Total Pageviews

Sunday, December 5, 2010

When Adolph Rupp Came to Savanna

I grew up at perfect time. Growing up, I never had a house key. You didn’t need one because the side door was always unlocked. No one locked there doors in Savanna. The only violence I experienced was watching the Three Stooges.

I grew up in a perfect place. By my count there were 11 boys within 3 years of each other in our neighborhood. I don’t know how many girls lived in the neighborhood because we never paid attention to them. We were too busy. We had a baseball diamond in the field behind our house, football was played on the empty lot one house away, and basketball was in the street between our house and Davis’.

But the special place was our basement. We had a “regulation” basketball court in our basement. Maybe it was not quite regulation but 30 feet is a pretty long court when you are in 2nd grade, and the hoops at 6 foot were perfect. The boundary and the lanes were always there with chalk.

The best part when we played was the uniforms. This was before  Before the games, we would grab the magic markers, take our t-shirts off, and put the number of our favorite player on the shirt. Pat Davis took things to a whole different level when he introduced us to the “wife-beater” uniform style.  It was tough to fit the letters for “Savanna” across your chest at 8.

This was an era before ESPN, our heroes in the ‘60’s were the players for Savanna High School. My dad was a retired coach and at this time was the athletic director. Pat Davis, my brother, and I lived at high school sporting events. So when we made up our jerseys, the hot numbers were #10 for Alan Cottral (Pat usually got dibs because it was his cousin- but I got it for my hs career), #32 for Louis Rameriz (Mark still thought of himself as quick and athletic like Louie), but the one I wanted was #50. Growing up in Savanna, #50 meant Dennis Radabaugh.

At tiny Savanna, Dennis Radabaugh led the state in scoring in 1961 while averaging 32.3 points per game. Only four players in Illinois history have ever had a more prolific scoring season. He led Savanna to championships and huge winning records. It was great to watch. His career scoring average of 22.4 points is the 10th best in Illinois. He dropped 57 on Sterling Newman and then later the same year he added 55 vs. Lanark. I had a notepad to try to keep track. And from tiny little Savanna, he received a scholarship to play basketball for legendary Adolph Rupp at Kentucky. Tell me that wasn’t some small town hero!  I never made it to Dennis’ level of basketball, but he allowed me to have some big dreams.

Several years ago after seeing something on the internet about Galesburg girls basketball, Dennis sent me an email from Texas. It resulted in a flood of questions from me. So for the last three years I have been able to ask my hero, “What was it like?”  I just find his story intriguing and inspiring.

How long has it been?
I graduated from SCHS in 1961 so I was playing my senior season exactly 50 years ago--how could that possibly be??
Obviously you had a highly successful high school career. Was basketball something that always came easy or when you were younger was it a struggle?
I seemed to gravitate to basketball fairly easily.  I started playing organized ball in Deer Lodge, Montana in 6th grade--the school had a tournament and there were 2 8th grade teams, one 7th and one 6th. The 6th grade won 3rd place by beating one of the 8th grade teams. In that small town, I was the tallest kid in my class--something that would repeat itself for the next 6 years. Also having an older brother helped as in pickup games I was almost always playing against older kids. In  7th grade in Harlowton, Mt we had a 2 game, home and home season with Lewiston, Mt. My first real basketball season was in Tacoma, WA where there were 7 jr high schools. Each school had a both B and A teams. Again, being one of the tallest kids in the 8th grade got me on the A team both 8th and 9th grades. When I got to Savanna in my sophomore year, on the 2nd or 3rd day of classes, Coach Gray came to the study hall I was in and asked me to stand up. Then he asked if I played basketball and I told him I had for the last 4 years. A number of weeks later, he told me and several juniors and seniors the gym would be open that night if anyone wanted to play some pickup ball. When tryouts were posted later, he told me I needed to try out for the varsity team, not the frosh/soph team. That seemed easy enough.

Before your senior season, did you have any clue that you would have the season you did and lead the state in scoring?
We'd had great season my junior year--won Regionals--but had started 4 really good seniors besides myself. As a result, I think expectations for a good senior year were pretty low. However, as practice got underway, it became pretty evident that the starting guards would be a couple of juniors that had started on the previous years F/S team and the forwards would be two seniors that saw very limited playing time on the varsity the year before. From a talent perspective, we weren't nearly as strong but unlike the year before where there were some ego issues, the 5 of us blended into a much stronger "team" and exceeded everyone's expectation. Those 4 young men could have cared less who scored the points, they just did everything they could to win. While I remember every teammate I had, Jack Kroll, Gerry Geison, Jack Mills and Mike Cravatta were special. If my memory is correct, each of them led the team in points scored in at least one game. Leading the state in scoring was secondary to the 24-3 won/loss record. In fact, I not sure we were even aware of it until after the season--got to remember, information access and media coverage/publication pales when comparing today to 50 years ago.
Savanna lost the Regionals to arch-rival Fulton that year, in the three Regional games he scored 55, 50, and 29 points--not a bad way to end a high school career.

How big were you in high school?
In a classic example of gamemanship, Coach Gray always listed me as 6'5" on the road but 6'4" at home where folks knew better.

What made Coach Gray (Savanna’s coach) get so much out of you and your team?
Jerry Gray had my undivided attention immediately following my sophomore season. Several weeks after the season, he pulled me aside and said, "Denny, here's the deal. If you will forego playing football--(I'd played on the F/S team that year)--and eliminate risk of injury, I will do everything I can to get you a college scholarship".  That was plenty of motivation for me. I did and so did he. As far as the team went, he basically ran a tight ship discipline-wise, expected everyone to play hard and as a team. We all understood that was the only way we could win. If kids weren’t willing to put forth the necessary effort they didn’t stay on the team. He even stopped practice one afternoon to give one individual the opportunity to leave the gym and team at that very moment.

