Rupp was born September 2, 1901 in Halstead, Kansas to Heinrich Rupp, a German immigrant, and Anna Lichi, an Austrian immigrant. The fourth of six children, Rupp grew up on a 163-acre farm that his parents had homesteaded. He began playing basketball as a young child, with the help of his mother who made a ball for him by stuffing rags into a gunnysack. "Mother sewed it up and somehow made it round," he recalled in 1977. "You couldn't dribble it. You couldn't bounce it either."
Rupp was a star for the Halstead High School basketball team, one of the first in the area to play with a real basketball. He averaged 19 points a game. Former teammates described Rupp as the team's unofficial coach.
After high school, Rupp attended the University of Kansas from 1919 to 1923. He worked part-time at the student Jayhawk Cafe to help pay his college expenses. He was a reserve on the basketball team under legendary coach Forrest "Phog" Allen from 1919 to 1923. Assisting Allen during that time was his former coach and inventor of the game of basketball, James Naismith, who Rupp also got to know well during his time in Lawrence.
In Rupp's junior and senior college seasons (1921–22 and 1922–23), Kansas (KU) had outstanding basketball squads. Later, both of these standout Kansas teams would be awarded the Helms National Championship, recognizing the Jayhawks as the top team in the nation during those seasons.
He received a MA from Teachers College, Columbia University.
Rupp began his career in coaching by accepting a teaching job at Burr Oak High School, Kansas. After a one-year stay, Rupp moved on to Marshalltown, Iowa, where he coached wrestling, a sport he knew nothing about at the time and learned from a book. He did lead the Marshalltown team to a state wrestling title in 1926.
In 1926–30, Rupp accepted the basketball head coaching position at Freeport High School, (Freeport, Illinois) where he also taught history and economics. During his four years at Freeport, Rupp compiled a record of 66-21 and guided his team to a third-place finish in the 1929 state tournament. While at Freeport High School Rupp started William "Mose" Mosely, the first African-American to play basketball at Freeport and the second to graduate from the school.
University of Illinois head basketball coach Craig Ruby was invited to speak at the team banquet following the 1929–30 season. Ruby informed Rupp of the Kentucky head coaching job and followed up by recommending him for the job.
During his time in Freeport, Rupp met his future wife, Esther Schmidt.
Rupp coached the University of Kentucky men's basketball team from 1930 to 1972. There, he gained the nicknames, "Baron of the Bluegrass", and "The Man in the Brown Suit". Rupp's Wildcat teams won four NCAA championships (1948, 1949, 1951, 1958), one National Invitation Tournament title in 1946, appeared in 20 NCAA tournaments, had six NCAA Final Four appearances, captured 27 Southeastern Conference regular season titles, and won 13 Southeastern Conference tournaments. Rupp's Kentucky teams also finished ranked #1 on six occasions in the final Associated Press college basketball poll and four times in the United Press International (Coaches) poll. In addition, Rupp's 1966 Kentucky squad (nicknamed "Rupp's Runts") finished runner-up in the NCAA tournament and Rupp's 1947 Wildcats finished runner-up in the National Invitation Tournament. Rupp's 1933 and 1954 Kentucky squads were also retroactively named national champions by the Helms Athletic Foundation; his 1934, 1947, and 1948 teams were retroactively named the national champion by the Premo-Porretta Power Poll.
In his 41 seasons as UK coach, Rupp coached 32 All-Americans, chosen 50 times, 52 All-SEC players, chosen 91 times, 44 NBA Draft Picks, 2 National Players-of-the-Year, 7 Olympic Gold Medalists, and 4 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame members. He was a 5-time National Coach-of-the-Year award winner, and a 7-time Conference Coach-of-the-Year award winner. Rupp was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, College Basketball Hall of Fame, Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, Kansas Athletic Hall of Fame, University of Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, and Helms Athletic Foundation Hall of Fame. Further, since 1972, the Adolph Rupp Trophy, considered one of the nation's premier basketball awards, has been given by the Commonwealth Athletic Club to the top men's college basketball player. In addition, the University of Kentucky retired a jersey in his honor in the rafters of Rupp Arena, a 23,500-seat arena named after him, dedicated in 1976.
Rupp was forced into retirement in March 1972, at the age of 70. At the time, this was the mandatory retirement age for all University of Kentucky employees.
