Vaught

Former University of Kentucky basketball coach Joe B. Hall (left) poses with Somerset native and author Jamie Vaught, who has penned five books on the University of Kentucky basketball program.

Adolph Rupp.

The very name symbolizes the essence of University of Kentucky basketball.

But the legendary coach, who won 876 games and four national championships in his 40-plus years at UK, has long been a controversial figure because many feel he harbored racist views.

The Rupp debate is active once again — African-American and Africana Studies faculty at the University of Kentucky are calling on the school to rename Rupp Arena as part of a series of changes that would "demonstrate that Black lives truly do matter at the University of Kentucky."

But Jamie Vaught, a Pulaski County native, former Commonwealth Journal columnist and author of five popular books on UK basketball, believes a knee-jerk decision to take Rupp's name off the fabled home of the Wildcats would be unfair.

"It is such an emotional issue right now. Perhaps they can wait another year and revisit the Rupp Arena issue to be fair. Facts, not emotion, should determine the issue," Vaught said from his home in Middlesboro. "I can see both sides of the Rupp Arena issue but removing Rupp's name from the arena is probably unfair in my opinion. Yes, coach Rupp could have possibly done more (to integrate Black players into college basketball) but what about the other coaches in the South? For African-Americans, playing sports in SEC stadiums or venues was not safe at the time due to racial abuse. Sadly, it is a very sensitive issue for both sides."

Rupp began coaching at UK in 1930 and didn't successfully recruit a Black player until 1969. He reportedly used a racial slur in 1974 when describing a housing project in Lexington.

But there are stories of Rupp bonding with Black players whom he coached on the U.S. Olympic team and his fondness for the first Black athlete (William Mosley) who came through Freeport High School, the school where Rupp coached prior to coming to Kentucky.

Also, while some believe Rupp's decision not to recruit Black players in the 60s was due to racist leanings, many seem unaware the coach asked the University of Kentucky to drop out of the SEC in that era, specifically so he could safely recruit Black athletes. UK declined.

"His former players, as well as student managers, have told me coach Rupp was not a racist. If he (did show any racist tendencies), it was because he was a product of the time," Vaught said. "I personally don't think he was a racist.

"Some folks get the idea that Rupp was a racist because they read the stories or heard the views from the national media who often don't know the whole story or didn't do their homework. The national media, for the most part, has treated him unfairly over the years," Vaught added. "Coach Rupp also coached a Black player in high school before he came to UK. He also recruited star Black players like Wes Unseld from the state, but he could not get them to play at Kentucky because playing on the road in the SEC was not safe for them."

Rupp and UK were cast as villains in the 2006 film "Glory Road," which chronicled the 1966 national championship game between Rupp's all-white Wildcats and Texas Western, which started five Black players. It has long been portrayed as a team from the "racist South" against a progressive program.

"Interestingly, if Duke had beaten UK in the national semifinals that year, it would've been Duke getting the black eye in the future, instead of Kentucky," Vaught pointed out. "As it turned out, it might have better had UK lost to Duke at the time.

"The 1966 game later was popularly called the college basketball's version of Brown vs. Board of Education," Vaught added. "But at the time, media didn't even discuss much about the racial issue. My five books, including the first one which came out in 1991, also discussed Rupp's alleged racism and I basically defended Rupp with facts and many comments from folks who knew Coach Rupp. Dick Gabriel, who is a friend of mine, did a great job on a Rupp documentary several years ago .... he came to the same conclusion."

Joe B. Hall, who succeeded Rupp at Kentucky, defended his mentor at the time the movie was made.

“No matter how strong they make the implications, they cannot make a racist out of Adolph Rupp,” said Hall, a former Rupp assistant who succeeded him as head coach in 1973.

One of Rupp's great rivals during his tenure at UK was Tennessee's Ray Mears.

"Mears defended coach Rupp," Vaught said. "Mears once told me in an interview that Rupp was not a racist."

“Coach Rupp was such a convenient villain,” said former Louisville Courier-Journal sports editor Billy Reed. “By the way he looked. By being Germanic. By having the name Adolph. Being known as an autocrat. He became the stereotype like Bull Connor,” who as commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, Ala., symbolized institutional racism during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

In a letter to University president Eli Capilouto, Black faculty members wrote, "The Adolph Rupp name has come to stand for racism and exclusion in UK athletics and alienates Black students, fans, and attendees."

According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, this past January, UK and the Lexington Center Corporation announced naming rights to the convention center surrounding the arena had been sold to Central Bank. However, the name of the arena would not change.

"It has to be Rupp Arena," UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart said at the news conference announcing the naming of the Central Bank Center. "When you’re recruiting, when you’re having teams come in here to play and people come in here, this is Rupp Arena. It’s set apart from all other places. … This one’s been this way for almost 50 years, and it can’t change."

Recommended for you