Faculty request to remove Adolph Rupp’s name from Kentucky basketball arena leads to ‘complicated’ discussion

Just before we ended our conversation, I asked professor Derrick White if there was anything we hadn’t covered that he wanted to be sure was discussed. His response began with, “There are other points in this request.”

Indeed, when the faculty of the African American and Africana Studies department at the University of Kentucky wrote to president Eli Capiluoto, they made 10 suggestions designed to improve race relations and the experience for African-Americans on campus. Everyone involved surely had to be aware, though, that the other nine would be overwhelmed by their call to rename Rupp Arena.

In a publicity battle between high-profile sports and significant educational concerns, sports wins every time. There is a legion of politicians that has recognized this, forcing its way onto the stage by feigning interest in intercollegiate athletics issues or making one of those phony championship-series bets.

I wish the faculty’s points about requiring all UK students to take a course on “Race and Inequality” and appointing more Black faculty and staff members to leadership positions were gaining more attention. Because the call for the removal of Adolph Rupp’s name from the building in which the Wildcats play their home games not only is assured to attract greater interest, it’s also the one item that is most debatable.

Was Adolph Rupp such a horrific racist to warrant the same posthumous treatment as a Confederate leader such as Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson?

White’s response to Sporting News, in a word: Yes.

He points to “numerous accounts, on the record, that Adolph Rupp used the N-word.” He cites that no African-American played for Rupp at Kentucky prior to Thomas Payne arriving at UK in 1969, whereas Perry Wallace broke Southeastern Conference basketball’s color line in 1967 and arrived on the Vanderbilt campus in 1966, the same year Nate Northington enrolled at Kentucky to become the Wildcats’ first Black football player.

“The evidence is pretty clear that Adolph Rupp, while not a virulent, probably, segregationist, was actually the most powerful coach in basketball and was one of the slowest to desegregate his team in the SEC,” White told SN. “When you look at him in a total context, we see there is a tremendous amount of evidence.”

Matthew Maurer’s response to Sporting News, in a word: No.

It is the context of the discussion that bothers Maurer, an NBA Draft and basketball historian who publishes his work at TheDraftReview.com.

Maurer mentioned that long before recruiting Payne to attend UK, Rupp worked hard to sign Wes Unseld in 1964, well in advance of Wallace’s entry to the SEC. Unseld chose to sign at Louisville, which played against integrated teams in the Missouri Valley Conference, and later expressed that he didn’t believe he had the temperament to be a pioneer and cope with racist abuse that certainly awaited him at SEC road games.

Rupp pursued star guard Butch Beard a year later. The great Frank Deford, writing in Sports Illustrated, described UK as “falling all over itself” to recruit Beard. He instead chose to join Unseld with the Cardinals.

If he’d landed Unseld, Rupp would not have taken the floor in the NCAA championship game in 1966 with an all-white starting five against the all-black lineup of Texas Western. Because Unseld would have beaten out someone. Anyone.

Had UK had lost in the 1966 semis to Duke, it would have been Vic Bubas who fielded an all-white team in that final, an event that played a significant role in Rupp gaining a reputation as a racist and was inflamed by how he was portrayed in the 2006 movie about that game, “Glory Road.”

“I see both sides of the argument. My thing is, I always try to put myself in the context of the time. I think for any white man born in 1901 in the deep South, to 2020 standards, you probably would be considered racist,” Maurer told SN. “But there were things Rupp did that would be very hard to say he was a racist to his peers. It’s been documented that he actually held coaching clinics and did teach some of the Black high school coaches in that area.

“I think in 1960, if you asked racists if Rupp was a racist, they probably would say no. He never showed himself to be a friend of racists. If he was a real racist, (then) the Civil Rights Era was his time to shine. And we have no evidence of him behaving like that.”

Rupp essentially invented Kentucky basketball. Hired by the school in 1930, he remained head coach until 1972 and won 876 games, which stood as a record for 25 years until it was passed by North Carolina’s Dean Smith. Rupp won four NCAA championships and six times reached the Final Four. He died in 1977, not long after the opening of Rupp Arena.

Dick Gabriel is a UK graduate who spent two decades as a sports anchor in the Lexington market and now hosts a sports talk show there. He admits to accepting the general impression of Rupp as a racist for years; he wasn’t particularly thrilled to have that blight on the program he followed as a kid.

Years later, he was handed a newspaper article by Tom Leach, the voice of Kentucky, about Rupp showing an interest in the recruitment of African-American Kentucky high school star Jim Tucker in 1950.

“I said: ‘Wait a minute. This doesn’t add up,'” Gabriel told SN.

