JAMIE VAUGHT: Former UK publicist Russell Rice Is Still Writing; Compares Two Wildcat Greats Calipar
By Jamie H. Vaught
If you have UK football or basketball books on your bookshelf, you likely will have a copy that was written by Russell Rice (pictured).
And Rice, author of several UK books, is almost finished with his latest literary project which will be titled "Big Blue Basketball Memories."
Rice just can't stop writing even though he recently celebrated his birthday milestone.
"Having just turned 90 years (old), I feel somewhat like the old gray mare, but still in there kicking," he wrote in an e-mail.
A noted UK sports historian who covered UK athletics for several decades, Rice is also well known as legendary coach Adolph Rupp's publicity man back in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Rice is the man you need to talk to if you have a question about UK basketball or football history. He has the answers.
And he is the guy who issued my first media pass for a Wildcat basketball game at Memorial Coliseum around 1976.
By the way, Rice has an interesting comparison between Rupp -- who once was NCAA's all-time winningest basketball coach with 876 victories for 25 years -- and Kentucky current coach John Calipari, who has taken the Wildcats to three Final Four trips.
"Rupp was arrogant and overbearing as a coach," commented Rice recently. "Prior to the (Rupp's) Runts' era, he was aloof to the players. Instead of coddling them, he would put them to work on his farm. His sarcasm was biting and effective. Nobody talked back to him without suffering the consequences.
"Calipari seemed much closer to his players. He was more prone to pat a player on the back, or rub his head for a job well done. The similarity ended there; however, both coaches were masters of their craft, with Cal getting a nod as a recruiter. Rupp wanted the boys to come to him while Calipari recruited far and wide in a more competitive era.
"Segregation was downhill for Rupp, a situation not all of his making, but one that presented him with problems that Calipari didn't have to face.
"Who was the better coach? Toss a coin!"
Retired in 1989 from his long successful career in journalism and UK sports information office, Rice now lives in the Daytona Beach area. While his son lives in Ormond Beach, his three daughters reside in Kentucky. During Rice's retirement, he wrote a weekly column for the Cats' Pause magazine for many years.
A native of Paintsville, Ky., Rice served with the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II and graduated from UK in 1951. He began his journalism career with newspapers in Whitesburg and Hazard.
Then Rice moved on to Lexington where he worked for the old Lexington Leader and eventually became sports editor of that afternoon newspaper in 1962, a post he held for five years.
Rupp sometimes didn't like his articles in the Lexington Leader, but the Baron didn't tell Rice directly.
"Rupp never criticized me while I was sports editor," recalled Rice in a 2006 interview when this columnist visited him in Florida. "Instead, he would say, 'My wife, Esther, didn't like what you wrote about me."
Rice has memories of the 1966 NCAA Final Four in College Park, Md., where ailing Kentucky, ranked No. 1 in the nation, defeated Duke in the semifinals before dropping to Texas Western in the title game.
"I recall going to Larry Conley's room after the Duke game and he was in a croup tent (with a bad cold). Trainer Joe Brown, (assistant coach) Harry Lancaster and (athletics director) Bernie Shively also were there.
"Next, after the (Texas Western) game, I was the first person in the Wildcat dressing room while Rupp was in a media session. I knew Harry would lock everybody else out, which he did. Dr. V.A. Jackson examined Pat Riley's big toe, which was red and swollen. Rupp later said, 'I took a bunch of sick boys to College Park,' but he didn't use it as an excuse."
Eventually, Rice took a position at UK and worked as an assistant to sports information director Ken Kuhn. After Kuhn retired in 1969, Rice took over as the top PR guy, running the publicity machine in the school's athletics department.
When Rice was working as a publicity man at UK, Rupp offered an philosophical advice.
"The barber cuts my hair. Chester takes care of the farm, Charlie runs the (Kentucky) Hereford Association of which I'm the president. I don't tell them how do their jobs; they don't tell me how to coach basketball," Rupp told Rice. "We get along just fine. You're the publicity man. Take it from there."
Rice fondly remembers an airplane trip when he rode with the Baron in the late 1960s.
"We were on an old bi-plane flying to Kansas where the university was to present him an honor," he said. "I had borrowed an old tape recorder from Joe Brown, the trainer. As we neared our destination, I got up my nerve and popped the question, 'Coach, I would like to write a book about you?'
"He clapped both hands together and said, 'By Gawd, let's get started.' It was like I had died and gone to heaven."
Later, Rice's biography on Rupp was published in the mid-1990s.
During his UK tenure, Rice also served as media coordinator for several NCAA men’s basketball tournaments which were hosted by Kentucky. He was also a president of the SEC Sports Information Directors Association.
Another highlight of his career took place in 2011 when Rice was inducted into the UK Athletics Hall of Fame as a former administrator.
Interestingly, he isn't the only family member who is a Hall of Famer.
His superstar relatives -- Kentucky-born country music singers Loretta Lynn and Patty Loveless -- are members of the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame.
Well, Rice is sure in a pretty good company, huh? Wouldn't you say?
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle360.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. Reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle360@gmail.com.
Photo by Jamie H. Vaught