a story I told about that time we won the SEC championship at Kentucky, the only time a Kentucky football team ever has. Rupp had won it in basketball for the umpteenth time, and they gave him a great big blue Cadillac with whitewall tires, and I said at this banquet, "And here's what I got." And I held up this little old cigarette lighter. Well, when the thing came to a head I remembered that cigarette lighter, and I knew I was too far behind to ever catch up.

Adolph and I are real close now, and I honestly think a lot of him. I still like to listen to him, all that talk of his, and down inside he's just like I am. He's just going to win, see, and although we never had any words or anything, I suppose it was a clash of objectives. I know we respected each other as coaches. I think he's the best there is in basketball. I know he did something I'll never forget. I'd gone to A&M and lost nine games that first year, the only losing season I ever had, and we were doing a clinic together in Utah. There were newspapermen there, and Adolph got up and with that Kansas twang of his said, "I want to tell you gentlemen something. Paul Bryant over there was at Kentucky, and he left us for a lot of money. You think he's down a little bit now, but I'll tell you, he will win. He will win. And you gentlemen in Texas who are playing him, he will run you right out of the business. Five, 10 years from now he will be the top man, make no mistake about it, and don't forget Uncle Adolph told you." He sure didn't have to say that, but, boy, I appreciated it. Practically every paper in Texas picked it up, and a whole lot of eyebrows were raised.

Well, I tried to resign in '52, after Kentucky had that basketball scandal, and go to Arkansas, but they flat out wouldn't release me. I was afraid the scandal would hurt our football program. Some people in Arkansas thought I was just using them to get a better deal, but that's not true. A year later Bernie Shively and I were going down to the conference meeting at Birmingham, and when we changed planes in Louisville I picked up a paper, and there it was. Rupp was not retiring at all and Dr. Donovan was saying how pleased he was. That did it. I made up my mind to go. I'd been led to believe Adolph was going to retire, and I'm glad now he didn't, he's meant so much to basketball. Well, the only offer I had open then was from Texas A&M, and I took it.

I went off and left Kentucky with the second best squad I ever had. Blanton Collier came in there the next year and had a winner. We had the new home and all those goodies, and it broke Mary Harmon's heart. Worse than that, when she got off the plane at College Station, Texas she turned white.

Texas A&M is a great educational institution with rich traditions, but at that time it was the toughest place in the world to bring players to because nobody wanted to go there. Don Meredith told me before he went to SMU, "Coach, I'd love to play for you if you were only someplace else."




Bryant touches upon it above, but one area that is not well known is that Rupp and Bryant remained good friends for the remainder of their lives. Below is an excerpt from Russell Rice's book on Kentucky football (The Wildcats: A Story of Kentucky Football), in a chapter devoted to Adolph Rupp describing his views of all the football coaches who passed through while he remained coach at the school for 41 years.

Paul, of course, had a chance to be head football coach and athletic director at the University of Alabama, and some people like to come home and be connected with their home school. I see him quite frequently, and we're still good friends.

Rupp and Bryant at Kentucky
When the University of Kentucky played Alabama at Birmingham several years ago, he invited Mrs. Rupp and myself down for the game. He said, "If the university doesn't bring you along with the team, I'll send a private plane along to pick you up." When word of that leaked out, I was immediately invited to make the trip on the University of Kentucky's chartered plane.

I was then at Memphis. My wife called me and told me that Mr. Ham had called her the day before to make sure that I would be here to accompany the team. I told her that I'd be here, although I had a chance to fly in a private plane from Memphis to Birmingham with a group of my friends. However, I came home only to find the day before that I had been canceled off for the trip to Birmingham.

I called C. M. Newton, the basketball coach, and told him that I would not be on the plane when it arrived although he had agreed to meet me there. Even at that late hour he said that they would fly a private plane up to Lexington to pick us up, as Paul wanted me there for the game. I naturally did not make the trip, but it shows the friendship that we have for each other regardless of what the critics often write.

The friendship between Rupp and Bryant is something that Rupp also described in a audio interview. (The Rupp Tape, WHAS Productions, 1992))

Immediately after Rupp died in December of 1977, Bryant was asked for a reaction.


Return to Kentucky Wildcat Basketball Page.
Please send all additions/corrections to