Ex-Cats

Mark Story: From an eyewitness, the truth about Bear Bryant and Adolph Rupp in their UK days

Humzey Yessin has deep roots in UK sports lore, starting with his stint as basketball manager for Adolph Rupp and becoming a confidant of the legendary coach. He was photographed Friday with a team photo from his 1945-1946 UK baseball team. Yessin and All-American “Wah Wah” Jones came to UK as best friends. They both started on Harlan’s 1944 state title team. Yessin went on to travel the South scouting UK’s SEC opponents.
Humzey Yessin has deep roots in UK sports lore, starting with his stint as basketball manager for Adolph Rupp and becoming a confidant of the legendary coach. He was photographed Friday with a team photo from his 1945-1946 UK baseball team. Yessin and All-American “Wah Wah” Jones came to UK as best friends. They both started on Harlan’s 1944 state title team. Yessin went on to travel the South scouting UK’s SEC opponents. Herald-Leader

There is little argument that Paul "Bear" Bryant is the greatest football coach in Southeastern Conference history. Adolph Rupp holds the same distinction among SEC men's basketball coaches.

For seven years (1946-53), the offices of the two coaching giants were in the same hallway inside the Alumni Gym on the University of Kentucky campus. Humzey Yessin had a front-row seat to watch the two great coaches interact.

"Coach Bryant would come a lot of times, he'd come and watch basketball practice," says Yessin, a UK basketball manager in that era. "And I'll never forget, on the first (football) road trip, Coach Bryant invited Coach Rupp to go. And (Rupp) said, 'I've never had a football coach ever invite me to go on a road trip with him.' Rupp was absolutely fascinated."

The recent death of Russell Rice, the longtime UK sports historian, removed a major link between the ever-restless present and the rich past of Kentucky Wildcats athletics. As a witness to the days when Bryant and Rupp combined to make UK a school that won Sugar and Cotton bowls in football and national titles in basketball, Yessin is a valuable resource.

Yessin was a guard on Harlan's 1944 state high school basketball championship team. In the state title game win over Dayton, Green Dragons star Wallace "Wah Wah" Jones and Yessin combined to score 25 points — 23 by Wah Wah.

When Jones came to UK in 1945, his buddy Yessin came with him. In Lexington, Jones became an all-SEC football player for Bryant as a two-way end and an All-America basketball forward for Rupp.

Yessin tried out for Rupp's basketball team, too. "I came down here and couldn't make the team. I actually got cut," Yessin said. "Then I asked to be the team manager, and (Rupp) let me."

Working under Adolph Rupp was not a trip to the amusement park. "We were all scared of him," Yessin said.

Once when a new player started whistling during a Rupp practice, the coach responded with cutting sarcasm. "(Rupp) said 'You need to get your (butt) over to the music school,'" Yessin recalled.

Still, it was a glorious time to be passing out towels on Rupp's bench.

Led by Jones and Yessin's college roommate, star guard Ralph Beard, UK played in the championship game of a major national postseason tournament four straight years. The Cats won the NIT in 1946, lost in the NIT finals in '47, then claimed NCAA championships in 1948 and '49.

After he graduated from Kentucky, Yessin remained in Rupp's orbit. In the winters, Yessin, a golf pro, would travel the South to scout SEC opponents for Rupp. One spring, Yessin served as the driver while Rupp went on a multi-state speaking tour.

"Rupp was a great after-dinner speaker," Yessin said. "When I was in graduate school, he got me out of school and I drove him. We started in Portsmouth, Ohio, and in two weeks, we wound up in Ames, Iowa. Every day, he either had an afternoon speech or an after-dinner speech."

Retired at 87, Yessin and his wife of 61 years, Ruby, have eight children, 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Humzey Yessin also has about a million stories from the golden days when the Bear and the Baron of Basketball both worked in the Bluegrass.

One day when he was Rupp's student manager, Yessin said he told the basketball coach that he'd heard Bryant was seeing to it that all Kentucky football players would have a blue blazer and a pair of gray slacks to wear on road trips.

"So (Rupp) had to check on that, and it came out true," Yessin said. "So then I told him 'Coach, (the football players) have got an itinerary, too.' And (Rupp) said 'What the hell is an itinerary?' I had one, so I pulled it out and showed him."

Not long after that, Yessin says, UK basketball players also started getting printed travel schedules before road trips. "And Rupp got blue blazers from Graves & Cox for his basketball team, too," Yessin said. "Coach Rupp learned a lot from Coach Bryant. Really, they learned a lot from each other."

The popular version of UK sports history is that friction between Bryant and Rupp helped lead to the Bear's abrupt departure from Kentucky after the 1953 football season.

"Everybody says they never did get along, well, I'd say that was more of a media (creation)," Yessin says. "Both of them, I'd say, big egos. But, hell, they got along."

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