LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) - Adolph Rupp never coached a game at Rupp Arena, but his successors have led the Wildcats to 600 victories and three national championships in the historic venue since it opened in 1976.
“This started with coach (Adolph) Rupp,” Calipari said. “He never really got to coach in this building, but everybody who has followed him has won a national title -- just about everybody. Everyone that's followed him has probably won 90 percent of their games in this building. It's not just me. It's like everybody. He set that base.”
Calipari never knew Rupp, but he knows Joe B. Hall, who was tasked with following in Rupp’s footsteps. Hall coached the first Kentucky game at Rupp Arena, while Rupp’s grandson, Chip Rupp III, scored the first ceremonial basket when the facility opened its doors more than four decades ago.
"I brag on coach Hall all the time because who would want to follow that?” Calipari said. “He did and went to Final Fours and won a national title and had all the stuff in the league, everything and that he did.”
Four of the six coaches who followed Rupp won a national championship at UK. Calipari won his first championship in 2012, while Tubby Smith won the title in 1998 and Rick Pitino led the Wildcats to the NCAA title in 1996. Hall collected his title in 1978.
Although Calipari knew the magnitude of the program when he arrived on April Fool’s Day in 2009, he has an even greater appreciation for the job since he’s been sitting in the seat Rupp once held for 42 years. Rupp built the program from scratch and led the Wildcats to four national titles.
"This is a unique place. I mean, this is one of those, you know,” he said. “I’m blessed that I even had an opportunity. I mean, you know, how did I get here and what happened for me personally, I don't know. … I’m just happy that I could be a part of it, and you know, I don't know how many we've won in this building — how many, whatever that. But you know, I'm glad that we've played a part of it.”
Not only is Rupp Arena a special place to Calipari, it’s also a venue other coaches hold in high esteem. Fairleigh Dickinson coach Greg Herenda made his first visit to the facility during the 1985 Final Four, an event that featured Villanova, St. John’s, Memphis and Georgetown. He watched from the stands as the Villanova Wildcats stunned top-ranked Georgetown, 66-64.
“This place, it's just… it's special (and) it's an honor (to play at Rupp Arena),” Herenda said following his team’s loss to the Wildcats last weekend. “We played at Arizona, we played at Villanova, Notre Dame, Maryland, but this place is (special).”
Like Calipari, Herenda understands the importance of Kentucky basketball in the Bluegrass.
“I really respect Kentucky basketball and the fans and everything, it’s surreal,” he said. “I’m a Jersey kid that's coaching in Rupp Arena. It shouldn't happen, but I got my shot.”
And he doesn’t blame Calipari if he never leaves Kentucky.
“When we came out, I said, 'John, I know why you're not leaving here,'” Herenda said. “It's a hard place to leave."
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at email@example.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.