2006 Winners Writing
First Place Writing - Sports
Benjamin Roberts - University of Kentucky
Adolph Rupp: A disputed legacy

Originally published on March 10, 2005

The Baron of the Bluegrass. The Man in the Brown Suit.

The architect of Kentucky basketball.

In the 41 seasons that Adolph Rupp paced the sidelines as the head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats, several nicknames became associated with him. But one word continues to haunt his legacy to this day. Racist.

From his arrival in Lexington in 1930 to his last game in 1972, Rupp accumulated 876 wins, captured 27 Southeastern Conference titles and led the Cats to four national championships.

But in spite of those accomplishments, some remember Rupp for his role in a game that would forever change the public's perception of race in college athletics, and his failure to recruit a black player to UK until the end of his career.

A series of articles written in the years following Rupp's death in 1977 led basketball fans who weren't familiar with the UK coach to believe he was a racist, and future press reports perpetuated that notion. Many of the sources used in those stories appear to have had no personal relationship with Rupp.

A movie due out in the coming months will chronicle the 1966 national championship game between UK and Texas Western, and many of those who were close to the legendary coach are clamoring to tell their story of that game and the man who came out on the losing end of it in more ways than one.

Rupp's early success

Adolph Frederick Rupp was born Sept. 2, 1901, on a small farm in Halstead, Kan. One of six children born to German immigrants Heinrich and Anna Rupp, Adolph spent the first years of his life in poverty. At an early age, Rupp found an outlet in the game of basketball.

After emerging as a model student and standout player for Halstead High School, Rupp enrolled at Kansas University, where he majored in economics and history and played for Forrest "Phog" Allen, one of the game's most revered college coaches.

Rupp graduated with honors, went on to earn a master's degree from Columbia University and landed his first head coaching job at Freeport High School in Illinois.

There, Rupp incorporated the techniques he learned from Allen to lead the team to a 59-21 record in four years without a losing season.

It was his achievements at the high school, coupled with his strict discipline and a devotion to the academics of his players, that earned Rupp the head coaching job at UK in 1930.

The 28-year-old inherited a team that had gone 16-3 the previous season under John Mauer, who left the school after three years because of a contract dispute with UK administration.

Mauer had generated a new interest in the team in his time in Lexington - Alumni Gym was regularly filled to capacity - but no one could have expected the lasting impact Rupp would have on the university and the game itself.

The Baron arrives

In Rupp's first game as the head coach of the Wildcats, it was clear the team and its fans were in store for something they had never seen. The 67 points the Cats scored against Georgetown in the season opening victory were the most in the history of the program.

In the gym, the school's administrators had found someone who could build a winning tradition and excite the fans with a revolutionary style of basketball.

But off the court, they had also hired a man who would make sure his players followed the rules of the school and represented the institution in a positive light.

Rupp's players and assistant coaches say he was a strict disciplinarian whose practices were akin to military drills, and a man who wouldn't put up with disobedience at any level.

"He was demanding," said Larry Conley, who played for Rupp from 1963 to '66 and is now a commentator for ESPN. "He was tough on those who could take it, and he was encouraging to those who needed it. And while he was tough on you and asked a lot of his players, he also asked a lot of himself."

Rupp approached the game with a business like attitude, studying the intricacies of the sport for hours, and creating offensive styles and defensive sets that had never been used.

He expected his players to take the same approach to their academics.

Claude Vaughan started tutoring UK basketball players in 1958 and soon after was asked by Rupp to become the program's trainer and academic adviser while he was an economics instructor at the university.

Vaughan said Rupp regularly spoke at academic functions and on several occasions recruited faculty on behalf of the UK business and medical schools.

Rupp would set aside one practice in the fall semester and open it to members of the faculty and staff.

During that practice, Vaughan said the coach would go down the line and introduce each of his players to those in attendance.

"Now if you have any of these boys in class and they miss class, you pick up the phone and call me," Rupp told the faculty members. "They won't miss any more."

He wasn't kidding.

Vaughan recalled one instance during Mike Casey's freshman year when he caught Kentucky's reigning Mr. Basketball cutting a class.

