Issue January 11, 2006

Tainted glory

Conventional wisdom, based on revisionist history, says Adolph Rupp was a racist. Jerry Bruckheimer’s new film, ‘Glory Road,’ provides an opportunity to set the record straight.

by Billy Reed

The most significant way to honor the 30th anniversary of Rupp Arena would be for all friends of the University of Kentucky to band together in a concerted effort to officially refute the widely accepted idea that the man for whom the building is named, former UK Coach Adolph Rupp, was the most vile racist in college sports.

This ugly and unfair misconception is the work of revisionist historians who have taken the 1966 NCAA championship game between Kentucky and Texas Western, and twisted it into something it wasn’t. Yes, it was the first and only time that a team with five white starters (UK’s beloved “Rupp’s Runts”) and a team with five black starters (Coach Don Haskins’ Texas Western Miners) met for the national title.

It was a terrific story, no question, but not because of race. Nobody wrote or talked about that aspect of it at the time. The attraction was as old as David vs. Goliath. It was Kentucky and Rupp, later described by Rick Pitino as the “Roman Empire of college
basketball,” against an upstart program from El Paso, Texas, that had never been even a blip on the national radar screen.

It wasn’t until 1991, in fact, when Curry Kirkpatrick, writing in Sports Illustrated, depicted the game, literally, as a matter of black and white. As interpreted by Kirkpatrick, a quarter of a century after the fact, the game was a morality play and Rupp was the villain.

Kirkpatrick’s version of the story was immediately accepted as gospel by columnists and TV producers who weren’t even born when the game was played, and they willfully and maliciously parroted the myth of Rupp-as-racist in various “documentaries,” books, magazine articles and newspaper columns.

ESPN and CBS both blew it. I know. I agreed to be interviewed for all the “documentaries.” Every time, the editors left out my comments defending Rupp and used only the stuff they thought would flesh out their one-dimensional stereotype.

All in all, it’s a classic example of journalism at its worst.
So when I heard that Jerry Bruckheimer, the powerful Hollywood movie and TV producer, was producing a full-length feature film about the game, I cringed. I was certain that once again Rupp — and, by extension, UK and the Commonwealth — would be portrayed dishonestly. When has Hollywood ever let the facts get in the way of a good story? My fears were confirmed when I read that actor Jon Voight, who plays Rupp in the movie (named “Glory Road,” which is how Rupp described his career), had called Rupp’s son, Herky, to tell him he wouldn’t be pleased with how his father is portrayed.

But now I’m getting reports that the film portrays Rupp with a relative degree of fairness. If so, Bruckheimer should get an Oscar for integrity. He would be the first outsider — well, he’s not really an outsider, considering that he owns a home near Springfield, Ky., in Washington County — to put the game into the proper context. Perhaps he agreed the facts are interesting enough that they don’t need embellishment, especially at Rupp’s expense.

The truth is, nobody knows what was in Adolph Rupp’s heart. Of course, it’s also true that nobody knows what was in the hearts of every man who coached football or basketball in the Southeastern Conference or Atlantic Coast Conference at that time. No university in either league recruited African-American athletes.

I’ve always said that the worst thing that ever happened to Rupp was beating Duke in the ’66 semifinals. Had the Blue Devils prevailed, then it would have been all-white Duke of the ACC taking on Texas Western, not all-white Kentucky of the SEC.

And the revisionist historians wouldn’t have made it such a big deal because Duke coach Vic Bubas was younger and more “media friendly” than the scowling, autocratic Rupp, a German-American (many still spell his first name “Adolf,” as in Hitler, which has to be more than a Freudian slip) who was known as “The Baron of Basketball.”

So Rupp was — and is — the perfect villain for this morality play. He has been likened to Eugene “Bull” Connor, the bigoted public-safety director of Birmingham who laughingly ordered fire hoses and attack dogs to be used against Civil Rights protestors in 1963. Bull and the Baron. Two of a kind, right? Absolutely not. But who in the media wants to let the truth stand in the way of a good storyline?
As Jack Nicholson, in the movie “A Few Good Men,” shouted: “The truth? You can’t handle the truth.” So it is with the editors and producers who refuse to concede that the story isn’t nearly as black and white as they make it out to be.

Here’s what we know about Rupp:
• He coached an African-American player as a high school coach in Freeport, Ill.
• He wrote a letter to the sports editor of the Lexington Herald asking UK fans to be polite to Solly Walker of St. John’s, the first African-American to play against UK in Memorial Coliseum.
• In 1959, Rupp told Julius Berry of Lexington Dunbar, then an all-black high school, that he wished he could recruit him for UK but couldn’t because of unwritten SEC policy. (Rupp then helped Berry secure a scholarship at Dayton.)
• He thought seriously about challenging the SEC by recruiting Jerry Thruston, an African-American player from Owensboro, in the early 1960s.
• Rupp scheduled non-conference games against teams with African-American players — nobody else in the SEC except Vanderbilt was doing that — and he gladly allowed the Wildcats to replace league champion Mississippi State in the NCAA tournament (only one team from each league was invited in those days) in 1959 and ’61 after the Bulldogs declined to go because the Mississippi state legislature wouldn’t allow public universities to play against integrated teams.
• At the behest of UK President John Oswald and Gov. Ned Breathitt, Rupp finally did buck the SEC policy by offering a scholarship to Wes Unseld of Louisville Seneca High in the spring of 1964. (Unseld attended the University of Louisville.)
• The next year, Rupp received a verbal commitment from another black star, Butch Beard of Breckenridge County. In fact, it was such a foregone conclusion that Beard would sign with UK that Sports Illustrated sent a young writer named Frank Deford to Lexington to do a story lauding UK’s leadership in integration. You can look it up.

Rupp appreciated that story so much that he welcomed Deford back to Lexington in mid-winter of the 1965-66 season, when the magazine put him on its cover because of the surprising success of the “Runts.” Deford also covered the Texas Western game for SI and, interestingly, did not mention a single word about race in the cover story.

In fact, nobody in the state or national media made anything much of the racial aspects of UK-Texas Western. One reason was that the Civil Rights movement, along with Vietnam, was a big national news story, and editors didn’t want sportswriters writing anything inflammatory.

But another was that race was an old story in sports. Jackie Robinson had integrated major-league baseball in 1947. Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were the dominant players in the NBA. The NFL’s best player was Jim Brown. Then, as now, sports and entertainment were the nation’s melting pots.

In Rupp’s case, the decision to recruit Unseld and Beard wasn’t a matter of having a guilty social conscience. It was simply the practical thing to do, which is the same reason Paul “Bear” Bryant integrated Alabama’s football program in the late 1960s. (Since Bryant and Rupp both signed their first black players at roughly the same time, can anybody explain why Bryant has escaped the racist tag that has been pinned on Rupp?)

No dummy, Rupp could see where college basketball was headed. Beginning with San Francisco’s back-to-back NCAA titles in 1955 and 1956 (due mainly to black players Russell and K.C. Jones), African-American players were becoming more prominent in college basketball every year.
Rupp’s 1958 team, the “Fiddlin’ Five,” beat one of the best, Elgin Baylor of Seattle, when it won the NCAA title in Freedom Hall. The great Oscar Robertson played just up the road in Cincinnati. In 1963, Loyola of Chicago won the NCAA title, again in Freedom Hall, with a team that had four black starters.

So when Texas Western became the first team with five black starters to reach the title game, it was regarded at the time as more of the latest step in a natural progression than the “Brown vs. Board of Education of College Basketball,” as the UK-Texas Western game came to be known long after the fact.

If you know nothing else about Rupp, you should know this: He lived to win. As Red Auerbach said last year, “Yeah, Rupp was prejudiced … he was prejudiced against blacks, Jews, whites or anybody who couldn’t play.” But he loved guys who could play. As early as the 1940s, he recruited a Jewish player.

The morning after the Texas Western game, I met the UK team at Blue Grass Field. I then rode with Rupp in a police car from the airport to Memorial Coliseum, where a tribute to the team was to be held. The trip took 15 minutes. Rupp talked about how sick and tired UK was after its epic semifinal win over Duke, and he talked about how he underestimated Texas Western’s quickness.

But not once did he say anything about race.

I also should point out that I was close personal friends with the UK players because I was only a year or so older than most of them. Larry Conley sometimes borrowed my car to go on dates. I often ran into Pat Riley or Tom Kron at Danceland or Joyland, a couple of popular college hangouts in Lexington. I had covered Thad Jaracz since he was a Pony League baseball star, even before he went to high school.

I never heard any of them make a racist remark. I never heard any of them say that Rupp had ever made a racist remark. And in those days when only a handful of college games were televised, the “Runts” didn’t pay nearly as much attention to Texas Western as they did to Western Kentucky, which had three homegrown black starters in Clem Haskins, Dwight Smith and Greg Smith.

Had Unseld been UK’s center in 1966 instead of Jaracz, UK would have been unstoppable and the course of basketball history would have changed dramatically. With all due respect to Jaracz, he was no Unseld as a player. After graduating from U of L in 1968, Unseld went into the NBA and became the first player ever to be Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in the same season. Jaracz went into the U.S. Army.

The truth is, it wasn’t so much that Unseld and Beard didn’t want to play for Rupp as they didn’t want to be the racial pioneers in the SEC. In the fall of 1963, remember, four young black girls were killed when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. On Aug. 4, 1964, the bodies of three young Civil Rights workers were recovered in Neshoba County, Miss. And on March 7, 1965, when Beard was preparing to lead Breckenridge County to the state title, at the end of a “freedom march” from Montgomery, Ala., there was a violent clash between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s demonstrators and authorities at the Pettus Bridge outside Selma.
After Beard reneged on his commitment to UK in favor of joining Unseld at Louisville, Rupp’s role as racial pioneer was usurped in the SEC by Roy Skinner of Vanderbilt, who made Perry Wallace the school’s first African-American scholarship player only a few weeks after the UK-Texas Western game in 1966, and in the ACC by young Dean Smith of North Carolina, who broke the color barrier with Charlie Scott that same spring.

But did you know that when Carolina arrived at Louisville’s Standiford Field for the Final Four in 1967, the players got off the plane waving small Confederate flags? At the time, that was considered to be only an innocent display of regional pride, not a racist statement.
About two years after the UK-Texas Western game, writer Jack Olsen did a landmark series for SI that smashed the notion that African-Americans had a level playing field in the sports world. One of his stories centered on Texas Western, and how the black athletes there were exposed to repeated examples of racism on their campus and in the city of El Paso.

But somehow the Olsen story never got traction with the national media. Contrary to what the revisionist historians would have you believe, UK-Texas Western did not cause “the walls to come tumbling down.” Nor did it have much of an impact on the integration of college basketball. After 1966, the next team to win the national championship with five black starters was Louisville in 1980.

When Rupp Arena opened in 1976, Rupp was so old and sickly that UK Athletics Director Cliff Hagan arranged to have a blue easy chair set up for him at midcourt. This was four years after Rupp had coached his last game and more than a decade after the loss to Texas Western. But nobody protested naming the arena for Rupp because nobody had yet bought into the Texas Western myth.
Since the Kirkpatrick story, rumors, lies, misconceptions and half-truths have been accepted as gospel. Rupp, who died in 1977, couldn’t defend himself, and the national media didn’t want to hear the facts or the views of people who actually knew Rupp. There’s no telling how much the revisionist historians have damaged UK and hampered the Commonwealth’s efforts to attract African-American students, teachers and business leaders.

The next thing you know, somebody in the national media will be calling for Lexington to rename Rupp Arena because it honors a racist. Don’t laugh. This is the sort of “cause” that the politically correct crowd dearly loves.

The Bruckheimer movie provides a forum to set the record straight, once and for all. If even one mind is changed, it will be worth the effort. It’s time to clear the name of Adolph Rupp — or, at least, consider all the facts about him instead of just a few selected to fit a preconceived image.

That’s the best way I know to say, “Happy birthday, Rupp Arena!”

Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com