From New York City, Richard Fitch is pitching “The Unflappables.”
In Morehead, Chris Furnish likes “The Redeemers.”
Here in Lexington, Bruce Pyle is advocating for “The Fiddlin’ Freshmen.”
From Munster, Ind., Mike Gillespie has submitted a list with a whopping six potential team nicknames — including “The Believers” and “The Reversibles” — for the Final Four-bound 2013-14 Kentucky Wildcats.
After a season in which John Calipari’s current Wildcats (28-10) struggled to live up to massive pre-season hype, UK’s unexpected charge through the NCAA Tournament has unleashed a torrent of naming attempts.
It’s hard to imagine there is any franchise/program in major American team sports that has produced more team nicknames than Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball. There are names for NCAA championship teams — The Fabulous Five (1948); The Fiddlin’ Five (1958); The Comeback Cats (1998). There are monikers that describe traits of teams, such as lack of height, Rupp’s Runts (1966), or that reward exceptional player loyalty, The Unforgettables (1992).
“The team names sort of become, like, a password among Kentucky fans, a shorthand for identifying the teams,” said ex-UK guard Cameron Mills. “If you grow up a Kentucky fan, you just say “The Fabulous Five’ or ‘Rupp’s Runts’ or ‘The Unforgettables’ and you know exactly what team and what year people are talking about.”
As my email in-box and Twitter timeline have filled with efforts to apply an appropriate moniker to Julius Randle, the Harrison twins and Co., it made me curious about some “nicknaming issues.” Do UK players who go through all their adult lives identified with these team nicknames like the nicknames? Do players on teams for which no nickname catches on feel like their team’s achievements are obscured?
After the 2013-14 Wildcats have won three straight NCAA tourney thrillers over Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan, is there a nickname catching on for them?
The ‘name game’
The origins of many of the most famous UK team nicknames are unclear. One isn’t. Before the 1957-58 season, Adolph Rupp used a music metaphor to describe the coming year. Rupp said that his team was facing a schedule so rigorous it would require “violinists” who could play in Carnegie Hall.
“We’ve got fiddlers, that’s all,” Rupp said of Kentucky’s players. “They’re pretty good fiddlers, be right entertaining at a barn dance. But, I’ll tell you, you need violinists to play in Carnegie Hall. We don’t have any violinists.”
From that was born “The Fiddlin’ Five.” The 1957-58 Wildcats went on to lose six games, but then made an unexpected charge to the NCAA title. At that time, no team with as many as six defeats had ever won a national championship.
A star guard on that team, Vernon Hatton, has been identified with the name “The Fiddlin’ Five,” for 56 years now.
“I didn’t necessarily like it,” Hatton said of the nickname. “It sort of set us off against ‘The Fabulous Five.’ You know, they were ‘Fabulous,’ we were ‘Fiddlers.’ I just didn’t care for that comparison.”
Across the years, Hatton, 78, and a longtime Lexington auctioneer, said he came to recognize the advantages of being part of a team recalled in UK lore by a name. “I think it does make people remember you more,” he said. “I’m happy with it now.”
Larry Conley has spent almost five decades being described as a “Runt” or a “Rupp’s Runt.” Conley, who is 6-foot-3, was a forward on UK’s 1965-66 team that went to the NCAA finals even though it started no player taller than 6-6.
“Every time someone sees me, they are like ‘You were part of Rupp’s Runts? You don’t look that small,’” Conley said with a laugh. “Rupp’s Runts, that could sound kind of derisive, but I think it was a term of endearment because we were so small. Everybody loves an underdog.”
Over four years, Cameron Mills played for “The Untouchables” (1996 NCAA champs), “The Unbelievables” (1997 NCAA runners-up, a team that thrived even after star Derek Anderson was lost to injury) and “The Comeback Cats,” (1998 NCAA champions, so named after they rallied from double-digits down to win in each of their final three Big Dance games).
“I hated ‘Comeback Cats,’ just didn’t like it at all,” Mills said. “I didn’t like it because there wasn’t an Un’ in front of it. I wanted us to be an ‘Un’ team.”
For whatever reasons, some of Kentucky’s better teams never acquire a nickname that sticks. The star-heavy 1951 NCAA champions, with Cliff Hagan, Frank Ramsey and Bill Spivey, has no widely known team name. To my knowledge, neither do the 1978 or 2012 NCAA title teams nor the 1984 Final Four team that was led by big men Sam Bowie and Melvin Turpin.
“We didn’t have an official nickname as a team,” said Kenny Walker, a sophomore forward on that ‘84 team. “That team was far more known for the ‘Twin Towers,’ Bowie and Turpin, than for any team nickname.”
Walker said he does not feel like the ‘84 team’s standing in UK history is less because it lacks a team nickname. “I still think that team is remembered,” he said.
Naming the 2014 Cats
Thematically, most people trying to apply a moniker to the current Wildcats seem to be working off the double reversal in fortunes that UK’s 2013-14 season has taken, from pre-season No. 1 to 10 losses and unranked in the polls to a Final Four berth opposite Wisconsin.
Morehead’s Furnish writes that “since this team has taken this opportunity to correct the problems and live up to the hype and expectations after struggling greatly, it only makes sense to introduce ‘The Redeemables.’”
Gillespie, a minister in Indiana, likes “The Believers” because of a quote he read from UK center Willie Cauley-Stein. “Everyone came around to believing Coach Cal, and in themselves,” Gillespie wrote.
At least one former Kentucky player has a suggestion for a nickname for the current Cats.
Said Conley: “The Unexplainables.”
Because the 2013-14 Wildcats struggled so during the regular season yet have thrived so in the NCAA tourney?
“Exactly,” Conley said. “It’s incredible.”