Vaughan took Casey to see assistant coach Harry Lancaster, and then the three went to meet with Rupp.

The UK head coach picked up the phone and called Casey's father, a deputy sheriff in nearby Shelby County. Twenty minutes later Deputy Casey arrived on campus with sirens blaring.

"We never had any more trouble out of Mike Casey," Vaughan said laughing.

By his senior year in 1971, Casey was an Academic All-American.

While Rupp made sure his players were productive members of the UK student community, his teams enjoyed unprecedented success on the basketball court.

The Cats won the national championship in each of their first four Final Four appearances - the most of any school up until that point - and the state became synonymous with Adolph Rupp and UK basketball.

It was Kentucky's fifth Final Four appearance, in 1966, that changed the manner in which Rupp and Kentucky basketball were viewed by those outside the state.

The Texas Western game

The Cats arrived in College Park, Md., in March 1966 as the No. 1 team in the country and the favorites to win a record fifth national championship. "Rupp's Runts" - as the team's starting five of Larry Conley, Pat Riley, Louie Dampier, Tom Kron and Thad Jaracz were commonly known - had unexpectedly followed up Rupp's worst year as a head coach with a 24-1 record in the regular season.

After dispatching Dayton and Michigan in the opening rounds of the 16-team NCAA Tournament, the Cats defeated Duke 83-79 to set up a game with No. 3 Texas Western for the national championship.

Aside from obviously being the most important game of the season, the UK-Texas Western matchup provided a subplot that, though it was widely ignored at the time, has since become engrained in the lore of college basketball.

Texas Western was the first team to reach the national championship game with a starting lineup that featured five black players. And the fact that Rupp's Wildcats included no black players made the story even bigger in the years after the game.

But for the players and coaches who participated in the contest, race was never an issue.

"That's one of the misconceptions of that game," Conley said. "It was as if we all of the sudden showed up and started playing against black basketball players. We'd been playing against black basketball players for years."

Conley pointed out that the Michigan team the Cats defeated in the quarterfinals of the tournament showcased four black starters and that Rupp had been scheduling teams with black players since the 1940s - something few coaches in the South did at that time.

The approach to the game was the same from Texas Western head coach Don Haskins.

"If I told you I thought about us playing five black players - I'd be lying," Haskins said. "I was interested in winning, and that was the only thing that was on my mind."

Texas Western did win - 72-65 behind a 20-point performance by Miners guard Bobby Joe Hill - but the social implications of the victory didn't sink in until years later.

"From my side, I had just lost a national championship," Conley said. "All of the racial ramifications were secondary to that. And to this day, it still mystifies me that all of that was made over that game."

Though Haskins said his team had been the target of verbal abuse and racial slurs from opposing players during that season, he never heard one derogatory comment from Rupp or his players before, during or after the game.

And the one aspect of the game he said he would always remember took place after the contest.

"Every one of those young guys - Pat Riley and the whole bunch - after the game came down to shake hands with our players. And they came to our end of the floor," Haskins said. "Everybody wants to talk about the black and white thing - well, there it is. It was just a basketball game."

But it was a basketball game that would turn Adolph Rupp from a coach who was simply disliked outside of Kentucky because he won more than anyone else, to a coach who was hated because he was seen as a bigot who didn't want black players at the most celebrated program in the country.

A stigma many feel will be perpetuated by an upcoming feature film that centers on the 1966 national championship.

Rupp hits the big screen

Glory Road, a movie co-starring Academy Award winner Jon Voight as Rupp, is already in post-production with Jerry Bruckheimer Films. The movie will focus primarily on the obstacles the Texas Western basketball team overcame on its march to the national championship, but will also incorporate Rupp into many of the scenes, something that concerns those who knew him.

Former UK head coach Joe B. Hall took over for Rupp in 1972 and was an assistant coach during the 1966 season when the Cats lost to Texas Western. He is afraid the film will attempt to perpetuate the view of Rupp as a racist to add to the entertainment value.

"The producers of this movie have an agenda of what they want this movie to be," Hall said. "Without the negativity, it would be a feel-good story, and they're not interested in that. They're looking for a controversial issue. 

"Coach Rupp is going to suffer, and his family is going to suffer."

