UK Men's Basketball

Innocence lost: UK Madness evolved from quaint novelty to planned mania

UK basketball coach Tubby Smith entered the court dressed as boxing promoter Don King at Midnight Madness on Oct. 16, 1998.
UK basketball coach Tubby Smith entered the court dressed as boxing promoter Don King at Midnight Madness on Oct. 16, 1998. Herald-Leader File Photo

Friday will mark Kentucky basketball’s 35th Madness celebration. Because anniversaries are a good time to reflect on the then and now, it seems like a good time to remember how it all began.

Suffice it to say, the sound and fury we’ve come to associate with Big Blue Madness was absent on opening night. No laser lights. No plumes of carbon dioxide shooting toward the ceiling à la Wizard of Oz. Matthew Mitchell, whose dance moves have become a signature moment of UK Madness, was 11 years old and living in Louisville, Miss.

It was 1982. But in Madness time, it was Precambrian.

No hype. “We put notices out in the dorms,” then-UK Coach Joe B. Hall recalled last week. “We were just doing it for the students.”

Committee of 101 members, faculty and children of faculty were also invited.

UK says the modern hoop-alooza that is Big Blue Madness costs about $300,000 each year to produce. In 1982, the only expense was $100 in $1 bills used in a dash-for-cash contest on the court.

“I think I gave the $100,” Hall said with a laugh.

Roger Harden, a freshman guard that season, agreed that the original Madness had an innocence about it.

“Exactly,” he said. “That’s the word: innocence. It was genuine and organic. I’m glad I played then.”

The first UK Madness was in Memorial Coliseum. After the dash-for-cash, the players appeared once the clock struck midnight (the NCAA permitted preseason practices to begin on a set date; midnight conveyed the program’s eagerness to get started). Another freshman, Kenny Walker, thrilled the students with flying dunks during the layup line.

Then came a scrimmage in which at least some Wildcats played for keeps.

Harden, who came to UK as Indiana’s Mr. Basketball, struggled against veteran guards Dirk Minniefield and Dicky Beal. Harden literally could not advance the ball to midcourt.

“They stole the ball four straight times,” he recalled, “and dunked four straight times. The fifth time, Coach Hall said to them to drop back and pick me up at halfcourt.”

After Madness ended and he returned to Wildcat Lodge, Harden called home in the wee hours of the morning.

“Dad, I don’t think I can even play at this level,” Harden remembered telling his father.

Harden came to consider that first Madness a painful, but valuable experience. It took time for him to appreciate the lesson delivered by Minniefield and Beal.

“Probably took me till Christmas to learn what you could and could not do against players like that,” Harden said.

The Madness event, an idea launched by Lefty Driesell at Maryland in 1971, lost its innocence within a decade or so. Bernie Morgan, a former Kansas player, trademarked the phrase “Midnight Madness.” He would be owed a royalty if “Midnight Madness” appeared on clothing.

Morgan, now retired and living in the Kansas City area, said last week that he got into the habit of trademarking his ideas while working for Hallmark Cards.

Through the years, Kentucky adopted variations on that Midnight Madness name: Midnight Special in 1982, Big Boo Madness in 1992 (Jamal Mashburn, also known as The Monster Mash, was the featured attraction), Rockin’ after Midnight in 1993 and, finally, Big Blue Madness.

Harden, now the coach at Williamstown High School, accepts that Madness no longer is so innocent. Even on the high school level, Madness is “staged” in a “controlled environment,” he said.

UK moved its Madness from Memorial Coliseum to Rupp Arena in 2005. That same year the New Year’s Eve-like countdown to midnight went away as the NCAA removed the stipulation that a first “practice” had to start no earlier than midnight.

By then, Madness had long since become a recruiting tool.

Hall has attended all but one of UK’s Madness celebrations. He has watched the changes. He does not insist it was better at the beginning. It was merely different.

“The first one was so pure and innocent,” he said. “Now, it’s a big recruiting thing. It’s about impressing the recruits.”

Apparently, no one thought in 1982 to use Madness as a recruiting tool.

“It’s bigger in content,” Hall said of the modern Madness, “but also intent.”

August basketball?

Near the end of the Wildcat Tipoff Luncheon on Monday, UK Coach John Calipari was asked to name a change he would make if he were czar of college basketball.

Calipari answered with a question: “Why don’t we have August basketball?” If there is a spring football, why can’t college basketball have its version of offseason training in August?

Plus, August is a relatively dead month in terms of sports, Calipari said. Why not fill this void by promoting college basketball with, say, a 10-day period when teams could practice and/or play a foreign team on campus?

“It’s too good an idea, believe me,” Calipari told the crowd. “Plus, it’s mine. It’ll never happen.”

Calipari’s latest thinly veiled accusation that the NCAA treats him unfairly — delivered in a light-hearted tone — drew a laugh from the crowd

Less is more

Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, did not dispute the idea that August could be a good time to promote college basketball.

