Harlan County: The wonderful world of Wah Wah

Jones' UK tales speak volumes about Baron and Bear

mstory@herald-leader.comFebruary 24, 2008 

  • Harlan County Ten things to know about Harlan County: * County's birth: 1819 (the 60th of Kentucky's 120 counties in order of formation) * Named for: Silas Harlan, who was killed in the Battle of Blue Licks (Aug. 19, 1782), one of the final battles of the American Revolutionary War. * Population: 31,500 (2007 estimate from Applied Geographic Solutions of Simi Valley, Calif.) * Demographics: whites 30,100; blacks 801; other/multi-race 346; Hispanics 248; American Indians/Alaska Natives 145; Asians 95; Native Hawaiians/other Pacific Islanders 13. * County seat: Harlan (156 miles southeast of Lexington) * High livin': A spur of Black Mountain near Lynch in Harlan County is the highest point in Kentucky at 4,145 feet above sea level. * Bloody Harlan: Because of violence in the 1930s surrounding attempts to organize coal miners into unions and the opposition of coal operators, Harlan County became known as "Bloody Harlan." * Voice of the Wildcats: Cawood Ledford, for 39 years a radio play-by-play voice of Kentucky Wildcats men's basketball and football games, was born April 24, 1926, in Harlan County. One of the most beloved figures in Kentucky in the second half of the 20th century, Ledford died in 2001 at age 75. * Benham to the NBA: Bernie Bickerstaff, former head coach of the NBA teams Seattle, Denver, Washington and Charlotte and current executive vice president of the Bobcats, is a Harlan County native. Bickerstaff was born Nov. 2, 1944, in Benham.

This column was originally published on February 24, 2008.

We hold these truths to be self-evident:

Paul "Bear" Bryant is the greatest football coach in the history of the Southeastern Conference.

Adolph Rupp -- The Baron of Basketball -- is the most significant hoops coach in the SEC era.

A select few multi-sport athletes from 1946-53 -- when both the eventual coaching giants drew paychecks from the University of Kentucky -- can tell you what it was like to play for both men.

Wallace "Wah Wah" Jones is on an even more elite list. The Harlan product was a star player for both the Bear and the Baron.

A story about the Bear

It was Sept. 28, 1946, and Jones was a sophomore end for Bryant's Wildcats playing a road game at the University of Cincinnati. In that era of two-way football, Jones was an end both offensively and defensively.

"What people now call sacking the quarterback, I don't know what we called it back then, but I was doing a lot of it that game," Jones said last week.

This was before football helmets included face masks, so Cincinnati managed to deliver a pretty good shot right across the chops of Jones.

It left him with teeth knocked loose and a mouth full of blood.

Bryant took him out of the game, but stopped Jones at the sideline.

Said Jones: "He had me standing next to him, had his arm on my shoulder ready to send me back in the game."

When the Bear gave the command to return, Jones pointed out to Bryant that some of his teeth were hanging loose.

"He said, 'Jones, you don't run on your teeth,'" Wah Wah recalled of Bryant. "I went back in the game."

A story about the Baron

Later in that 1946 football season, Jones injured an ankle in a game against Michigan State.

This football injury was of great significance to the Kentucky basketball coach. As freshmen the season before, Wah Wah Jones and Ralph Beard had been star players on the first Kentucky basketball team to ever win a national tournament, the 1946 NIT champions.

"Coach Rupp hated that I was playing football, just hated it," Jones said. "He wanted his players only playing basketball."

After the ankle injury, Jones said the two UK head coaches vied to see whose doctor would treat an injured Wah Wah.

"If it was Coach Rupp's doctor, he would have done some kind of operation to keep me out for the rest of the football season," Jones said.

With three football games left including the season-ender with archrival Tennessee, Bryant did not want that.

It would become an article of faith over the years that Bryant left Kentucky because he felt he'd lost a struggle with Rupp to be "The Man" in Lexington. In the case of treating Wah Wah Jones' ankle, the Bear prevailed.

"Bryant's doctor was up to date on medical techniques and he treated me," Jones said. "And I finished up the football season."

