The cover photo above shows Hugh Durham and Adolph Rupp. On the surface, it’s a younger coach talking to one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history.
The context surrounding that photo contains a much more fascinating story, one which serves as a portal to Hugh Durham’s taste of basketball immortality.
The news broke on Wednesday: Durham, the longtime coach of Florida State and Georgia and the winner of more than 630 games, will enter the College Basketball Hall of Fame. His most famous student tweeted out the news… partly because he’ll be inducted with his coach:
— Dominique Wilkins (@DWilkins21) March 23, 2016
To old-timers or those familiar with the Florida State and Georgia programs, this isn’t news.
To younger generations of fans, the name “Hugh Durham” might elicit the following response:
Who was Hugh Durham? Let’s go back to that photo with Adolph Rupp… and the history of a coach who — in one specific way — truly stands alone in college basketball.
Adolph Rupp — winner of four national titles and maker of six Final Fours at Kentucky (exclusively in an era when the NCAA tournament never included more than 25 teams) — coached Big Blue for more than 40 years. In 1972, at the age of 70, he coached his last season.
In the 1972 NCAA Tournament, Kentucky reached the Elite Eight. The Wildcats’ opponent? Hugh Durham’s Florida State Seminoles.
Durham, who played for FSU in the 1950s, returned to his alma mater as head coach. In more than a full decade as the boss in Tallahassee, Durham lost 10 or more games in only two seasons. His 1970 team went 23-3 but didn’t qualify for the NCAAs. His 1976 and 1978 teams lost only six games apiece. In 1972, though, everything came together. Florida State went 26-4 heading into this clash with Kentucky.
In that photo, Durham and Rupp are chatting in the lead-up to the game.
It would become the last game Rupp ever coached… because Durham won it.
That Florida State busted through to the national championship game of the 1972 NCAA Tournament was remarkable enough. That Hugh Durham defeated Rupp and Dean Smith in the Elite Eight and Final Four is even more eye-popping. Above, Florida State (in maroon) defeated Smith’s North Carolina Tar Heels, a team with two great future pros, Bob McAdoo and Bobby Jones… plus a future NBA head coach named George Karl.
Florida State gained the chance to play UCLA and Bill Walton in the 1972 title game. The Seminoles fell short, but they made the Bruins work for every last minute of an 81-76 win in their home city.
It’s worth framing in a football-related context, since Florida State is so clearly a football school today: Before Bobby Bowden transformed FSU football, Hugh Durham catapulted FSU hoops into prominence.
Unlike Bowden, though, Durham didn’t stay for three decades in Tallahassee. He left after 12 seasons in 1978.
‘Today, Florida State still hasn’t returned to the Final Four, and its only other Elite Eight trip came in 1993, under Pat Kennedy. Only two coaches have led FSU to the Sweet 16 since Durham left: Kennedy and Leonard Hamilton.
Durham remains, without question, the greatest coach in FSU men’s basketball history.
This sets up the next chapter of our story.
Durham went to Georgia in 1978, taking over a program which had never made the NCAA tournament. A number of Southern schools — especially in the SEC — never made a single tournament appearance until the Big Dance expanded to 48 teams in 1980. Georgia was one of those schools. Staying in the SEC, Auburn, Ole Miss, and Florida hadn’t made an NCAA tourney appearance before 1980. Clemson in the ACC was the same.
Durham had taken over one Southern school with no real basketball pedigree and guided it to the Final Four. Could he possibly do the same with Georgia?
Not only did Durham pull off the feat; it took him only five seasons.
Once again, the most impressive thing about Durham’s Final Four run is that he didn’t do it the easy way, with a bombed-out bracket and lower seeds in his path.
As was the case in 1972, Durham had to beat a giant to get to the 1983 Final Four in The Pit at the University of New Mexico. Rupp was his opponent in 1972. Dean Smith and North Carolina were his victims in the Carrier Dome 11 years later. Carolina was a 2 seed; in the Sweet 16, fourth-seeded Georgia had defeated top-seeded St. John’s and Lou Carnesecca:
In the 1983 Final Four, Durham couldn’t get Georgia into the national championship game. North Carolina State rode the magic carpet all the way to Jim Valvano’s unforgettable title. Nevertheless, an identity had been forged in Athens. Durham would use that Final Four run to build four more NCAA tournament teams with the Bulldogs, for a total of five during his tenure. To this day, no other Georgia coach has made more than two NCAA tournaments. Tubby Smith, Jim Harrick, and current coach Mark Fox are all tied.
It’s true that Tubby would have won big had he stayed. (Moreover, he’s the only coach other than Durham to take Georgia to the Sweet 16.) Smith coached Georgia for only two seasons before one of his mentors, Rick Pitino, left Kentucky. Tubby took the job and promptly won the 1998 national title.
Nevertheless, it’s still rather remarkable that at a program where all other coaches have failed to sustain winners — in Tubby’s case, only because he job-hopped — Durham’s the one man who continuously succeeded.
In conclusion, here’s a mic-dropping fact: Regardless of vacated titles or current Division I membership, 91 schools have made a Final Four, 35 of them only once. Of the 35 to go only one time, two — Florida State and Georgia — were taken by the same coach. None of the other 33 one-time schools shared a Final Four coach.
Hugh Durham is not the only man in history to take two schools to the Final Four. He IS, however, the only man to take two schools to the Final Four when those Final Fours are the only ones each school has reached.
Can any coach achieve this in the Sweet 16? Actually, yes. Jim Larranaga could join Durham if he takes Miami to its first Final Four. Larranaga coached George Mason to its only Final Four in 2006.
Hugh Durham is a one-of-a-kind coach… with a two-of-a-kind feat.
Does his career deserve the College Basketball Hall of Fame?
Now you definitely know: It does.