Rupp was the head coach at Kentucky during the point shaving scandal of 1951. On October 20, 1951, former Kentucky players Alex Groza, Bill Spivey, Ralph Beard, and Dale Barnstable were arrested for taking bribes from gamblers to shave points during the National Invitation Tournament game against the Loyola Ramblers in the 1948–49 season. This game occurred during the same year that Kentucky won their second straight NCAA title under Rupp. Rupp and the university were criticized by the presiding judge, Saul Streit, for creating an atmosphere for the violations to occur and for "failing in his duty to observe the amateur rules, to build character, and to protect the morals and health of his charges". Rupp denied any knowledge of the point shaving and no evidence was ever brought against him to show he was connected to the incident in any way.
At the conclusion of this scandal, a subsequent NCAA investigation found that Kentucky had committed several rule violations, including giving illegal spending money to players on several occasions, and also allowing some ineligible athletes to compete. As a result, the Southeastern Conference voted to ban Kentucky from competing for a year and the NCAA requested all other basketball-playing members not to schedule Kentucky, with eventually none doing so (this is now known as the "death penalty"). In lieu of these actions, Kentucky was forced to cancel the entire 1952–53 basketball season. Years later, Walter Byers, the first executive director of the NCAA, unofficially referred to this punishment as the first de facto NCAA death penalty, despite the current rule first coming into effect in 1985, thus the NCAA having no such enforcement power previous to that. Echoing Mr. Byers' view, the NCAA's official stance is very much the same, as they also state in hindsight, "In effect, it was the Association's first "death penalty," though its enforcement was binding only through constitutional language that required members to compete against only those schools that were compliant with NCAA rules. Despite fears that it would resist, Kentucky accepted the penalty and, in turn, gave the NCAA credibility to enforce its rules."
An important game in Rupp's career was the 1966 NCAA championship game at Cole Field House against Texas Western, coached by Don Haskins. It featured Kentucky's all-white starting five versus Texas Western's all-black starting five as well as occurring at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. The game, which Texas Western won 72-65, helped accelerate the ongoing integration movement in college basketball, as well as the overall recruiting approach of the SEC, ACC, and SWC conferences at large.
Rupp was an early innovator of the fast break and set offense. His offense consisted of 10-15 set plays (with variations for each), complete with extensive offensive movement and screening. Early basketball innovations such as the "guard around" play and inside screen were first developed by Rupp in the 1930s. Likewise, he was an early proponent of the fast break, which his Kentucky teams utilized at every opportunity throughout his career. In addition, for most of his coaching career Rupp's defensive philosophy was largely exclusive, as he preferred only a tight man-to-man defense. However, during the 1963–64 season, Rupp became one of the first coaches to begin experimenting with the trapping 1-3-1 zone defense, and his Kentucky teams utilized this defense at times for the remainder of his career. Throughout his time at Kentucky, Rupp's recruiting focused largely on local and regional talent. In fact, over 80% of Rupp's Kentucky players came from the state of Kentucky.
Rupp strongly emphasized the fundamentals of basketball, both on offense and defense, and overall discipline. Rupp believed that excellence was achieved only through repetition, and his practices stressed individual instruction, precision, and continuity. Rupp was very demanding of his players, constantly putting extreme pressure on them in practice, and mercilessly berating them for any mistakes.
Rupp, a very superstitious man, was known to carry a "lucky" buckeye in his pocket. His favorite sign of good luck was finding a pin, especially a bobby pin, particularly on a game day. The depth of his superstitious nature was revealed while he was coaching at Freeport, when he had bought a new blue suit to replace his old brown one. He wore his new suit to a game, and his team got beaten badly. Rupp never again wore anything but a brown suit to games.** Record includes SEC playoff tiebreaker games
The team did not play in the 1952–53 season because of involvement in a point shaving scandal.
In April 1972, Rupp was named Team President of the Memphis Pros, soon to become the Memphis Tams, of the American Basketball Association.
In June 1973 Rupp quit as Tams president, calling the ABA "bush league" and saying it "would never survive". Three months later, Rupp was hired as Vice President of the Board of the Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association.
Rupp died of spinal cancer at age 76 in Lexington, Kentucky, on December 10, 1977, on a night when Kentucky defeated his alma mater, Kansas, at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas. The game that night was promoted as "Adolph Rupp Night". He is buried in Lexington Cemetery. The University of Kentucky and head coach Joe B. Hall, a long time Rupp assistant, honored Rupp's memory by winning the 1978 NCAA Tournament less than four months after his death. Rupp Arena, the current home of the Kentucky men's basketball team, is named in his honor.