Basketball has and always will be king at the University of Kentucky. Several great coaches like Joe B. Hall, Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith and John Calipari have upheld the championship standard, but the program would be nothing without Adolph Rupp.
Rupp turned the Bluegrass State team into a college basketball blue blood by winning four national championships, making six Final Fours, capturing 27 regular season SEC titles and taking home 13 SEC tournament titles. On top of it all, he laid the foundation for how an elite program should be built.
College basketball wouldn't be what it is without Rupp, but we're here to talk about his 1950 SEC regular season and tournament championships. What's another notch in the bedpost for his career may have altered Kentucky athletics forever, and it involves another collegiate sports legend by the name of Paul "Bear" Bryant.
In his fifth season at the helm of UK football program, Bryant led the Wildcats to its first and only outright SEC championship. Rupp, like clockwork, led the hoops team to another conference title the same season. It was an all-around great year for Kentucky athletics.
How did the athletic department reward its two most prominent coaches for winning conference championships? Well, it gave them gifts with such disparity that it may have birthed a Kentucky football curse.
A Cadillac & Lighter: Rupp & Bryant's Drastically Different Gifts
According to BamaInsider, the story goes that Rupp was gifted a brand spanking new Cadillac while Bryant was given a cigarette lighter.
Allegedly, this infuriated Bryant because it was a real-life metaphor for how his football program was seen in comparison to Rupp's basketball program. No matter what Bryant did, football would always play second fiddle. Bryant eventually left Kentucky and went on to coach Texas A&M and later became a college football legend at Alabama.
I say the "the story goes" and "allegedly" because although Bryant told the story many times, most famously at an Oklahoma City luncheon before the 1951 Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma, the story appears to have been embellished.
Is the Cadillac & Lighter Story True?
Bear Bryant was known for telling stories and making jokes, but this particular anecdote has enough legs to have some potential truth. Bryant even mentioned it in his 1975 autobiography, "Bear."
"I have this picture in my den of [Oklahoma football coach] 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," Bryant said. "[Adolph] 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."
However, Kentucky sports historian Jon Scott researched the story and found Ed Ashford, the then sports editor of The Lexington Herald, debunked the story.
"Bryant's remarks at the Oklahoma City Luncheon were in a light vein. They were made in a kidding, off-the-record manner and he didn't think anyone would take him seriously," Ashford wrote in 1950. "He has made the same, or similar remarks before -- even in Lexington -- without causing consternation."
Furthermore, there's no official record of Rupp receiving a Cadillac in 1950 nor of Bryant receiving a lighter. Rupp did receive a Cadillac in 1955, however, but that was to commemorate his 25-year anniversary at UK, and Bryant was at Texas A&M by then. As for Bryant, he smoked his fair share of cigarettes, and while he did have a large collection of cigarette lighters, he preferred to light them with matches.
So is it true? Probably not, but it's hard not to look at the "gifts" as a watershed moment for the Kentucky football program.
How UK Football Has Fared Since the Cadillac & Lighter Story
The 1950 season is the peak of Kentucky football. The Wildcats won the SEC title, of course, and went on to beat Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl to finish 11-1. The school later claimed a national championship, but it's not officially recognized by the NCAA. (Side bar: I'm a huge fan of claimed national championships. It's like saying you shot an 18 in golf each round you play. Since when did strokes other than the tee shot count anyway?)
Did the alleged gifts ignite a curse though? Let's take a look at the numners. In 71 years since the story came to light, Kentucky has only made 18 bowl games and eclipsed 10 wins three times. Just 18 bowl games in 71 years. Ouch.
The Wildcats have regularly been at the bottom of the SEC, but I'll give credit where credit is due. Mark Stoops has put together some nice reasons in recent years. It doesn't matter if he beats Alabama every year and wins a bajillion national titles though, because hoops will always be king. Bear Bryant knew this and went to places where football took precedent.
So, is the Cadillac and Lighter story real? Doubtful. Has Kentucky historically been one of the worst power-five football programs since? That's a fact.
Oh well. Basketball season will come soon enough.
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