The film's director, James Gartner, said race will play a "fairly significant part" in the movie but promised Rupp would not come away looking like a racist.

"I don't believe anyone will leave the theater believing Rupp was a racist at all," Gartner said. "I think Rupp simply represents a game that was changing. He's not portrayed as a racist in this film whatsoever."

Gartner received the script during last year's NCAA Tournament and said the importance of the story is what enticed him to join the project. He said he was unaware of the 1966 game before seeing the script and did not know much about Rupp before he started working on the movie, which has no release date yet.

Haskins, who makes a cameo appearance in the film and observed some of its production, recently questioned the factual content of some parts of the movie.

"It's certainly not a documentary that we're shooting," Gartner said. "Is it exactly accurate to everything that happened to Don and his team? No. There's certainly some license."

While the film will undoubtedly compare Texas Western's all-black starting lineup to UK's all-white squad, it won't depict Rupp's attempts to make Kentucky the first school in the Southeastern Conference to showcase a black player.

Recruiting and racism in the South

For years Rupp was pressured to make UK the first SEC school to recruit a black player, but the coach always contended he could not take black players into SEC cities because of the segregation laws still in effect there.

Russell Rice was the sports editor of the Lexington Leader in the early '60s, and one of those who called on Rupp to start recruiting black players at UK.

"You go down there Russ - you see the black and white water fountains and the balconies in theaters where they make the black kids go in the back," Rupp told Rice after the Lexington Leader published an article critical of the coach. "We can't even put them up anywhere when we go down South."

But many felt Rupp should have been at the forefront in the effort to integrate college basketball in the South.

While Rupp maintained he couldn't recruit black players to Kentucky, he did help Lexington's black community in other ways.

Rice said the UK coach used his contacts to get black players scholarships to universities in the North, held clinics for black referees and allowed the basketball team from the all-black Dunbar High School to practice in Alumni Gym.

Rupp even coached a black player on his first team at Freeport High School in 1926.

Rice once asked Rupp about that player.

"So what?" Rupp replied. "The kid was black. He could play."

Vaughan said he believes if the racism in the South had been eliminated sooner, Rupp would have had no problem coaching black players.

"If he'd have been coaching in the Big Ten, we would have started recruiting black players years before," Vaughan said. "But you can't get away from this Southern heritage as long as we're in the SEC."

But the racism wasn't limited to Oxford, Miss., and Auburn, Ala.

Lexington had its own racial problems, and many UK basketball fans at the time didn't want to see their team integrated. Rice said some even sent Rupp letters threatening him if he ever signed a black player.

UK was playing a game in the Midwest once, and Vaughan remembered Rupp being impressed with Art White - a black referee from the Big Ten.

On the ride back to Lexington, Rupp told Vaughan he wanted to invite White down to officiate in the following season's UK Invitational Tournament.

"I think it's a great idea," Vaughan said.

"Well, I wonder what all those damn bigots in Lexington will think about it," Rupp replied.

Rupp was also under pressure from the other side. Some people pressured the coach to recruit a black player even if he didn't have the necessary skills to play at UK.

Vaughan said this notion upset Rupp.

"I might have the reputation of being mean, but I'm not that mean," Rupp told Vaughan. "I'm not going to put some kid on the end of the bench and hurt his feelings and his parents' feelings just so we can have a token.

"I'm going to recruit a black kid, and I'm going to recruit one who can play."

If Rupp had had his way, that player would have been Wes Unseld.

In 1964, Unseld was the undisputed king of high school basketball in the state of Kentucky. The 6-foot-7 Unseld had led Louisville's Seneca High School to two straight state championships and, in the process, drew the attention of major colleges across the nation.

Although no SEC school had ever successfully recruited a black player, Rupp decided to go after the superstar from Louisville, two years before his team's loss to Texas Western. 

Rupp's objective was hampered by the behavior of basketball fans in Lexington when Unseld and his team played in the state tournament in Memorial Coliseum.

Rupp and Rice were both in attendance for the game.

"I was there - they booed him," Rice recalled. "It was embarrassing. It was embarrassing to Rupp, and it was embarrassing to the UK administration. (Rupp) just said it wasn't right, and he didn't know why they were booing."

