UK Men's Basketball

Jerry Tipton: When it comes to uniforms, Kentucky has never shied from innovation

Jerry Tipton
Jerry Tipton

Never mind, for the moment, the renovate-or-rebuild debate involving Kentucky basketball's future home court. Last week Alabama football coach Nick Saban re-introduced a more enduring deliberation in athletics: marketing versus tradition.

Saban came down squarely on the side of tradition when he said the Crimson Tide would not wear radically different uniforms as Georgia did in its opener against Boise State. Or as Michigan and Notre Dame did last weekend. As Saban memorably put it, Alabama football would not cater to any "marketing whim."

Of course, there is no right or wrong. Each school — really each program within each school's athletic department — decides what's in its best interest.

Oddly enough, for all the trumpeting about its unparalleled tradition, UK basketball hasn't been afraid to breathe deeply the air of innovation. During Billy Gillispie's time as coach, Kentucky introduced Secretariat-themed uniforms that supposedly featured high-tech fabric and ventilation. (Even with all the wizardry of Nike's designers on its side, UK played poorly enough to buck Billy G. into unemployment.)

In the 1990s, then UK Coach Rick Pitino practically went psychedelic. Icicle-shaped colors hung down from the waist like stalactites. Another season saw triangular jags running horizontally on the shorts.

"Rick was wanting to make a statement," said C.M. Newton, then UK's athletics director. "That things were different and things were going to be different."

Fans will recall that Pitino came after Kentucky basketball became synonymous with cheating. Sports Illustrated captured the moment with its "Kentucky's shame" cover story.

Pitino tried to put a new tag on Kentucky basketball with the new uniforms and the hiring of Bernadette Locke as one of the first female assistant coaches. He dismissed questions about the jazzy uniforms being an ill fit for a traditional dynasty like Kentucky. When a reporter noted that his beloved New York Yankees would not abandon their classic look in such a way, Pitino's silent smile suggested he agreed.

By contrast, Indiana basketball accentuates its tradition, most notably in the candy-striped warm-up pants.

"We have had the same look for almost 40 years," IU spokesman J.D. Campbell wrote in an email. "There is a lot of pride in that fact. And the candy-stripe pants are the most popular item among our game-day attire. It's the first thing you see when you go into our (souvenir store)."

Indiana's resistance to change extends to not putting a player's last name on the back of the basketball jersey.

"We have never even thought of changing anything," Campbell wrote.

Kyle Moats, UK's director of marketing in the 1990s, recalled some hesitation about abandoning tradition and adopting the changes Pitino wanted.

"There was some discussion about that," said Moats, now director of athletics at Missouri State. UK's athletic officials decided to approve the changes as long as "blue" and "white" remained the color scheme.

Pitino later stirred a tempest when UK unveiled denim uniforms. CBS commentator Billy Packer remarked that the color of Kentucky's uniforms looked like North Carolina blue. A hue and cry ensued, literally.

When asked about the reaction to UK's departure from a classic look, Newton waxed philosophical.

"Same old, same old stuff," he said. "The traditionalists didn't like it, but the avant-garde liked it."

Newton considers himself anything but avant-garde. "When you play for (Adolph) Rupp and work for (Paul "Bear") Bryant, you're pretty much a traditionalist," he said.

But when Bryant hired him as Alabama's basketball coach in the 1960s, Newton showed he could boogie-woogie. He hired Sand-Knit, the Chicago-based company that designed Marquette's arresting uniforms of the 1960s and 1970s, to make a new look for Alabama.

Knee socks, striped pants and checkerboards sprung from the mind of some Sand-Knit designer.

"I did that for a real purpose," Newton said. "I wanted everyone to know it was not going to be business as usual for our basketball program. We were going to change."

In the 12 seasons prior to Newton's arrival, Alabama's record was 151-153. Newton's fourth season started a streak of 16 straight winning records for the Tide.

When the change in basketball fortunes became apparent, Newton eased off on the fashion statement. But not soon enough to please all Alabama fans.

"I'll never forget," Newton said. "One of Coach Bryant's friends came to him and said, 'If you'll get the crazy basketball coach to get us back our original uniforms, I'll buy the damn things for him.'"

Kennedy connection

The father of UK walk-on Sam Malone is a longtime political figure in Massachusetts. Joe Malone reached his pinnacle of national recognition in 1988 when he ran against Ted Kennedy for the Senate.

At the time, the elder Malone was the executive director of the Massachusetts Republican Party. That Mass. Gov. Mike Dukakis would be the Democratic party's nominee for president that year only added to Kennedy's seeming invincibility.

So the GOP needed a sacrificial lamb to run against Kennedy.

"I'm sitting at a meeting with a pollster and all these gray hairs of the party," Malone said. "The pollster told this one fella who was very wealthy and wanted to run that Ted Kennedy was not going to be beaten."