Besides Kentucky, what other schools did you get offers from?
I'm not sure how many hard offers I had, but Coach Gray publicly said he'd heard from over 100 schools. Among them were Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Northwestern and Memphis State. And of course UK which I accepted.

As you read about the recruiting process with athletes today, how was recruiting different for you than today?
Recruiting was entirely different then. Generally, alumni played a much larger role then. If an Alum heard about some local kid, they would contact their Alma Mater and say, "Hey, you ought to take a look at this kid'. Then the school would typically contact the high school to get some info and stats. Only after that would they invest some time and money for a visit. And often, Coaches would rely on someone else actually attending a game--Coach Rupp never saw one of my high school games. But he did make quite an impact in the living room of our house on 5th Street in Savanna several weeks after the season. Today, with all the camps, tournaments and media exposure, recruiting starts when kids are even in grade schools. Way too early and way too much pressure put on kids not ready to cope with all it entails. I'm not sure the current methods are good for the athletes or their parents--too much opportunity for violations, which occur every single year.  

At the time of your decision, did you have any idea of how huge it was for a kid from Savanna to be going to Kentucky?
My decision to attend Kentucky was one I have thought about on many occasions. My Kentucky experience was one I cherish but it didn't turn out anywhere near what I'd hoped for. It was an honor being signed by them but it became apparent almost immediately that I wouldn't be able to compete at that level. Of the 7 scholarship kids signed, I was lucky that 3 were big men and 4 were guards. That at least gave me the opportunity to start on the freshman team and play regularly all year. But talk about being in over your head, wow. The other big guys were all taller, most had played a lot facing the basket, were quicker and could handle the ball.  So while it gives me pleasure knowing that really only a select few kids get basketball scholarships to the University of Kentucky--maybe only 250 or 300 since I was recruited--and quite a few of them went on to All American and Pro status--I was in pretty elite company. However, early in my sophomore year, it became apparent I wouldn't be part of their long range plans. I was relegated to the 3rd team, a squad that was used as scout opponents as well as double practices to provide competition for the freshman team. All of that was intended to get us to rethink our status. Coaches would comment on us just taking up space at the training table and so on. Of the 7 kids recruited at the time I was, two of us left for other schools at the end of that year, one stayed but quit basketball and one other played baseball but not basketball. The other 3 stayed and did play the last 2 years. That being said, it was a great experience. But I have always wished Coach Gray or someone, anyone with more collegiate basketball experience/knowledge had pulled me aside and steered me towards some second tier college programs where I could have had an opportunity to be competitive and develop a 4 year career. Unfortunately, 18 year old kids, left to their own ego-stroked devises don't/won't come to those kinds of conclusions by themselves. That is a responsibility of which todays coaches and parents need to be very aware. I was glad I had the opportunity to later play at the college level at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

What was it like playing for Adoph Rupp?
Coach Rupp was a legend. He knew the game and ran a very disciplined program. Players were expected to be on the floor ready to practice at 3pm. Obviously, we were all early and enjoyed the usual screwing around that players like--but the first kid that saw the coaching staff come in would holler "Omaha" and that was the key phrase to get serious. And serious we were for the next 2 hours. Every single Rupp coached team at Kentucky ran the same opening offensive play every game, every year--no deviations allowed, unless it was an uncontested fast break off the tip. His assistant coach was the task master but Rupp was in charge and the only bench coach. He was quick witted, funny and just neat to be around.

Who were some of the Kentucky players when you were there?
The class behind me at UK included Tommy Kron and Larry Conley. They were seniors on the '65-'66 team that lost the NCAA Finals to Texas Western (UTEP) in the game that the movie "Glory Road" was based on. Pat Riley and Louie Dampier were juniors on that team.

What is your fondest memory of playing basketball?
I have a number of great basketball memories. But without a doubt, my high school years provide the best. My 3 seasons in Savanna we had records of 16-13, 23-5 and 24-3--a pretty good run. Savanna was a great small town to have lived in and played for. Jerry Gray was a good coach, a mentor and he and his wife became friends with my folks.  Unfortunately, just as a job transfer brought us to Savanna, one took us away. I have tried to follow basketball in that region--Mount Carroll had a great run a year or so before consolidation and West Carroll had another several years ago. I'm proud to be part of the basketball tradition in Northwestern Illinois.

Where are you now and what is going on in your life? 
After college graduation, I went to work for JCPenney in their catalog division. We built that business from around $40 million is sales to over $4 billion at our peak. After assignments in Milwaukee, Atlanta and Manchester, Ct, I joined to Corporate Staff in Dallas, Tx and retired as Vice President and Director of Logistics for JCPenney Stores, Catalog and Internet in 2000. My wife and I still live in Dallas and we have a son in the Milwaukee area, a daughter in the Chicago area and another daughter in Fort Worth. My wife describes me as a golf bum--I play 3-5 times a week, year around thanks to our generally good North Texas climate. I'm on a first name basis with all the librarians at our local branch and am an avid college sports fan, especially the Final Four event, and a luke warm Cowboy fan--but having lived in so many places still root for the 49ers, da Bears, Packers, Falcons and Patriots. And Kentucky Basketball??  Always. 

Evan, good luck with your blog and your current season. I think its great you followed your Dad's footsteps and have developed a very successful career in high school athletics.

Best regards,
Dennis Radabaugh


  1. Great interview, Evan. And thanks for the insight, Dennis.

  2. Very interesting ... you're building quite a portfolio for your dream job as a sports reporter!