Wallace becomes Wah Wah

Jones grew up in the mountain town of Harlan in the 1930s. Wah Wah's father, Hugh Jones, and his mother, Faye, ran the Hugh Jones Cafe, a restaurant in Harlan. "They got divorced when I was young," Jones said. "After that, my mother ran the restaurant."

This was the decade when Harlan County gained the nickname "Bloody Harlan" because of the violence that broke out when unions tried to organize the workers who mined coal from the Eastern Kentucky mountains.

"During the mine strikes, we fed the Army and National Guard and state troopers that got sent into the county to keep the peace," Jones said.

Early in his life, Jones was known by his given name, Wallace. When his younger sister, Jackie, was learning to talk, she couldn't say "Wallace."

It came out "Wah Wah."

A lifelong nickname was born.

Wah Wah becomes a Wildcat

Basketball made Wah Wah a statewide celebrity. As a junior in 1944, Jones led Harlan to the state championship.

Jones said his dream was always to play for the Kentucky Wildcats. "When I was a boy, we'd go up on top of the mountain and listen to the UK games on WHAS (radio)," Jones said.

Like many towns in the southern part of Kentucky, Harlan had its fair share of Tennessee fans, too.

In the summer after his senior year in high school, Jones said a Tennessee backer from Harlan (he can't remember who) invited Wah and his best friend, Humzey Yessin, on a car trip.

Jones said he found himself "dropped off" in Knoxville.

"I was almost kidnapped to Tennessee," Jones said. "I told them I had to go home, I didn't have any clothes. They said, 'We'll take care of it.'

"I'd come up with other excuses to come home, they'd say, 'We'll take care of it.' Finally, I sort of demanded, I've got to go see my mother. They couldn't take care of that."

Back in Kentucky, Jones said he stopped to see his girlfriend. Her father, listening to what had happened, made a call that night to Lexington.

"The next morning, I woke up and there was a station wagon waiting to bring me to Lexington," Jones said.

Wah Wah lives the Golden Age

A powerfully built 6-foot-4, Jones arrived at Kentucky on the dawn of the greatest era of UK sports.

As a freshman in 1945, Jones played football as UK went 2-8 under Bernie Shively. Bryant arrived the next year, and Kentucky went 20-9-2 over Jones' final three seasons. Wah Wah made All-SEC in 1946 and '48.

Basketball was even better.

Jones and Louisville product Beard arrived at UK in the fall of '45. The two would start on Kentucky teams that played in the finals of a national tournament all four years.

Rupp's Cats won the NIT in 1946, were second in '47, then won the NCAA in 1948 and '49.

That '48 team -- Jones and Cliff Barker at forward, Alex Groza at center, Beard and Kenny Rollins at guard -- went 36-3 and became known as The Fabulous Five. Wah Wah in England

The Fabulous Five were named, en masse, to the 1948 U.S. Olympic basketball team.

"It's still hard to imagine a little boy from Harlan, Kentucky, going to the Olympic Games," Jones said.

Because of World War II, there hadn't been an Olympics since the Berlin Games of 1936. London was the site for the resumption in '48.

Jones has a picture of himself carrying the game ball off the floor after the U.S. basketball team won the gold medal. He still has that ball.

Proving that an 81-year-old can be with the times, Jones said, "What do you think I could get for that ball on eBay?"

Wah Wah now

In 2003, Wah Wah's wife, Edna, died, leaving the UK sports legend on his own.

The couple's three children look after their dad. The family business, the Blue Grass Tours (a charter bus) company, has passed from Wah to his son, (Wallace Jr. goes by Wah Wah Jr.).

Jones is frequently in the Commonwealth Stadium press box on UK football Saturdays. He's pretty well stopped going to Rupp Arena for basketball games because he no longer easily navigates steps.

Wah spends his days organizing his pictures and memorabilia. He thinks he might like to write a book.

A Bear and a Baron

The man who starred for both Bryant and Rupp said he is frequently asked to compare them.

"I always say the same thing," Wah Wah Jones said. "They were about the same guy."

Which might explain why Lexington, Ky., did not prove big enough for the both of them.

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