Kentucky high school sports were segregated until 1956, but Rupp went to see Tucker play at the Black state tournament in Frankfort in 1950 and promised to recommend him to coaching friends in the North. Rupp called Duquesne, and Tucker became a two-time All-American and later was one of the first Black players to win an NBA championship.

What Gabriel learned about Rupp in that article prompted him to do more extensive research, and he put that work into a 2005 documentary, “Adolph Rupp: Myth, Legend and Fact.” And there were some stunning revelations included.

According to the film, Rupp suggested Kentucky leave the SEC in the early 1960s and compete as an independent so he could have the freedom to recruit Black players. The SEC had a “gentleman’s agreement” in place not to recruit them. Many independent programs were thriving then, mostly Catholic schools such as Marquette, Dayton and Notre Dame. UK’s president declined Rupp’s request.

Gabriel said Rupp not only recruited Beard and Unseld prior to Payne’s enrollment, the coach watched Unseld play 14 times, which is 14 more than he saw all-time UK great Dan Issel. Rupp also wanted future All-American Jim McDaniels in 1967; McDaniels told UK legend Mike Pratt that he chose Western Kentucky because it was obvious the Hilltoppers wanted him more — they bought him a car.

“When this documentary first came out, there was quite a bit of reaction and response, but it was nothing like it is now,” Gabriel said. “I kind of expected a little more debate and back and forth and controversy back then.”

He said one African-American friend who watched said, “Now I know who the real villains are.”

“Some of Rupp’s friends and boosters had an intervention to try to stop him from signing Wes Unseld. Those were the villains,” Gabriel said. “The night before Tom Payne’s first game, they were in his hotel room until 4 in the morning trying to get him not to start him.”

Gabriel said he does not doubt Rupp used inappropriate language. He said he is uncomfortable being positioned as the defender of Rupp’s legacy, that he merely wants those engaging in the debate to be aware of the facts, not the just the reputation.

“I set out just to tell a story, as a journalist,” Gabriel said, “and now I’m being lumped in with a lot of folks who are pointing fingers at the African-American community and saying, ‘You people.’ And that ain’t me.

“Anything that happens and sparks public discussion is a good thing. Our history as it’s being taught right now has been whitewashed. Anything that has the potential to open people’s minds is good.”

White said he looked at Rupp’s efforts on behalf of Tucker as an effort to help preserve segregation in the South. He did not deny Gabriel’s contention that Rupp advocated for UCLA’s Don Barksdale to become the first Black basketball player on the U.S. Olympic team, in 1948, but said Barksdale had to deal with segregated facilities while a team member and that Rupp “didn’t use that experience at the ’48 Olympics to come back and advocate strongly and use his position” to promote desegregation.

“In the 1960s,” White said, “Rupp had survived a point-shaving scandal — how many coaches in the ’50s survived the point-shaving scandal and keep coaching? — and with this kind of power and administration support refuses to sign” a Black player?

White said Rupp’s pursuit of Unseld was essentially designed to fail because “the history of recruiting black players in the South in the 1960s almost required they be recruited in pairs. Because who would he live with? Who would be his roommate? They had 25 scholarships in 1964, 15 of them were accounted for, they had 11 scholarships to use, and the only Black player they offered was Wes Unseld. … I see this as a halfhearted effort to recruit Wes Unseld.”

White grew up in Lexington, earned his Ph.D. at Ohio State and has written three books, including one on Black college football and Florida A&M coach Jake Gaither titled “Blood, Sweat & Tears.” He returned to Kentucky from Dartmouth and became a professor of History and African American and Africana Studies.

“When we talk among ourselves, they tell us the same kinds of stories about Adolph Rupp,” White said. “It is widely known that the kind of racism that permeated this campus, he was very much a part of it.

“My argument is, it’s not about this being a contentious issue. It’s about us being a forward-thinking university,” White said. He said the department is not looking to “erase” Rupp’s legacy as a basketball coach. “His banner would still stay in the arena. His wins would not be erased from the record books. His titles will be there. But we’re having an honest reckoning and accounting.

“If we can’t view these men, primarily men, with the kind of critical lens we are trying to tell our students they must use in their work and their scholarship and their learning — if we don’t apply that same lens to Rupp — then we are doing a disservice to our students, and we’re doing a particular disservice to our Black students and students of color.”

It is a compelling discussion, although there is no doubt its presence in the document presented to the university by the African American and Africana department faculty is obscuring their broader points about representation and progress for minorities on the UK campus.

One thing White said in our conversation on which both sides can agree: “The historical record is complicated.”

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