25 years later, Kentucky's 'runts' still special

February 17, 1991|By John Clay | John Clay,Knight-Ridder News Service

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- No one is certain where the name originated. It may have come from a sportswriter. Or a broadcaster. Or a fan. Or even the old Baron himself. It was a perfect fit, nonetheless, as much as they were a perfect fit. He was Adolph Rupp. They were his runts.

And they were special.

They remain so a silver anniversary later. Great basketball teams have come and gone at the University of Kentucky. Five have earned National Collegiate Athletic Association titles. The "runts" did not, coming within a victory of the coveted trophy, which haunts them still. Yet no team captured the hearts of Kentuckians as they did, that 1965-66 team -- "Rupp's Runts."

It was a small team, of course, a David-size outfit slaying the taller Goliaths. Thad Jaracz, 6 feet 5, played the pivot. Pat Riley, 6-4, jumped center. Tommy Kron, a 6-5 guard, was actually the tallest starter. Little Louie Dampier was a dead-eye shooter. Larry Conley, 6-3, said a teammate, "was a reincarnated bag of bones."

"From a physical point of view, they were all screwed up," remembered Frank Deford, the editor of The National, then the college basketball writer for Sports Illustrated. "They had guards playing forwards and forwards playing center. Nobody was in the right place."

But size was only part of the charm. "People took them to heart because they were such a good group," said Herkey Rupp, the Baron's son. "They were like your next-door neighbors, just a good, wholesome group of kids."

"I think the biggest thing was their unselfishness," said Joe B. Hall, then an assistant, "and the way they passed the ball. They had tremendous teamwork."

"[They were] unselfish, good ballhandlers, good shooters, good on the run," writes Dave Kindred in the book "The Final Four," "the very model of great Kentucky teams."

Kentucky fans had not expected that in 1965. The 15-10 mark the season before had been Rupp's worst. Only Jaracz represented new blood. Yet they started winning. And winning, until they were No. 1.

"And there was this euphoria," Kron remembered, "that everybody kind of got caught up in."

Twenty-three victories preceded the first loss -- Tennessee in the Southeastern Conference finale. But even that was a speed bump on a yellow-brick road. They proceeded on to the Final Four, topped second-ranked Duke, 83-79, in the semifinals at College Park, Md. Most figured Rupp's fifth NCAA title in the bag.

Unheralded Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso) proved them wrong, winning 72-65. Some believe the game -- with Texas Western's five black starters defeating five whites -- changed the course of basketball history while breaking Kentucky's hearts.

The next day, a Sunday, mourning covered the commonwealth. Estimates vary on how many sympathizers packed Memorial Coliseum to greet the team upon its return.

"What I remember," Kron said, "is that they wouldn't leave."


Finding Larry Conley these days is as simple as tuning the tube to a basketball game. He is the lone "runt" still connected to college basketball. He is in business, based in Atlanta. But basketball is his business in the winter months. He does color commentary for ESPN and assorted other networks, nearly four nights a week.

Thus ask him what he remembers most from that 1965-66 season and his answer is the quality of a sound-bite. "The LOSS," he says. "You hate to say it, but that's it."

It was, after all, Conley's senior season.

Passing was Conley's contribution. "If Larry was in the middle on the break," Kron said, "you knew if you filled the lane he was going to get you the ball."

"You don't see passers like Conley anymore," said Kentucky radio broadcaster Cawood Ledford.

"That's open for debate," Conley said. "I think the big thing is that we had such good chemistry."

A chemistry no one had envisioned. "I think when we beat Texas Tech early [89-73], we thought we were pretty good," Conley said. "The other game I remember is we went to Vanderbilt and they were ranked third or fourth and had Clyde Lee. But we won big [105-90]."

What sticks is the loss.

"When you think about the year we had and what we had done," he said, "to have it end in that fashion was a great disappointment. You get over it, but you don't forget it, either."


"The thing I remember is that the year before was so bad," Tommy Kron said. "It was just a very unhappy year, a miserable year. I had played a lot my junior year, but we hadn't won. And it's no fun to play at Kentucky when you're not winning. But the next year it was 180 degrees different. It seemed like everything we did was right."

Not that this was all luck. To be small is one thing. To be resourceful is another.

"And we knew what we had to do to win; we were smart," Kron said. "Everybody did their job. Even Riley and Dampier were role players. Their roles were to score. Mine wasn't. I didn't try to become a 20-point scorer because other people could do that. We all kind of fit in a pattern."

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