Unseld let it be known during the process that he did not want to be the first black player at UK or in the SEC.

Conley played against Unseld's older brother in high school and drove from Lexington to Louisville to see the potential recruit.

"Wes said to me, 'I don't want to be the first one,' " Conley said. "And I understood that. I fully understood what it was going to be like for him to travel down there and receive all of those racial slurs. But I was still trying to get him to be the first one to come."

One year later, Butch Beard led Breckinridge High School to the state championship, and Rupp once again took interest in a black player.

The UK coach traveled to Beard's home twice, but the player said Rupp came off as aloof, and he couldn't tell how interested he was. Rupp also warned the potential recruit of the hatred he would encounter when traveling through the South.

"He came in and communicated to me that, although he'd like to have me, it was going to be tough," Beard said. "But he said he would do everything he could to protect me."

Although he had visited recruits in their homes before, it was not a practice Rupp was used to.

"Rupp was aloof about recruiting," Rice said. "He always had that attitude that people should want to come to Kentucky. He was like Notre Dame in football. The mountain came to Mohammad. He didn't recruit - he chose."

But for Beard to become the first black player in the SEC, Rupp was going to have to sell the idea to him, something he hadn't been forced to do in the past.

And although Beard had grown up a fan of UK basketball, the pressure from both sides proved to be too much.

"There was pressure from everybody in the state of Kentucky," Beard said. "There were people that I'd never met before that would come up and say they wished I would go. There were people who knocked on my door and told me I'd better not go. 

"As a 17-year-old from Breckinridge County - a little country boy - it was a very tough decision to make."

Beard ultimately joined Unseld at Louisville but said his decision had nothing to do with a perception that Rupp was prejudiced.

"I'm not calling him a racist, don't even go down that road," Beard said. 

Both Unseld and Beard went on to be All-Americans, and Unseld was recently honored as one of the 50 greatest players in the history of the NBA.

Several more black players after Beard would choose other schools over UK in the next few years, but Rupp - and those putting the pressure on him - would finally find their man.

The Tom Payne signing

On June 9, 1969, Rice - then UK's sports information director - and Joe B. Hall traveled with Rupp to Louisville to watch Tom Payne sign with Kentucky and become the first black player in the history of UK basketball.

"We went to his house - Joe Hall, Adolph and I," Rice said. "We got there a little early, and we had to drive around the block - because Rupp never liked being early. He didn't want to seem too eager."

Once in the Payne home, the three chatted with Payne and his parents and shared some cookies and coffee. Then the letter was signed, and they went back to Lexington.

Hall said Rupp treated it like any other signing, and Payne's parents didn't once inquire about their son's safety.

"He was seven feet tall," Hall said. "I guess they figured if something happened he could take care of himself."

Vanderbilt's Perry Wallace had become the first black player in the conference two years earlier and - as Rupp and others predicted - encountered racial slurs, thrown objects and even physical abuse on the court when traveling to other SEC cities.

Payne wouldn't have to blaze the trail through the South, but that didn't mean the trip would be easy.

The player was booed by Memorial Coliseum fans during his first game at the UKIT, and was met with racial slurs when he traveled on the road.

"(Rupp) raised all kinds of hell about the way they treated Tom," Vaughan said. "He didn't want any of his players mistreated. He was very sensitive about that."

After sitting out his first season at UK because of an NCAA rule barring freshmen from varsity competition, Payne started his sophomore year by dominating teammate Mark Soderberg in the season-opening intra-squad scrimmage. Payne had clearly emerged as the best center on UK's roster.

But Rupp encountered pressure from some back in Lexington to start Soderberg in the first regular season game against Northwestern. And Vaughan himself received letters with Lexington postmarks containing racist and threatening language.

Vaughan remembered staying up with Rupp until the early hours of the morning as he decided which player to start.

"There was enormous pressure from people that Coach Rupp thought were his friends not to play Tom Payne," Vaughan said. "But I knew he was going to do the right thing - and he did.

"But it disturbed him that so many people who he thought were his friends would try to influence him like that. Not only did he resent it, but he never forgot it."

