In the mighty Southeastern Conference, there’s one team that stands head and shoulders above the rest. Since beginning competitive play in 1903, the Kentucky Wildcats have distinguished themselves simply by winning. The first NCAA basketball team to win 1,000 games and eventually the first to 2,000 victories, “Big Blue” is the gold standard for championship success.
While early teams were led by E.R. Sweetland, who was also the school’s football coach at one point, it was the arrival of Adolph Rupp in 1930 that gave the university its first battle-ready general. Over the course of the next 42 years, Rupp’s Wildcats would win the SEC 27 times and capture four NCAA titles. The starting five from 1948’s top-flight team was especially notable, as they were also the driving force behind the gold medal-winning United States squad in the Olympics. Title fever became so prevalent in Lexington that even the school’s football team got in on the action, as the Bear Bryant-led squad won the 1950 national championship.
In 1976, the ‘Cats began playing in a more modern gymnasium; one that was better suited to accommodate the scores of students who wanted to watch the Blue and White beat their opponents. Appropriately enough, it was named Rupp Arena. A new tradition was born in 1983 when the school played crosstown Louisville in the regular season for the first time in 24 years. The match would end up reigniting a rivalry that continues to this day.
In the grand scheme of things, 18 years isn’t that long between championships, but for Kentucky fans, it felt like an eternity. With coach Rick Pitino at the helm, the 1996 season was sweet relief as the team captured its sixth title. The ‘Cats would appear in the Final Four in each of the next two years and cut down the nets again in 1998 with another NCAA crown in hand. By this point, the winning tradition established in Lexington was catapulting Wildcats players into the NBA. Former All-Americans such asJamal Mashburn, Tayshaun Prince, and John Wall would all parlay their “Big Blue” playing days into successful careers in the professional ranks.
With all the decades of excellence on the court, you’d think it’d be the hoops program that inspired the school’s feisty nickname, but it’s actually the 1909 football team that holds that honor. Commandant Corbusier of the old State University was impressed by a big win over Illinois and said afterwards that the squad “fought like wildcats.” That tenacious mindset has gone on to serve both the school and its fans well. At the very least, it keeps students warm while they camp outside to get tickets for “Big Blue Madness,” the annual midnight tradition that celebrates the first basketball practice of the year.
The university’s fight song begins with the line “On, on, U of K, we are right for the fight today,” and with a trophy case full of championship hardware, those words couldn’t ring truer. The Kentucky Wildcats bring the noise every time they suit up.