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Dick Gabriel: Let me interrupt your misperceptions about Adolph Rupp with some facts on the race issue

Given the climate in America today when it comes to race relations, it was inevitable that a debate would open up about Rupp Arena and its namesake.

To many, the thought of Adolph Rupp still kindles the notion not of basketball, but of racism and segregation.

It did in me, starting in the mid-‘60s when I began following college basketball. I couldn’t stand the notion of the guy coaching a team I rooted for, fighting to keep his roster all-white.
That all changed for me in 2005, when I researched, wrote, produced and directed the documentary, Adolph Rupp: Myth, Legend and Fact.

Dick Gabriel

What had started as a two-minute TV piece on an African American ballplayer Rupp championed in 1950 became a two-hour presentation, thanks to information that kept becoming available.
 You can find the doc on Amazon; allow me to streamline it here for you:

• In 1929, when he got the call from UK, Rupp was coaching a high school team in Illinois, which included a black player;

• In 1948, Rupp was instrumental in placing Don Barksdale of UCLA on the U.S. Olympic team, making him the first black basketball player on Team USA. Rupp urged his players to watch Barksdale during the Olympic Trials and study the way he played;

• The aforementioned ballplayer in 1950 was Jim Tucker, who recently passed. A star at all-black Paris Western HS, Tucker caught the eye of Rupp, who wanted him at UK but was prevented from signing him by Jim Crow laws in the South. The SEC was segregated. Rupp saw to it that Tucker went to college (Duquesne), where Tucker became an All-American and later an NBA champion.

• In 1960, Rupp offered a job to a high school coach named Neil Reed, a white man who taught at a black school in Cincinnati. Rupp told Reed he wanted to sign black players and that Reed would be his chief recruiter. Reed signed on in 1962.

• Rupp announced publicly that UK would begin to recruit blacks. The southern media blasted him, fearing it would open the doors to blacks playing football in the SEC.

• Rupp asked then-UK president Dr. Frank Dickey for permission to leave the SEC so he could recruit black players. The UK Board of Directors, fearful it would not be able to fill Memorial Coliseum if it didn’t play traditional SEC opponents, denied his request.

• In 1961, Dr. Dickey, serving as president of the SEC, informally polled the league presidents about ending the “gentlemen’s agreement” in place, which banned the recruitment of black athletes. It was overwhelmingly rejected. In 1962, Dickey put it to a formal vote and again, the move was overwhelmingly voted down.

• Rupp and Reed both received death threats over the recruitment of blacks, more than a hundred, which were turned over to the FBI.

• Reed aided Rupp in the 1964 recruitment of Louisville prep star Wes Unseld. They saw Unseld play 13 times. Number of times Rupp watched Dan Issel play in high school: Zero. They offered a scholarship to Unseld, but he chose UofL.

• In 1965, Kentucky Mr. Basketball Butch Beard verbally committed to UK, but on signing day changed his mind and signed with Louisville (otherwise, we wouldn’t be having this conversation).

• Jim McDaniels, a high school star from the western end of the state, on a visit to Lexington told Mike Pratt he would attend UK. Western Kentucky University convinced him at the last minute to sign with the Hilltoppers. McDaniels was later quoted as saying he knew WKU wanted him more because it provided him with a car.

• Ever-mindful of the horrible treatment his white players received from fans when the Wildcats played on the road, Rupp feared for whomever would become UK’s first African American player. (Both Beard and Unseld said Rupp could not assure their parents that their children would be totally safe on the road; keep in mind that it was 1964 when three civil rights activists were kidnapped and murdered in Mississippi).

• Rupp was ordered by new UK president Dr. John Oswald to sign a black player, whether he could contribute to the team or not. Rupp didn’t want a “token;” but what he did want was a star who could help put his team back on top. He believed he needed a Jackie Robinson-type player.

Adolph Rupp

• Former baseball commissioner Albert “Happy” Chandler set up a meeting between Rupp, Reed and Branch Rickey, the man who signed Robinson to a major league contract. He told Rupp he needed a Kentuckian who was a superb athlete, great student and someone capable of withstanding the terrifying verbal attacks sure to come his way. Rupp thought Unseld, and then Beard, had all the qualifications.

• When opposing teams with black players on their rosters came to Lexington, Rupp asked local newspapermen in their preview stories to ask fans to treat them with respect. And he had a standing rule with ushers at Memorial Coliseum: If they heard anyone hurling racial taunts, they were to ask them to stop. If they continued, they were to be escorted from the arena.

Of course, there’s more. It’s all on DVD if you’d like to see it. After the documentary’s initial broadcast in 2005, the Herald-Leader published a fabricated story stating that UK had paid me and WKYT to produce the documentary, thereby dismissing it as propaganda. It was a lie; the writer had begged several people to tell him what he wanted to hear, which of course, they did not. He refused to interview me.

I’m sure the information above will be dismissed by many, for whatever reason. One young man, ripping me on Twitter, said he knows what his grandmother told him and that’s good enough. I’m guessing, his grandmother, like me for all those years, knew nothing about what was actually happening – including criticism of Rupp by the media for even bringing up desegregation, a star player changing his mind at the last minute, death threats and more.

It was after he died that Rupp was accused of using inappropriate language as it related to African Americans. Sadly, too many people back then likely were guilty of that kind of ignorance and insensitivity. But did he actively seek to keep his team segregated? Not only is there no proof that he did, it turns out the opposite was true.

There were certainly villains back then, including the dozens of “friends” and boosters who begged Rupp not to integrate his team. I used to think he was a villain, himself. Not any more.

Dick Gabriel is a long-time Kentucky sports journalist, now host of Sports Talk at Big Blue Insider. He was a reporter, editor, and anchor for WKYT-TV in Lexington for 22 years and is a graduate of the University of Kentucky.

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  1. Donald Koelper says:

    Adolph Rupp served 41 seasons as Kentucky’s basketball coach (1930-72). His 876-190 record and .822 winning percentage speaks for itself. During his tenure, no Black player made the Wildcats’ roster until 1970 long after the SEC broke the color bar. Those are the basic facts.

    Whether Coach Rupp may or may not have been a racist personally is really not the issue here, nor do I dispute that he was a very good basketball coach. But judging by the overall historic record of his time at Kentucky, it’s abundantly clear that Coach Rupp dutifully complied with the then-prevailing but still-immoral status quo of the Jim Crow-era South. Further, he did remarkably little to challenge his own program’s longstanding segregationist culture until ordered to do so at the very end of his long career.

    Adolph Rupp’s token moves toward racial inclusion were exactly that – token. And when even those exceptionally modest moves were met with virulently racist opposition, he’d back down. That obvious desire to go along in order to get along is, I would offer, the primary reason why Adolph Rupp will be forever remembered for merely being a very good basketball coach, rather than for having become a truly great man.

    While I really don’t envy any of you this forthcoming debate over whether or not to change the name of Rupp Arena, it’s a debate that has to happen. Perhaps everyone can start by first taking a deep breath and answering for themselves the following two questions:

    (1) Were it not for his 876 victories, six NCAA Final Four appearances and four national championships, is there anything else about Adolph Rupp’s life which either shows him worthy of such a prestigious honor or precludes him of the same?

    (2) If the decision is made to change the arena’s name, how then should the University of Kentucky honor Mr. Rupp’s career accomplishments as men’s basketball coach, which are admittedly considerable and worthy of recognition?

    Take care.

  2. Tony Gossom says:

    This is not a debate that has to happen unless you’re sucking up to the pc society! The man made what the program is today. If that’s not reason enough to name this arena after him, I don’t know what is!

  3. Tim Shelley says:

    Thanks for setting the record straight. Hopefully the folks wanting to change the name of the Arena will read your words. It would be a horrible mistake to rename it in my opinion

  4. Thomas Gray says:

    The first black basketball player in the SEC was Perry Wallace at Vanderbilt in December 1967. Tom Payne was the first black UK varsity basketball player in December 1970. That’s 3 years later. Hardly “long after” SEC was integrated.

    The first black basketball player at UK was Darryl Bishop in December 1969. He played on the freshman team but switched to football in 1970.

    Rupp was the first SEC or ACC coach to offer a basketball scholarship to a black player, Westley Unseld in 1964.

    The first black basketball player to sign with UK was Felix Thruston of Owensboro in March 1967. He reneged on the scholarship grant-in-aid and went to Trinity TX instead.

    Unseld, Butch Beard, Thruston, and Payne (among others) were hardly “token” recruits. They were among the best basketball players in the state of KY in the 1960s.

    Pesky facts, eh?

  5. Ronald Singleton says:

    This was a very good read and should put the issue to rest. I learned a lot in the few minutes it took to read this. RUPP ARENA is named after one of the best coaches off all time and this proves he tried very hard to recruit black athletes. NEVER, NEVER CHANGE the NAME of RUPP ARENA. It’s our heritage and our BIG BLUE WAY OF LIFE. Don’t ever forget what a recruiting tool that is is. UK WILDCATS FAN TILL DEATH DO ME PART

  6. Joseph Burgess says:

    I wrote the following piece, which appeared on the opinion page of the July 13 print Lexington Herald and on the opinion page of the July 10 online H-L. Headlines written by H-L staffers.

    I think it adds something to the debate about whether or not Adolph Rupp was a racist, which I intended it to do.


    By Joseph Burgess

    In early fall, 1961, shortly after I transferred to the University of Kentucky as an almost-junior from Western Kentucky (then) State College, I went into the Wildcat Grill to have lunch for the first time. The UK-campus eatery was on Euclid Avenue (now Avenue of Champions) about a half block west of Memorial Coliseum and Stoll Field. I selected three favorites: chili, milk, and chocolate pie.

    I found an empty table and started eating and reading a textbook assignment for my next class. Soon I was aware of two people standing beside the table. I looked up into the faces of Adolph Rupp and Harry Lancaster.

    I immediately realized why the table had been empty. It was theirs! I mumbled an apology and started to move. Lancaster said, “Wait a minute,” looked at Rupp, and asked if they should let me stay.

    Rupp drawled, “Wal, yeah. He’s got pretty good taste in food.” I looked at their trays and saw that they had chili, milk, and chocolate pie. They sat down, asked my name and unnecessarily told me theirs, and started eating.

    We chatted as we ate (I mostly listened), and they invited me to sit at their table when I was at the grill. I did so perhaps 10 or so times during the school year, maybe half-a-dozen in their company – every time having the same lunch as I mostly listened.

    On a few occasions they were with another university’s coach. I met Wake Forest’s “Bones” McKinney, a coach from an Ohio school I can’t recall, and DePaul’s Ray Meyer.

    The only conversation among Rupp, Lancaster, and a visiting coach I recall is Rupp lamenting to Meyer his being unable to recruit talented Kentucky Black players he’d like to have play for him.

    Rupp said he just couldn’t submit Black players to the racist-hell-hole environments – segregated hotels and restaurants and racially hostile arena crowds – that existed in those days at the deep-South Southeastern Conference universities and cities.

    I recall that he asked Meyer how he might best approach Black prospects, since Meyer’s teams had Black players. I don’t remember Meyer’s answer but do recall Rupp’s continuing to bring up the problem that the deep-South attitudes toward segregation presented in his being able with good conscience to recruit Black players.

    The tough old UK head coach seems to me not to have been the racist that some sports-news media later painted him to be and that other scribes seem inclined to continue. The most recent is a Herald-Leader columnist who on the front page of the July 5 issue Opinion section suggested that Rupp Arena be renamed because of Rupp’s alleged racism.

    Maybe you had to have been having chili, milk, and chocolate pie for lunch with Coach Rupp on a day almost 60 years ago to have something of a different point of view and to suggest that Rupp Arena’s name is not inappropriate. And there’s always the fact that he’s simply not around to explain the situation that conflicted him, as he did to the now also-late Ray Meyer.

    (Joseph Burgess is a 1964 University of Kentucky graduate who became a UK basketball fan as a sixth-grader in his western Kentucky hometown in 1951. He is twice-retired from careers in media/public relations [including nine years at a historically black university] and marketing communications, and i secondary-school teaching.)

  7. Vickie Slater says:

    Moving forward…the year is 2020. 10 of the 14 starting lineup are black. Hmmm?

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