While the Centre College-University of Kentucky football rivalry dates back to 1891, the schools didn’t start playing basketball against each other until 1906 when Centre (then called Central University) formed its first team. Nicholas Dosker, a student from Louisville, organized the team and served as player-coach. Kentucky (at the time called Kentucky State College) began playing a few years earlier in 1903 at the behest of Centre alumnus Walter Mustaine. Mustaine was employed as the physical education director in Lexington at the time.
The two schools became fast rivals, although Central steadily gained the advantage. While Kentucky was still fighting to gain dominance of Lexington versus their rival Transylvania, Central claimed three straight state championships starting in 1908, with each deciding victory coming over State. Powering the Central juggernaut was center Fred Hess, along with brothers Louis and Will Seelbach, sons of Louisville hotel magnate Louis Seelbach Sr.
Between 1907 and 1910, Central won nine of 12 contests between the schools, including their first overtime game. After the game ended at 23-all, the captains agreed to continue to play until someone scored. Five minutes later Central’s Emmet O’Neil won the game on a half-court shot. One of the few Kentucky victories was a fluke as the score was once again tied at 23-all after regulation, however the referee remembered a point he awarded Kentucky that the official scorers didn’t remember hearing at the time. Most of the other games weren’t close.
In 1910 Central posted an 87-17 shellacking of the Wildcats, a 70-point losing margin that today still ranks as Kentucky's worst loss ever.
After the Seelbachs graduated, Kentucky finally did gain revenge in 1912, when it twice beat Central convincingly en route to a 9-0 season. However, the rivalry went on hiatus as Kentucky was exiled from the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Association, leaving them no other options but to play schools outside the state.
When the two schools resumed relations in 1916, much had changed. Central changed its name back to Centre College, while State now called itself the University of Kentucky.
Centre’s original gym burned down in 1912. The court was inadequate for basketball anyway and left little room for spectators. Even before the fire, the small size led the team to use alternatives, including at times the local roller-skating rink for games along with the nearby Caldwell College women’s gym for practice. Just days before opening a newly built Boyle-Humphrey gymnasium in 1914, a mysterious fire broke out and destroyed that building. Undeterred, the school rebuilt in the same spot with the same floor plans and was ready to open in 1915.
Soon the rivalry between the schools was as hot as ever. Centre benefited from its new gym by hosting the first ever Kentucky high school state tournament in 1916 which served to attract recruits to the school. After the1917 event in Danville (under the auspices of the KHSAA) was sparsely attended, Kentucky got the tournament moved to Lexington.
In 1918 the schools were knotted one game apiece and agreed to meet in St. Xavier’s newly built high school gym in Louisville to decide the state champion. Soldiers from nearby Camp Taylor were encouraged to attend while the Kernel reminded UK students “There are many trains of soft coal going thru Lexington to Louisville. You who have no money to spare-!-!-?” Centre won the state championship game and in fact won the next five straight versus their rival.
Ed Diddle (future Hall of Fame coach at Western Kentucky) returned to Centre in 1919 after a stint in Naval Aviation and joined other notable “Praying Colonels” including Alvin “Bo” McMillin, Madison “Matty” Bell and James “Red” Roberts to form a juggernaut, not just in basketball but in football.
In 1921, Kentucky finally broke through against an undefeated Centre team to tie the season series. Basil Hayden led UK with eight points while Centre’s Norris Armstrong sat out with an injury. Centre demanded a rematch on a neutral court to decide the state championship, as was done in 1918. But Kentucky had other ideas. The Wildcats had accepted an invitation to participate in the inaugural S.I.A.A. postseason tournament in Atlanta. Centre meanwhile had scheduled a late-season East Coast trip, during which time McMillin promised to return to school and face Harvard once again on the gridiron that fall. It was a fateful decision.
In Atlanta, Kentucky won the S.I.A.A. tournament over favored Georgia on a game-ending free throw by Bill King. While there, school officials joined with 13 other schools to form the Southern Conference, the precursor of what eventually became the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast Conferences.
Bo McMillin quickly gained national fame that summer of 1921 after a book “First Down, Kentucky!” was published loosely based on his life. Later that fall, he scored the winning touchdown to give Centre’s football team an improbable 6-0 upset victory over undefeated Harvard.
Upon graduation and with a new bride, McMillin immediately returned to coach Centre basketball in 1922 but afterward left for more lucrative opportunities. Centre participated in the combined S.I.A.A.-Southern Atlanta tournament in 1922 and 1923 but thereafter was affiliated with the S.I.A.A. (small college) tournament held in Macon, Ga. In 1924 McMillin was considered to coach all sports at Centre but ultimately the school decided that paying its football coach more than the school president was not in its best interest. These events steadily eroded Centre as an athletic power nationally.
Centre did beat Kentucky twice in 1923, the last game securing the state championship. That was their last victory over UK in basketball. Kentucky returned the favor by winning the state championship over Centre in 1924 (their only victory over Centre in six tries for the state crown) and subsequently moved into Alumni Gymnasium, which the Colonels had difficulty in due to the expansive court.
By 1929, UK mauled Centre 47-11 in basketball and 33-0 on the gridiron. Centre was replaced on the schedule. The previous summer a torrential rain flooded the basketball offices in the basement of Alumni Gym, destroying UK’s records. It was just as well as a new dawn was approaching and the record books were about to be rewritten. The once great Kentucky-Centre rivalry became a distant memory.
Centre at Kentucky
What: UK’s final exhibition game
When: 7 p.m.
TV: SEC Network
More on UK-Centre
▪ UK leads the all-time series vs. Centre College, 25-19
▪ UK won the last 11 meetings before the series was discontinued after the 1928-29 season.
▪ Visit Jon Scott’s Big Blue History website to read a more in-depth summary of the Kentucky-Centre rivalry at http://bit.ly/2iSOGsE