MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Big Blue Nation is coming to Morgantown!
Yesterday, pairings were announced for this year’s Big 12/SEC Challenge and for the first time since the concrete was still settling at the now 47-year-old WVU Coliseum, the Kentucky Wildcats are returning to Morgantown.
It’s been a long, long time coming.
Kentucky has only made two prior appearances in Morgantown, both coming under legendary coach Adolph Rupp spanning a 29-year period.
The first happened on January 11, 1941, a little less than a year before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor when Dyke Raese’s band of Mountaineers topped a pretty good Kentucky squad 56-43 at the old Field House.
The Wildcats won 17 games that season before losing the SEC championship to Tennessee, while West Virginia won 13 of 23 games during the ’41 season - a year before taking over New York City by storm to capture the National Invitation Tournament.
Twenty-nine years later, Rupp was convinced to return to Morgantown when West Virginia was seeking some top-shelf college programs to christen its brand new 14,000-seat WVU Coliseum in 1970.
Late WVU athletic director Red Brown was playing “Let’s Make a Deal” with the best basketball programs in the country then, shopping his Mountaineer basketball team around for road games in the late 1960s in an effort to entice some Blue Bloods to travel to Morgantown, West Virginia, when his brand new arena was scheduled to open in 1970.
That’s how Bucky Waters’ Mountaineer team ended up in Pauley Pavilion to face top-ranked UCLA on Dec. 21, 1968 - a game UCLA easily won 95-56.
Bruin coach John Wooden promised Brown a return trip to Morgantown that turned out to be 37 years in the making when UCLA finally made it to the Mountain State in 2007 - three years before Wooden’s death.
But somehow Brown was able to convince Rupp, by then just a year shy of retirement in what was to be a fantastic 43-year coaching career at Kentucky, to come to West Virginia.
During those early years of the Coliseum when West Virginia was a basketball independent, Brown also managed to get Ohio State, Notre Dame, North Carolina State, Cal, Villanova, Wake Forest, Oregon State and Wisconsin to play games in his new venue.
Kentucky's 7-foot center Tom Payne attempts to block a jump shot taken by West Virginia's Sam Oglesby during this 1970 game played on Pearl Harbor Day at West Virginia's brand new WVU Coliseum in Morgantown. WVU Photographic Services photo.
Yet Kentucky was the biggest draw of all, and a record 13,323 came out on a Monday night to watch college basketball’s version of the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s rekindle some old disputes.
Kentucky, ranked third in the country, built a 17-point lead late in the first half on the inside scoring of 7-foot sophomore center Tom Payne and 6-foot-7-inch junior forward Tom Parker.
West Virginia rallied, however, and tied the game at 69 on Curt Price’s three-point play. Dick Symons’ 25-footer from beyond the top of the key gave WVU a 77-76 lead with 9:11 to go, but Kentucky immediately answered when Wildcat guard Stan Key got between West Virginia’s defense for a layup.
Wil Robinson’s 10-footer from the right side of the floor pulled West Virginia to within two with six and a half minutes to go, and Mike Heitz added a free throw to reduce Kentucky’s lead to one, 85-84.
Here, Parker dropped two from the foul line and guard Mike Casey converted a pull-up jumper to make it a five-point game.
West Virginia made another run to reduce Kentucky’s lead to three, 97-94, when Robinson fake, pivoted, and hit a nifty jumper. Robinson’s two free throws with 1:29 left made it a three-point game once again, 101-98, but the Wildcats made five of six free throws inside of a minute to play to win the game, 106-100.
“In the second half, we couldn’t get our trap defense going,” Rupp said afterward. “West Virginia has a faster club than we do, and we’re not slow. They’ve got six boys that can really turn it on.
“Talk about a bunch of loud guys, that student body may be louder than ours,” Rupp added. “I thought the building would come apart at the seams when they took that lead. I had a couple boys who went back in the second half cold, and then we got timid and we wouldn’t shoot when they started gaining.
“I wasn’t comfortable at all until that thing ended. I was sure glad to get this one, because it made us go all out,” the veteran coach concluded.
Although West Virginia and Kentucky have only met 20 times on the hardwood, the two schools once had a heated rivalry that reached a boiling point in the late 1950s when Jerry West led the Mountaineers to a pair of victories over the Wildcats in the Kentucky Invitational in 1957 and 1959.
Perhaps one of the finest performances of West’s college career came in Memorial Coliseum in Lexington on Dec. 19, 1959 when he scored 33 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in leading West Virginia to a 79-70 victory over the Wildcats.
That’s the game when Kentucky forward Allen Feldhaus broke West’s nose, requiring WVU trainer Whitey Gwynne to employ emergency measures to stop West’s nose from bleeding so he could return to the floor.
“This one was awful and I didn’t think it was possible for someone to bleed this much,” West once recalled for ESPN’s SportsCentury biography series. “At halftime, they kind of got it under control and I wanted to play.”
“If you were a Kentucky fan you got credit for breaking his nose - which I’m not proud of at all - and if you weren’t a Kentucky fan you got blamed for breaking his nose. He had cotton stuffed in his nose and the guy just put on a show,” Feldhaus once said.
Afterward, while presenting West with the tournament’s most valuable player award, Rupp called him “one in a million.”
It was West Virginia’s second KIT victory in a span of three years, the first coming in surprising fashion in 1957 when the Mountaineers upset fifth-ranked Kentucky the first night, 77-70, and then defeated top-ranked North Carolina, 75-64, the following evening.
