The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

University of Kentucky teacher group demands that school rename Rupp Arena

Adolph Rupp won four national titles as Kentucky’s basketball coach but left a legacy that included a number of racist comments. (AP)

The faculty of the University of Kentucky’s African American and Africana Studies department on Thursday wrote a letter to school president Eli Capilouto demanding that the school hire more black teachers, increase support for black students and remove the names of any “enslavers, Confederate sympathizers … and other white supremacists” from school buildings. It also called on the school to change the name of Rupp Arena, the downtown Lexington stadium where Kentucky’s basketball teams play.

“The Adolph Rupp name has come to stand for racism and exclusion in UK athletics and alienates Black students, fans, and attendees. The rebuilding of the arena and the convention center offer an opportunity to change the name to a far more inclusive one, such as Wildcat Arena,” the AAAS faculty wrote in the letter, noting the stadium’s 2019 renovation.

Public perception of Rupp, who led Kentucky to four national titles over his 42-year tenure, has been shaped in part by the 2006 film “Glory Road,” the story of how a Texas Western team with an all-black starting five took down Rupp’s all-white Kentucky team in the 1966 NCAA basketball tournament championship game. But in his 2019 biography “Adolph Rupp and the Rise of Kentucky Basketball,” James Duane Bolin writes that Rupp’s supporters think that the former coach’s racism has been overplayed. While Rupp was basketball coach at Freeport High School in Illinois in the 1920s, he started William Mosely, the school’s first black basketball player and second black graduate. Supporters also point out comments made by Don Barksdale, the first black American to play for the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team at the 1948 London Games. Rupp was an assistant to Bud Browning on that team, though Barskdale described him as the coach who actually called the shots.

Rupp “turned out to be my closest friend” on the team, Barksdale recalled in a 1984 interview. When Barksdale encountered racism during his time with the Olympic team, he said Rupp would tell him, “Son, I wish things weren’t like that, but there’s nothing that you or I can do about it.”

“Let me tell you something about Rupp,” legendary NBA coach Red Auerbach told author John Feinstein in his 2005 book, “Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game.” “All I ever hear from people is that [Rupp] was a racist. You know what? He did hate black guys — who couldn’t play! He also hated white guys who couldn’t play, blue guys who couldn’t play and green guys who couldn’t play. He hated Jews who couldn’t play, Catholics who couldn’t play and Muslims who couldn’t play. That was it. All these people who never met the guy said he was a racist. I knew the guy. I traveled with him, I spent time with him. I never saw any sign from him or heard anything from him that indicated to me that he was a racist or a bigot in any way.”

But Bolin’s book also notes a number of instances where Rupp used the n-word in a derogatory fashion and said he only began recruiting black players in the 1960s — Tom Payne was the first in 1969, three years before Rupp’s retirement — when he was forced by the school to do so. After a loss to Saint Louis in the Sugar Bowl tournament title game in December 1948, the Wildcats received silver belt buckles given to the runners-up.

“I wouldn’t give that to my n----- on the farm,” Rupp said of the consolation prize in the locker room after the game.

Bolin’s book also recounts a story told by Harry Lancaster, a longtime assistant to Rupp who became Kentucky’s athletic director in 1969, in Lancaster’s 1979 book, “Adolph Rupp: As I Knew Him.” Lancaster said Rupp was agitated after a mid-1960s meeting with Kentucky President John Oswald during which Oswald ordered Rupp to integrate his team.

“Harry, that son of a bitch is ordering me to get some n----- in here,” Lancaster said Rupp told him after the meeting with Oswald. “What am I going to do? He’s the boss.”

Forced into retirement at the age of 70 in 1972 because of the state of Kentucky’s mandatory retirement age, Rupp would become president and general manager of the ABA’s Memphis Tams. As told in Terry Pluto’s ABA book “Loose Balls,” an attorney named Ron Grinker, who represented a number of players, recounted a conversation he had about the league with an inebriated Rupp during a mid-1970s flight to Memphis.

“Now, I had never met the man, and the first significant thing he said to me was, ‘The trouble with the ABA is that there are too many n---- boys in it now,’ ” Grinker said of Rupp’s comment. “I sat there just stunned. That just killed my image of Adolph Rupp the great coach. Maybe it was because he had too much to drink, but even so.”

In a 1991 column, George Will called Rupp “a great coach and a bad man.”

Rupp Arena opened in 1976. It is not owned by the school but rather by an arm of the local Lexington government.