Memorial Coliseum: A Basketball Monument

by Bernard Frei on April 03, 2019

Memorial Coliseum

a large building 

Few college basketball teams can boast of the illustrious accomplishments that the University of Kentucky Wildcats possess. Dating back all the way to 1903, The University of Kentucky men’s basketball program has been blessed with success. The Wildcats are the winningest program of all time with 2,263 wins and a winning percentage of .764. They are owners of 8 national championships and the leaders in a plethora of NCAA tournament categories.  Simply put, The Kentucky Wildcats are the definition of greatness and tradition.  While Kentucky remains to be a premier college program today, their foundation of success was laid long ago in a coliseum that will forever be called home. 

The Beginning of The Memorial 

a group of people posing for a photo

Before the famous and renowned Rupp Arena was built in 1976, the Kentucky Wildcats played in The Memorial Coliseum. Memorial was originally created to be a monument for the soldiers from Kentucky who died in WWII and the Korean War, but it quickly became a monument for college basketball as well.  Constructed in 1950, Memorial housed 12,000 screaming fans, making it the largest arena in the south at that time. Upwards of 13,000 fans were known to crowd into the stadium and exceed capacity because of the teams growing popularity.  The inaugural season of 1950 was an important one for the Wildcats. They were coming off their impressive back to back NCAA Championships in 1948 and 1949. The Wildcats were coached by the legendary Adolf Rupp and were looking for returning star Bill Spivey to carry them to their third consecutive championship. After a tough midseason slide and a defeat from rival Tennessee, the Wildcats ran off 14 wins in a row and reclaimed the SEC title by getting revenge on the Volunteers. The season, however, did not end as the Kentucky faithful had hoped seeing their team miss the NCAA tournament and losing in the NIT.

Champions and Criminals

a person standing posing for the camera

The year 1951 marked one of the most interesting years in college basketball ever. The Kentucky Wildcats returned to their winning ways under coach Rupp and won the programs third national title in four seasons by defeating Kansas State, and the first title during the Memorial Coliseum era.  The success, however, was blotted out due to the 1951 point shaving scandal. Three Kentucky players were found guilty and arrested for taking bribes to fix the scores of games. The Southeastern Conference banned the Wildcats from a season of play and the NCAA prohibited any teams from scheduling the Wildcats. Kentucky saw the first ever NCAA death penalty which resulted in a year absence of collegiate competition. The fans of Memorial would have to wait an entire year without seeing their Wildcats take the floor. 

The Return to Greatness

a group of people posing for a photo

In 1954 the Wildcats returned to Memorial Coliseum and took the nation by storm posting Adolf Rupp’s first and only undefeated season with a record of 25-0.  The team hosted a number of talented stars, such as Cliff Hagan and Frank Ramsey, who lead them to their perfect season. Unfortunately three players who had graduated the previous academic year remained on the roster and were deemed ineligible by the NCAA for post season play. Outraged by this decision coach Rupp elected to boycott the NCAA Tournament ending Kentucky’s chances at yet another title run. The Wildcat fans would have to wait a few years while seeing teams just narrowly miss the Final Four in both 1956 and 1957.  In 1958 Adolf Rupp and the Wildcats earned the nickname “the fiddling five” because of his team’s turnover proneness and mistake filled play.  The Wildcats lost an unprecedented six regular season games and were not in position to do much of anything come tournament time. That’s when the unthinkable happened. Coach Rupp pulled off a legendary run all the way to the title game and captured Kentucky’s fourth national championship, the second one during the Memorial Coliseum era. The Wildcats had officially returned to their winning ways and to the top of college basketball for the first time since the scandal.

The End of an Era

a group of people posing for a photo

The following seasons at Memorial saw great Kentucky teams that seemed to never get over the hump.  Coach Rupp and The Wildcats would not get another shot at a fifth title and the Final Four until the famous season of 1966.  The Wildcats entered the NCAA tournament as the number one team where they danced their way to the final game verses Texas Western. The famous title game of 1966 saw Texas Western and its five starting African Americans steal another close title from the Wildcats. This was the last Final Four and championship game that Adolf Rupp would see during his tenure as head coach. The following seven seasons Kentucky advanced to two Sweet Sixteen’s and three Elite Eights, but this was not the success that Kentucky faithful were looking for. Adolf Rupp was forced into retirement at the age of 70 in 1972. Coach Rupp would go down in history as one of the greatest college coaches of all time and would be inducted into the national basketball hall of fame. With coach Rupp gone, the Wildcats would be forced to hire a new coach for the first time during the Memorial Coliseum era.

Final Years at Memorial

a group of people posing for the camera

Joseph Beasman Hall was named the predecessor to Adolf Rupp in 1972.  Hall was a member of Kentucky’s 1949 championship team and had been an assistant coach since 1965.  Joe B. Hall would be faced with the enormous task of following in coach Rupp’s footsteps and his winning ways at Memorial Coliseum. Coach Hall would assemble a dominant roster in 1975 filled with talented young stars, such as Jack Givens and Rick Robey, who advanced all the way to the title game. The talented “Super Kittens” fell to UCLA in the title game, but Kentucky had again returned to its tradition of winning and looked poised to bring another title back home to Memorial Coliseum.  The 1975 season, however, would be the last season the Wildcats ever played in Memorial Coliseum. In 1976, Rupp Arena was opened and became the new home of the Wildcats and is where they still play today. Memorial Coliseum saw some of the greatest years the program has ever seen and was where legendary coach Adolf Rupp made a name for himself.  The Wildcats boasted a 307-38 record at Memorial and captured two NCAA Championships and two NCAA runner up finishes in its 26 seasons as the home of Kentucky Basketball. Memorial Coliseum still stands today and is now the home of the women’s program. While the men’s programs has been long removed for many years, The Coliseum still hoists the championship and final four banners making it a monument to the history and tradition of Kentucky Basketball. 

 

Celebrate the legacy of the Wildcats with this rare bottle opener. Made from the floor of the Memorial Coliseum, this bottle opener will take you back to the history of UK and help you celebrate the many memorable years to come.

 

Benjamin Viola is a content writer and intern for Vintage Sports. Originally from Louisville, KY, he is currently a student at Samford University in Birmingham, AL and is majoring in Finance/Sports Marketing. 

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