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In the heart of the Bluegrass, basketball is king of collegiate athletics. But it wasn't always so. Before Big Blue chronicles the early history of organized sports at the University of Kentucky, from the tenuous beginnings under student leadership, through the early scandals, financial instability, and clashes with administration, to the Purge of 1938 that paved the way for basketball's ascendancy.

Once upon a time in Lexington, football ruled the athletic department. In the 1890s and 1900s the most intense competition was with crosstown rival Transylvania University. The annual Thanksgiving Day game was the biggest event of the season, and its gate receipts essentially funded the entire department. Among other highlights, Gregory Kent Stanley reveals the story behind the Wildcats' nickname, reports on the "greased pants game" against Mississippi State in 1914, and divulges the origins of the post-victory nightshirt parades through downtown.

When basketball finally arrived on campus, it was the women's team that was organized first. Its transfer out of the women's physical education department in 1903 led to a twenty-year turf war that was one of the period's most intense. Whether played by men or by women, however, basketball during the early years of the century was of minor consequence. The men's team played in a gym without facilities for spectators, most players were from the football team, and all the early coaches—including Adolph Rupp—assisted with the football program. Nevertheless, the early years showed signs of the success to come: the 9-0 team of 1912, which never trailed an opponent; the 1921 squad, losers of only one game and winners of the school's first tournament; and Rupp's winning percentage of .820 during the 1930s that saved his job during President McVey's massive reorganization of the athletic department.

Before Big Blue tells a story both unique and universal. As the first comprehensive history of the rise of intercollegiate athletics at UK, it makes a valuable contribution to the growing literature of sports history.

Gregory Kent Stanley received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Kentucky, and is the author of The Rise and Fall of the Sportswoman: Women's Health, Fitness, and Athletics, 1860-1940.

"Stanley has convincingly reminded readers that the contemporary success and priorities of the university of Kentucky's 'Big Blue' athletics program were neither inevitable nor easy."—Filson Club History Quarterly

"Before Pitino was Rupp and before there was Rupp there was . . . well, that's what Before Big Blue is all about."—Kentucky Living

Publication Date



The University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY






University of Kentucky, Kentucky, Sports history


Sports Studies

Before Big Blue: Sports at the University of Kentucky, 1880-1940
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