After those two wins, West Virginia jumped from No. 8 to No. 1 in the national polls - still the highest-ever jump to No. 1 in AP poll history. This was during a time when West Virginia was competing with Kentucky for college basketball supremacy.
“When I was 21 years old and we beat undefeated NYU in 1952, there were seven papers in New York City and they had writers gathered around me,” late WVU sports information director Eddie Barrett once recalled. “Dick Young of the New York Daily News told me that Kentucky and West Virginia have the two best reputations in college basketball.
“We were a premier team, and in fact, I got a lot of mileage for several years out of the fact that the two best records over a 25-year period in college basketball were Kentucky and West Virginia,” Barrett added.
Ironically, WVU was playing the ‘58 season on NCAA probation as a result of its involvement with prep star “King” Kelly Coleman from Wayland, Kentucky.
Coleman, a high-scoring 6-foot-3-inch, 210-pound forward, became a national sensation in the spring of 1956 when he scored 68 points in a Kentucky state tournament game and finished his four-year prep career by tallying more than 4,000 points.
Coleman was to face a West Virginia team consisting of West and Willie Akers in an all-star game played in Williamson, West Virginia, but he was unable to perform because of a badly sprained ankle.
In the meantime, Coleman had struck up a relationship with an overzealous Mountaineer booster who provided him a 1955 Dodge, a gasoline card and some clothing in exchange for his pledge to attend WVU, which he made during the summer of 1956 - much to the chagrin of Adolph Rupp, who once said Coleman was “a combination of Alex Grosa, Frank Ramsey and Cliff Hagan.”
Kentucky was naturally upset that they lost a hometown superstar to West Virginia, of all places, and their retribution was to turn in WVU to the NCAA for recruiting violations.
Before the NCAA put the Mountaineers on one year’s probation on evidence provided by Kentucky, which then-WVU president Irvin Stewart called “flimsy”, West Virginia rejected Coleman’s application and he never enrolled in school.
He ended up attending Eastern Kentucky briefly before concluding his college career at Kentucky Wesleyan College.
Coleman was not quite Kentucky’s version of West Virginia's Danny Heater, but you get the idea.
West Virginia’s dispute with Kentucky continued after West’s brilliant performance against the Wildcats in 1959 when some upset fans had accused Rupp of encouraging his players to use “goon tactics” to take out West.
Late Morgantown Dominion News sports editor Mickey Furfari raised the issue in a column he wrote afterward.
Two years later, when West Virginia was invited back to the KIT in 1962, a still-fuming Adolph Rupp refused to permit his sports information director from credentialing Furfari for the tournament.
A few years before his death in 2016, Furfari recalled the humorous telephone exchange he once had with Rupp.
“I called asking for a credential and their sports information director said I couldn’t get one,” Furfari said. “I said, ‘Why the hell not?’ He said, ‘Because coach Rupp said you accused him of trying to take out Jerry West and he won’t let you have one.”
Furfari, now enraged, said he would buy “his own damned ticket” and cover the games from the stands.
“You can’t, it’s a sellout,” the voice on the other line answered. “Let me tell you what, let’s get coach Rupp on the line and you can talk to him about it.”
Furfari was placed on hold and soon a thunderous voice boomed into the receiver, “BOY, I’VE HEARD YOU’VE BEEN WRITING SOME BAD THINGS ABOUT ME! IS THIS TRUE?”
“That’s not true, coach Rupp,” Furfari answered calmly. “What I wrote was that some people accused your team of using rough tactics against Jerry West in the game there a couple years ago. I simply wrote what some people felt, not accusing you of anything.”
“Well, if you write a clarification about it then you can get your credential,” Rupp finally answered.
Furfari did get his credential and he got to see an epic battle between two of college basketball’s finest players in 1963 - Kentucky’s Cotton Nash and West Virginia’s Rod Thorn.
The battle ended in a stalemate - Nash finishing with 30 points and 15 rebounds while Thorn scoring 30 and grabbing 14 boards - but Kentucky overcame an early 10-point West Virginia lead to win the game 79-72.
The two teams played once more in 1964 before West Virginia’s program began to slide under in the late 1960s and early 1970s under Bucky Waters and Sonny Moran.
The last time West Virginia faced Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 in Cleveland it wasn't pretty for the Mountaineers. Here guard Juwan Staten attempts a jump shot. All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo.
The series was revived for one game to open the 1991-92 season in Lexington when West Virginia lost by 26 points to a Rick Pitino-coached Wildcat team that famously lost to Duke in overtime in the NCAA regional finals.
Fourteen more years passed before the two teams played again in Municipal Auditorium on Nov. 22, 2005 when the seventh-ranked Wildcats outlasted the 13th-ranked Mountaineers 80-66.
Then, one more regular season game took place three years later at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, another Kentucky victory.
The last three meetings have taken place in the NCAA Tournament, the most memorable occurring in the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York, on March 27, 2010, when the sixth-ranked Mountaineers upset second-ranked Kentucky, 73-66, to return to the Final Four for the first time since Jerry West took them there in 1959.
Kentucky enacted a small measure of revenge in the NCAA Tournament a year later in Tampa, Florida, before getting a more satisfying pound of flesh four years later in Cleveland, Ohio.
Their next meeting will take place on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018, in Morgantown, West Virginia.
I’m guessing that should be a fairly easy ticket to get, right?
Have a great weekend!