Cornell vs. Kentucky has some history
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It probably wasn't 10 minutes after Cornell annihilated Wisconsin Sunday in the second round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament that Pittsburgh attorney Gregg Otto sent an e-mail to good friend and one-time college roommate Hank South of Sewickley.
"Do you think a Cornell team could ever beat a team from the University of Kentucky?" Otto asked.
How South must have laughed.
"I know the answer to that question," he said Tuesday, still fairly giggling.
If No. 12 seed Cornell of the Ivy League beats No. 1 seed Kentucky of the powerful Southeastern Conference Thursday night in Syracuse, many will call it one of the greatest upsets in NCAA tournament history. But it wouldn't be as shocking as a game the schools played Dec. 28, 1966. A Cornell team led by South -- a high school All-American at South Hills Catholic (now Seton-LaSalle) -- and Gabby Durkac -- a star player at Tarentum (now Highlands) High School -- blew into Kentucky's Memorial Coliseum and blew out legendary coach Adolph Rupp's Wildcats, 92-77. Otto of North Allegheny High School and Dave Barzler of Upper St. Clair were sophomore reserves for Cornell, which was a 25-point underdog to a Kentucky squad that had All-American Louie Dampier and Pat Riley, who, you might have heard, went on to some fame in the NBA.
The write-up in the Louisville paper the morning after the game called it "maybe the biggest upset UK has ever suffered."
It's hard to imagine Rupp or any of the Kentucky players arguing.
"I saw Pat Riley years later when he was doing a speaking engagement in Los Angeles," said Barzler, who is back living in Upper St. Clair and working in management for the StonePepper Grill restaurant chain. "I asked him if he remembered that game. He said, 'Hell yeah, I remember it. Rupp made us run laps until 2 o'clock in the morning.' "
At the time, Rupp couldn't have known that 1966-67 team would turn out to be the worst of his 41 years at Kentucky, finishing with a 13-13 record.
The Wildcats had started that season ranked No. 3. The previous spring, they had made it to the national championship game before losing to a Texas Western team that started five black players, a game that many consider the most significant in college basketball history. It should tell you plenty about the times that Kentucky fans waved a confederate flag in the stands of Maryland's Cole Field House during that title game.
Fast-forward to that December night. Another black player -- Cornell's Greggory Morris -- torched Rupp and his all-white team, much to Rupp's regret. Morris had the game of his life with 37 points and 11 rebounds.
"I don't remember much racism from the crowd that night," said Durkac, then a senior who had 14 points and eight rebounds and now, 64, a farm-animals veterinarian in Kittanning. "But I do know Rupp was a racist. I'm sure that really bugged him. I can still see him jumping up and down, yelling at his guys."
It would be two more seasons before Rupp signed his first black player --Tom Payne. Three years after that, Rupp was gone, retired. He was 76 when he died in 1977.
Riley took the Cornell loss almost as hard as his coach. South, 62, who picked Cornell as his college instead of Duke in large part because his father, Furman, and other relatives went to Cornell, speculated that Riley was upset about not only losing his first jump ball of the season to South, but about having his nose broken by an inadvertent South elbow.
"He got even with me later in the game," said South, then a sophomore who had 10 points and six rebounds that magical night. "I had a breakaway, and he wasn't going to let me get a shot off. He tackled me. I ended up with a pinched nerve in my neck."
South talked as if that was a small price to pay for the best win of his college career.
"It was intimidating going in there, but we were pretty good," he said. "Kentucky probably took us a little bit lightly. I'm sure the Kentucky team won't be unaware of Cornell this week after what Cornell did to Wisconsin and Temple."
South, semi-retired after a long career running his Zelienople-based family business making industrial products for iron and steel companies, hopes to make it to Syracuse for the game. "I think Cornell has a very good chance," he said. "They have great talent, they're well-coached, they play great defense and they have a 7-footer" -- Jeff Foote -- "in the middle. That takes a lot of pressure off their shooters, [Ryan] Wittman and [Louis] Dale."
Durkac will watch on television.
"I picked Cornell on my bracket to beat Temple and Wisconsin," he said. "I think they have a good chance against Kentucky."
"I picked Kentucky to win," he said, sheepishly.
It's the smart pick, really.
Of course, it seemed like the smart pick 43-some years ago, too.
All these years later ...
First Published March 24, 2010 12:00 am