By LARRY VAUGHT
As soon as new broke that the faculty of the University of Kentucky ‘s African American and Africana Studies program wanted to change the name of Rupp Arena because the name stood for “racism and exclusion” that “alienates” black students and fans you knew it not only was going to create national headlines but also create controversy with UK fans.
I tried reaching out to several former UK basketball players and some coaches for their thoughts on changing the name of Rupp Arena. None wanted to be quoted by name.
“If you defend coach Rupp, you are damned. If you don’t, you are damned,” one player who played for Rupp said. “All this is above my pay grade. That is something powers to be in the city have to decide. I would refer anybody to Dick Gabriel’s two-hour special on Rupp. It is pretty clear there. I would just say whether his name is on the arena or not, get the facts straight.”
That’s what WKYT-TV’s Dick Gabriel wanted to do in a 2005 documentary, “Adolph Rupp: Myth, Legend and Fact.” It provided a lot of information from how Rupp was coaching a high school team in Illinois when he was hired at UK and that team had a black player. He hired assistant coach Neil reed in 1960 to help recruit African-American players and Rupp once asked the UK president to leave the SEC so he could recruit black players. The documentary also went in depth on how Rupp tried his best to sign in-state black players Wesley Unseld and Butch Beard before both picked Louisville.
I was at the 2012 Kentucky High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame induction when Jim Tucker of Paris Western High School was being inducted. He told me that Rupp wanted to recruit him in 1950 but was prevented from doing so by integration laws at the time. Tucker revealed how Rupp helped him a scholarship to Duquesne. He earned All-American honors and then played on a NBA championship team his rookie year.
“I spent an enormous amount of time with Coach (Rupp) from 1969 till he passed, and I can tell you from experience he was not a racist,” Kentucky fan John Ferguson said Thursday. “These people need to talk to the people that knew him and also do their research before making racial attacks on a great man.”
Another UK fan, Tai Doram, posted this on my Facebook page: “I knew his son and play junior high ball with his grandson. They were excellent individuals. Rupp was a product of his generation. I say leave Arena as Rupp and rename the facility to honor diversity.”
One coach who coached against Rupp said he “never said anything or gave me any signs” he was a racist.
“I heard the rumor but there are a lot of people in the SEC who should have their names removed from all records because none were recruiting black athletes at the time,” the coach said. “Rupp did recruit the second African-American player (Tom Payne) to play in the SEC.
“The people who should be chastised are the ones who put the rule (not to recruit blacks) in the first place. The times I was with him or talked to him there was never any indication to me (he was a racist). It’s not like we were close but I did talk to him a lot over the years.”
Racist rumors about Rupp has been around a long, long time. However, so has information from many that indicates the rumors were not true.
Everyone has their opinion — and should be entitled to that. I was more than a bit surprised that the three former players and two coaches I contacted Friday didn’t want to be quoted by name because the subject is so controversial today.
Obviously I don’t know what Rupp did or didn’t say or do 40, 50, 60 or 70 years ago. I do know what Tucker told me face to face about eight years ago when we were talking about his career and how grateful he was for what Rupp did for him.
Hopefully those asking for this change and those who will have to decide if there should be a change have a lot of verified information to help make the correct decision.