Rupp did start Payne in that game - a 115-100 UK victory - and the sophomore center went on to average 16.9 points and 10.1 rebounds in his only season as a Wildcat before turning pro. 

Rupp was forced to leave UK one year later because of the university's mandatory retirement age policy, but the Payne signing wasn't enough to keep his critics from branding him a racist.

Rupp's legacy

Adolph Rupp died Dec. 10, 1977, while the team he coached for 41 seasons was on its way to a 73-66 victory in Lawrence, Kan., playing in an arena named for the UK coach's mentor, against the school where he spent four years learning about basketball and life.

After Rupp's death, the cries of racism and bigotry grew louder. Magazine articles were written, and documentaries were made that portrayed the coach as unreceptive toward black players, most without the participation of those who knew him best.

"Absolutely no one that I ever knew thought about him in that respect," Hall said. "I think he had proven he was not a racist. It was those people that didn't know him and had not talked to people that were close to him that assumed that."

The articles written about Rupp in the years shortly after his death were among the first to claim he was a racist and either used incorrect information or sources with no direct connection to the coach, according to those who knew him.

One quote long used by Rupp's critics to prove he was a racist was actually uttered by Lexington Herald sports editor Billy Thompson during a banquet following the Texas Western loss. 

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently reprinted the quote with the correct attribution.

"At least we're the No. 1 white team in the country," Thompson told the crowd, but Rupp was wrongly credited with the quote.

The misinformation given in these stories and others was used again and again in later books and articles, and the legend of Rupp as a racist continued to grow.

An article posted on Slate.com just last week named UK as one of the top 10 teams to hate in this year's NCAA Tournament, listing "the long, racist legacy of famed coach Adolph Rupp" as a reason.

Those who knew Rupp best said his incredible success and gruff personality earned him many enemies in his 42 years as head coach of the Cats - which probably led to many of the "Rupp is a racist" articles.

"Rupp always said, 'When you're on top of the mountain, they're always going to try to knock you off,'" Rice recalled. "He rode roughshod over the South for so long. He got better arenas, better teams and better coaches, and he won all those championships. So he was a pretty good target."

While the upcoming movie Glory Road could potentially perpetuate the perception that Rupp was a racist, Hall feels it could also be an opportunity for his supporters to tell of the Rupp they knew.

Vaughan remembers Rupp as a good friend and charitable man who donated heavily to the Shriners Children's Hospital and regularly visited the children there.

Rice had an office across the hall from Rupp, and said the coach was "one of the best guys I ever worked for."

Conley said there were days as a player when he had his share of disagreements with Rupp, but he has never questioned the coach's character.

"I don't think - honestly in my heart - that Coach Rupp was a racist," he said. "I just don't think that. And as long as I live and have conversations with people about him, I don't mind standing up and stating my position."

But Conley acknowledges that, with everything said about Rupp in recent years, reversing the claim that he was a racist may be an impossible task.

"I think it has been so engrained in so many people that - for it to change now - I think it would be most difficult," he said. "But for those of us who knew him, I can rest my conscience in knowing that he was not a racist. And I am not going to be convinced otherwise."

In His Own Words

Coach Adolph Rupp was known for his colorful comments on and off the court.

"I know I have plenty of enemies, but I'd rather be 

the most-hated winning coach 

in the country than the 

most-popular losing one." 

Rupp on winning

"I don't care if your 

girlfriend leaves you or 

your pet rabbit dies. I just care 

if you produce for me on the 

basketball court." 

Rupp on dedication

"The fans are real bad some places we play down South. They're worse than anywhere at Mississippi State. The last time we played down there, they'd put a dead skunk under my bench. I know that boys will be boys. But must idiots be idiots?" 

Rupp on opposing fans

"If they don't bump their heads when they come in, I don't even bother shaking their hands."

Rupp on recruiting, 

referring to the top of the door frame to his office

"If they don't let me coach, they might as well take me to the Lexington Cemetery."

Rupp on retirement

"You darned sportswriters are all alike. Every time I come to Georgia, you misquote me in the papers. You get the fans riled up with lies, and then they come out and boo me."

Rupp on the media

source: Baron of the Bluegrass by Mike Embry


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