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The news broke recently that Kentucky and the former Texas Western, now Texas-El Paso, are thinking about scheduling a game in 2016 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their historic meeting in the NCAA tournament championship game in College Park, Md.
That was the first time that an all-white starting lineup (Kentucky) faced off against an all-black starting lineup (Texas Western) for the national title. Chicago columnist David Israel called it the “Brown v. Board of Education of college basketball,” a reference to the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down segregation in America’s public schools.
Over the years, the Miners’ 72-65 victory over the top-ranked Wildcats has been the subject of numerous articles, books, documentaries and even a Hollywood movie. Interestingly, the title of the movie, Glory Road, was taken from Adolph Rupp’s farewell talk as Wildcat coach, when he thanked “all those who have walked down the glory road with me.”
My first reaction to the possible 50th anniversary game was to wonder why UK would agree to play a game in which the university would take yet another public-relations beating in the national media. As the years have gone on, you see, revisionist historians have turned Rupp into as vile a racist as the notorious Birmingham police chief “Bull Conner.
Never mind that the facts don’t support that view of Rupp, who won four NCAA titles and 876 games from 1930 through ’72. Sadly, the revisionist historians refuse to let the facts get in the way of neat story line.
At the time of the game, believe it or not, race was not an issue – at least in the national media. In his account of the 1966 championship game, Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford never mentions the black-white angle. Nor did the majority of the writers and broadcasters who were at courtside.
But somewhere over the next couple of decades, the story took on a life of its own. Rupp became depicted as a symbol of racist Old South and Don Haskins, his coaching opponent in that championship game, was turned into a champion of civil rights. As anybody knows who read Jack Olsen’s landmark 1968 SI series about the black athlete, Haskins’ players were treated as shabbily at home as they were anywhere on the road.
Nevertheless, a 50th anniversary of the game surely will drag out all the old stereotypes and misconceptions. The modern media again will turn a deaf ear to any defense of Rupp. So if UK agrees to play the game, it also needs to fund a high-powered public-relations campaign to save its image – and Rupp’s reputation – from another pounding.
I knew Rupp and covered his last 12 teams for one publication or another. I was not at College Park the night of the Texas Western game. However, I met the team at the Lexington airport the next day and rode with Rupp to a pep rally in Memorial Coliseum. During that ride, he bemoaned the colds that hampered players Larry Conley and Tom Kron. He also marveled at Texas Western’s quickness. But he never said a word about race.
A few facts about Rupp:
• After graduating from Kansas in 1923, Rupp coached various high school sports in Iowa and Illinois. At least one of his teams had an African-American player.
• In 1948, Rupp was assistant coach on the U.S. Olympic team that won the gold medal in London. That team included former UCLA All-American Don Barksdale, the first African-American to be named an All-American. As Barksdale later told an interviewer, “(Rupp) turned out to be my greatest friend.”
• In 1951, Solly Walker of St. John’s became the first black to play against UK in Lexington. Rupp called up Lexington Herald sports editor Ed Ashford to ask him to write a column asking the fans to treat Walker fairly and respectfully.
• Rupp coached blacks in several all-star games. In 1958, he told Julius Berry, a star from Dunbar High in Lexington, that he would like to recruit him but was prohibited by Southeastern Conference policy. Rupp then helped Berry get a scholarship at Dayton.
• When SEC champion Mississippi State declined to play in the 1959, ’61 and ’62 NCAA tournaments because of an unofficial state policy that prohibited public schools from playing against teams with blacks, Rupp’s team took the bid every time.
• In 1963, Chicago Loyola had four black starters when it won the national title in Louisville’s Freedom Hall. That’s why there wasn’t that big deal over Texas Western’s five black starters in 1966. Integration had been a growing fact of life in college basketball since the mid-1950s, when Bill Russell and K.C. Jones led San Francisco to back-to-back titles.
• In 1964, when both the SEC and the ACC were lily-white, Rupp offered a scholarship to Westley Unseld, the 6-foo-6 black center from state high school champion Seneca High. The next year, he tried to sign 6-3 Butch Beard, the African-American star from state champion Breckenridge County. Both turned down his offer to play at Louisville, which had integrated its program in 1962.
• When it seemed Beard was going to sign with UK, SI send writer Deford to Lexington to chronicle the changing times in Southern basketball. His ensuing piece praised Rupp for taking the lead in integration.
Anybody who knew Rupp knew that he wanted to win above all else. Like football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama, he was a pragmatist. He could see how the black athlete was changing college sports. Considering that Rupp and Bryant integrated their programs at roughly the same time – the late 1960s – it’s interesting that Rupp got stuck with the racist tag and Bryant didn’t.
All the above are facts, easily checked by the most callow of researchers. Yet whenever Rupp is mentioned – especially in the context of the Texas Western game – all that is ignored in favor of the revisionist history version.
I’ve often contended that the worst thing that ever happened to Rupp was beating Duke in the 1966 semifinals. The Blue Devils also came from a lily-white southern conference. Yet Duke coach Vic Bubas – young, handsome, bright — would not have been as easy to vilify as the cantankerous, sarcastic, scowling Rupp, who had the misfortune of fitting the Hollywood stereotype of an Old South racist.
So UK should consider itself forewarned. The university should think long and hard before it agrees to play UTEP to observe the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education game. The only possible reason to play the game, under the circumstances, is for UK to be willing to use the milestone as an opportunity to mend its image and defend Rupp’s reputation.
Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award twice. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades, but he is perhaps one of media’s most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby.