Questions surrounding the legacy of Adolph Rupp resurfaced last week when Kentucky’s department of African-American and Africana Studies stated in a letter to UK president Eli Capilouto, “The University should rename Rupp Arena.” The department argued that Rupp’s name “has come to stand for racism.”
The letter sparked a debate over how Rupp handled race relations in the 60s. It’s not a new conversation. In fact, Rupp spoke candidly about why he did not sign a Black basketball player until Tom Payne in 1969, six years after the school abolished the rule forbidding African-Americans from participating in athletic events and four years after Nate Northington broke the SEC color barrier as a Kentucky football player.
The Courier-Journal’s Jon Hale un-Earthed a 13-minute interview with Rupp from the UK library’s Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History. The conversation took place in October of 1971, right before Rupp’s final season as the Wildcats’ head coach. Rupp explained that it was much more difficult to recruit an African-American to play in the SEC.
“We had a very, very difficult time in doing so, because as you can see a conference that had not allowed Negroes or Blacks to participate up until this time, no one wanted to be the first to break with that tradition. I never felt at all that Negroes should be barred,” Rupp said.
“There was no use for us to recruit colored athletes here for the simple reason that we couldn’t play ’em in conference competition. I had some people say to me, ‘Well why didn’t you drop out of the conference?’ I don’t drop out of a conference. That is a matter for the athletic board, and for the board of trustees to decide the conference that the university belongs to, and not the basketball coaches. It’s just as simple as that. And people don’t do a great deal of thinking when they say, ‘Well, why didn’t you drop out of the conference?'”
At the heart of Rupp’s defense is a tense relationship between the coach and UK administrators. President John Oswald insisted that Rupp recruit and sign a Black player, even if the player just rode the bench. Upon hearing that, Rupp described a “heated” debate with the UK president.
“I can find someone that can get in here but I can’t find someone that could play,” he said. “I’m not going to get someone to have them sit on the bench. I don’t recruit that way. When I recruit, I’m going to get someone that can play.”
There were a few players that fit that bill. Rupp detailed his recruiting efforts to get Wes Unseld, Butch Beard and a few other unnamed players. He even recalled a handshake agreement with Beard, Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball in 1965, who agreed to attend UK before ultimately signing with UofL.
“Now tell me I didn’t make an effort to get these boys. We did. We made every effort that we could and I don’t know if it satisfied the president or not.”