According to the pollster, what the party needed was a young man or woman, preferably of Irish or Italian descent, who could make a name for him or herself while losing to Kennedy. That person could get in position to run for another office in 1990. This set the party elders to harrumphing about who this person could be.

Finally, the pollster pointed to Malone and said, "He'd be perfect. You should get him to make the run."

Malone, 33 at the time, had never run for political office. That summer, he found himself in New Orleans at the Republican National Convention introducing himself to the delegates as the candidate running against Ted Kennedy.

"The whole place was up and roaring," he recalled. "Like throwing a match on gasoline. Texans were handing me $1,000 checks."

As the pollster predicted, Malone lost in a landslide (65 percent to 34) to Kennedy, then won a 1990 race for state treasurer. He became Massachusetts' first Republican treasurer in 60 years.

Malone, now a commentator for a Boston television station, enjoyed his televised debate and interaction with Kennedy. With victory secured on election night, the re-elected senator called Malone and invited him and his wife to visit the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port.

"I think he appreciated the fact I really kept it at a high level in terms of tone," Malone said of Kennedy. "Several years later, when my mom died, he took the time to pick up the phone and express his sympathy."

Tubby returns

Former UK Coach Tubby Smith will be at Georgetown College on Sept. 26. He will participate in the school's series of programs devoted to exploring the role athletics can play in character building.

The series — called "Conversations with Champions" — is a product of the school's Academy for Character in Sport. Former newspaper columnist Billy Reed, who works for Georgetown College as its executive scholar-in-residence, talks with guests about athletics and character. Smith, now coaching for Minnesota, led Kentucky to its last national championship in 1998.

The public is invited to hear Smith and Reed talk about character in sport. The program is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. in Georgetown College's John L. Hill Chapel.

Other guests in the series this academic year include horseman Seth Hancock Oct. 5, former Herald-Leader editor John Carroll Nov. 9 and boxing icon Angelo Dundee Nov. 22.

Kansas example

When his Dominican Republic team played a group of former UK stars, John Calipari noted how the University of Kentucky could use off-season exhibitions as a means to raise funds for charity or scholarships.

Kansas does that. Its Legends of the Phog exhibition game in Allen Fieldhouse will be played Saturday. It's a sellout.

Kansas will donate a portion of the proceeds in memory of former KU assistant coach Neil Dougherty, who died this summer. Working with the Dougherty family, Kansas plans to donate money to the Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence, which was one of his favorite local charities.

Former Kansas coaches Larry Brown and Ted Owens will coach a collection of former KU players who have been part of three NCAA titles, 54 conference championships, 13 Final Fours and 2,038 all-time victories. The rosters will include many current NBA Jayhawks as well as many other recent KU standouts.

Players expected to play in the game include Cole Aldrich, Mario Chalmers, Nick Collison, Xavier Henry, Darnell Jackson, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Greg Ostertag, Paul Pierce, Scot Pollard, Brandon Rush, Darnell Valentine and Julian Wright.

Duke's example

While UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart lauds the recruiting advantage that could come with a new arena, Duke is happy to sell its Cameron Indoor Stadium to prospects.

"For Duke, Cameron Indoor Stadium is a huge asset," spokesman Jon Jackson wrote in an email. "The game-day atmosphere in the arena is special and has provided a tremendous advantage over the years. The building is part of the culture and rich history of Duke Basketball, so it stands to reason it would be part of the story recruits are told regarding the program."

By the way, Duke has priority seating in its upper level. Undergrad and graduate students occupy a majority of the lower bowl seating.

No luxury boxes or club seating "at this time," Jackson wrote.

At this time?

Jackson acknowledged the "constant discussion about how to keep Cameron at the forefront of a college gameday experience." But, he added, Duke has made no firm plans for luxury boxes or club seats. ... yet.

'Fabulous' birthday

Kenny Rollins, a starting guard for UK's Fabulous Five, turned 88 on Wednesday.

"It feels old," he said with a chuckle. "No question about it."

Rollins said he was in reasonably good health.

"I'm doing fine," he said. "Glad to be able to move around a little bit."

When told that his voice sounded strong, Rollins said, "That's the strongest part of it."

Rollins, who lives with his son, Kevin, in Indiana, said he continues to follow UK basketball. "Very much so," he said. "I watch recruiting closely with (John) Calipari. I think he's a heck of a coach, and look forward to seeing some of the games."

Happy birthday

To Louisville Coach Rick Pitino. He turns 59 today.

To former LSU Coach John Brady. He turned 57 on Saturday.

To former UK players Marquis Estill (30 on Thursday), Todd Svoboda (40 on Wednesday), Jared Carter (25 next Tuesday), Adam Williams (26 next Monday), Dicky Beal (49 today) and Derrick Hord (51 next Monday).