Then she added, “The goal of college sports is not to take advantage of every opportunity to market the sport. It’s to provide educational experiences for college athletes. That has to be the top priority.”

Perko also disagreed with the suggestion that on-campus exhibitions against foreign teams could replace the overseas trips college teams are already making. She said there’s a reason teams are permitted to go to foreign countries to play exhibitions once every four years. And that reason is not to hold extra practices or accelerate the process of team bonding or promote basketball.

“The intent of the foreign tour exception is to give college players an opportunity for international travel and exposure to a different culture, an experience many non-athlete students are able to have through study abroad experiences,” Perko wrote in an email.

Perko also cited a recent NCAA survey of athletes in which a majority of respondents said they wanted more time off. The trend is toward lessening time demands on athletes, not increasing them, she said.

‘What’s next?’

David Ridpath, the president of The Drake Group, also said the August basketball idea runs counter to the perceived need to reduce the time college athletes spend in sports activities.

“This is just adding something on that does not need to be added,” he said of August basketball. “The basketball season already covers two semesters and is very long. It is becoming as year-round as football, and to me and TDG (The Drake Group), it is not what college athletics is supposed to be about.

“We should be strategizing ways to reduce time demands — not increase them. We have already added summer practice in basketball, plus now we start practice on Oct. 1. What’s next?”

Here’s a brief Q-and-A email exchange with Ridpath:

Herald-Leader: There is football spring practice. Why not set aside 10 days in August for basketball teams to practice or play foreign teams that come to campus?

Ridpath: “We also think spring football is unneeded, and we call for it to end. From a safety perspective and a time perspective, it is not needed. And we do not feel there is a viable excuse to expand basketball. The product is fine without it, and football would be fine without spring football.”

HL: Couldn’t August be part of an effective promotion/marketing campaign for college basketball?

Ridpath: “There is no denying that, but the core issue still remains: are we going to continue to tax the athlete more or are we going to try to find ways to assist them in being actual students? Honestly, it sounds like fun and would be a hit, but I still don’t think it is the best thing to do for an ‘extracurricular activity’ at any institution of higher learning where academics is supposed to be — allegedly — the highest priority.”

HL: What do you think of John Calipari implying that the NCAA is so opposed to him that any of his ideas will be dead on arrival?

Ridpath: “Coach is probably right here. Not that it is fair. I make a ton of suggestions here that become great ideas when someone else brings it up. Such is life, I guess (smiling emoji).”

‘Dad did that’

Here’s a clarification on last week’s note about Big Bertha, the original and long-lasting sound system in Rupp Arena. Brad Mallory, the doctor from Glasgow, made the winning bid for the Altec speakers. He has an avid interest in Altec products.

A Kentucky-based company constructed Big Bertha. Engineered Devices Company was founded by James Mathews Hisle, who died at age 80 in December 2014.

Son Scott Hisle said last week that his father was proud to be a part of Big Bertha’s construction. “No one knew at the time it’d take on a life of its own,” Scott Hisle said.

Almost all projects do not become iconic. So Big Bertha’s prominence made Hisle’s family proud of its contribution.

“It was neat to point it out and say, ‘Dad did that,’” the younger Hisle said.

Scott Hisle hopes to help Big Bertha live again in a new form. He wants to convert the frame into a viewing stand for the director of the Clark County High School band.

Going like 80

Former UK swimming coach Wynn Paul, who turns 80 on Sunday (today), is still going strong. He recently delivered to his publisher a book he’s been working on for 15 years: a two-volume history of model airplanes.

Paul continues to swim three days a week at Lexington’s Beaumont YMCA (between 15 and 25 minutes per session).

And Paul hopes his 80th birthday helps enlighten people. “We’ve got to let people know there are other sports besides basketball and football,” he said with a chuckle.

Paul was UK’s swimming coach for 22 years (1964-1968, 1973-1991). He introduced water polo to the SEC in 1965 and made it a varsity sport at UK (1966-1983).

In 1976, Paul hired the first black swimming coach in the SEC, David Montgomery. Four years later, he hired the league’s first female head diving coach, Brigid DeVries.

“I am probably most proud of the approximate 97 percent of my swimmers, divers and water polo players who graduated from UK,” he said.

Happy birthday

To Adrian “Odie” Smith. He turned 80 on Wednesday. … To Reggie Hanson. He turned 48 on Saturday. … To Bill Busey. He turned 68 on Saturday. … To former Tennessee Coach and Louisville assistant Wade Houston. He turns 72 on Sunday (today). … To former South Carolina Coach Dave Odom. He turns 74 on Sunday (today). … To Mark Krebs. He turns 30 on Monday. … To Mike Ballenger. He turns 54 on Tuesday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton