Adolph Rupp: Myth, Legend and Fact
By Dick Gabriel - Sports Manager
What started as an interesting sports story has turned into a mystery. Who was Adolph Rupp, and why have people been saying those horrible things about him?
First, the back story:
Growing up in Louisville , I rooted for the Wildcats. And the Cardinals, and the Hilltoppers, and any team from my home state. But the one thing I knew about UK was that even though I admired Dan Issel, Mike Casey, Mike Pratt and so many others, I didn’t have much use for their coach. After all, Rupp was an avowed racist who wound up losing his job because he refused to recruit black players. He only signed Tom Payne to get the administration off his back. Right?
After enrolling in the UK School of Journalism and ultimately beginning a career in broadcast journalism, I met professionals who told a different tale. The Adolph Rupp they knew was vastly different from the one so easily etched in the minds of impressionable young sports fans.
They confused me with facts, which I stored away in the back of my mind. They’d come to the forefront several years later.
Rupp’s reputation was shadowy, the subject of whispers, until 1991. That’s when Sports Illustrated published an article on the 25th anniversary of the 1966 NCAA Championship game between UK and Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso). It aligned Rupp, literally, with the Ku Klux Klan, casting a deep shadow across the man, his family, his program, the university, and my home state.
I kept thinking about what the guys who’d covered his teams had told me – guys like Billy Reed, Dave Kindred, Dick Fenlon. They had written about Rupp before, and wrote about him again. But the SI piece became the new standard for accuracy, such as it was. After all, if it’s in SI, it must be right. Right?
But I kept hearing things about Rupp, about how he was NOT the man who was being described by writers who never met or knew him. A few years ago I decided it might make a good story for Channel 27, to speak with some people who were around in the 60’s and 70’s.
It became obvious the subject matter called for more than the 90-second treatment most stories get on the evening news. A series of reports? No. How about a documentary? That’s the ticket.
The idea bounced around in my head for a couple of years until I read in one of the trade magazines that a Hollywood production company was going to film the story of the UK-Texas Western game. That was the jump start I needed.
In fall of 2004 I approached WKYT General Manager Wayne Martin with the germ of an idea. I explained what I wanted to do, and how I wanted to approach the topic: straight on, examining some of the accusations made against Rupp through the years. This was NOT going to be an apology, or a tribute to Rupp.
Wayne was enthusiastic about the idea. A former college basketball head coach himself, he’d met Rupp and talked hoops with him. He’d also heard many of the same stories that I had, which contradicted what was being accepted about Rupp as gospel. He gave us the green light, and off we went.
Senior sports videographer Steve Moss and I compiled a list of interview subjects, which kept growing. We conducted the first in December of that year and collected more interviews whenever we could. One of the great challenges was trying to devote time to the project while still performing our daily duties at WKYT.
One of the more surprising angles the story took came courtesy of Tom Leach, the radio voice of the Wildcats. He’d told me a story about an African-American man named Jim Tucker, who grew up in Paris, Ky. (Tom’s home town), playing basketball for Paris Western High School, an all-black school back in the days of segregation.
Rupp saw Tucker play and helped arrange a scholarship for him to Duquesne University , which in the 50’s was a basketball power. Rupp wanted Tucker for his own team but at that time, UK and the Southeastern Conference were segregated as well.
We managed to track down Tucker, who graced us with an interesting interview.
There were many more, as history began to come alive for us. But the most riveting Q & A session we had was with former UK assistant coach Neil Reed.
Even the staunchest UK fans had never heard of Reed; he was an assistant under Rupp from 1962-65. Rupp had hired Reed, who at the time was coaching at an inner city high school in Cincinnati, specifically to spearhead the recruitment of blacks.
Reed now lives in Texas, where he shies away from attention. But he was willing and anxious to talk with us, and spent seven hours telling us stories (only two of which were on camera). He told us how Rupp not only had been unfairly stereotyped, he’d been sold short.
Not only was he NOT a segregationist, according to Reed, Rupp was progressive, backing a move by UK to formally desegregate the SEC in the early 60’s. He even had Reed draw up a mock schedule of northern teams to gauge the difficulty of leaving the conference. Reed said, it wouldn’t have been hard to do, but Dr. Frank Dickey, who was UK ’s president at the time, told us it would not have been economically feasible, and the move was turned down by the Board of Trustees.
We also spoke with Dr. Gerald Smith, a professor of African-American History at UK. He described what the atmosphere was like for blacks in the early 60’s, both in the deep south, and in Lexington – which, he said, was not as progressive back then as some would like to think.
We traveled to Washington, D.C. , to speak with Perry Wallace, the first African-American to play basketball in the Southeastern Conference. We swung north to Baltimore , where we spoke with ex-U of L teammates Wes Unseld and Butch Beard. Both were recruited by Rupp but chose not to be the first to break the color barrier in the SEC.
We also were granted an interview by the legendary Red Auerbach, the architect of the Boston Celtics dynasty and a close friend and colleague of Rupp. Unfortunately, the day before we were to speak to the 87-year-old Auerbach, he contracted an illness and had to cancel. He only recently was cleared by his doctors to resume any activities. But, fortunately, I was able to dig up an old film clip of Auerbach talking about the UK coach, at a banquet in the early 1970’s.
And, of course, we spoke with Rupp’s Runts – all five starters, who told virtually the same story in their own respective ways. They talked of playing for a national championship, against a team they knew little about. They described the heartbreak that came with the loss, and the confusion they felt in later years when writers began to portray the contest in a different light.
The game was described, by one writer, as the “Brown vs. Board of Education” of college basketball. And certainly, five black starters vs. an all-white Kentucky team was quite an historical footnote. But at the time, say the Runts, all they thought about that night was winning a ballgame, not about what color some of their opponents were. They’d played against blacks before. This was just basketball. Revisionist historians would have us believe otherwise.
All of which brings us back to the Hollywood movie, “The Glory Road,” which will be released in early January. I haven’t seen it yet, but I will, and you should do the same – if you’d ordinarily be inclined to see a movie of that genre.
But, naturally, I also urge you to watch our documentary, “Adolph Rupp: Myth, Legend and Fact.”
Know this: it is NOT a response to the film. When I produced this program I had no idea what was in the movie (though I had a good idea. A close friend of mine, a UK grad who works in Hollywood, had seen the script). But it seemed like a natural fit, putting together this project right around the time the movie would be released.
And also understand, our documentary is not a “warm and fuzzy.” It delves into some of the ugly things said and written about Rupp, and about his own failings, which were common to people of his era. He was in his mid- to late-60’s during the 1960’s, a turbulent decade in the history of our country. Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement had forced Americans to look inside themselves.
From what our research told us, Rupp WAS trying to change – himself, his program, the league, but always within the confines of rank and file. He knew he was “Adolph Rupp,” but unlike many college coaches today, he apparently did not consider himself the biggest man on campus. Raised by German immigrants as a Mennonite, he had the same respect for authority he demanded of his own players.
In a way, Rupp could’ve avoided all the controversy that followed him after he’d died, had he been more of a “diva.” One of the common themes in our conversation with Unseld, Beard and Wallace was the lack of involvement by Rupp in their recruitment. At that time, we were told, getting Rupp to leave his office to make a recruiting trip was like waiting on a visit from the Pope. It just didn’t happen very often.
Had he performed the “hard sell” expected of today’s college coaches, Rupp might have signed Beard or Wallace (Unseld said he knew from day one he likely would not be a pioneer). But Rupp found the notion of “begging a kid to take a $10.000 scholarship” distasteful. He never did embrace the practice, being a product of his time, in so many ways.
This documentary may change the way some people view Rupp; most are slow to alter their opinions. But the facts will be on the record for any and all to consider, including younger college basketball fans.
As I was beginning the project, I asked my then 15-year-old son what he knew about Rupp.
“Won a lot of championships.”
“Didn’t like black people.”
Why, I asked, did you say that?
He thought for a moment. “I don’t know,” he said.
He’ll be armed with more knowledge after he watches “Adolph Rupp: Myth, Legend and Fact.” And then he can make up his own mind.
I remember how much I knew about Rupp when I was his age. And changing my own perspective took me on an interesting journey. I hope you take it with me.