"Now many mothers and fathers are afraid to let their son play football or basketball because they are afraid he'll get hurt, yet they will buy him a car to speed around in. I tell you, I'd rather my son come home anytime with a broken arm, a black eye, or even a broken leg from practice than to come home with a broken character."Adolph Rupp, as quoted by Russell Rice
By Chip Alexander
From the Charlotte News and Observer
Sunday, March 16th, 1997
The Lexington Cemetery has a steady stream of visitors this time of year, when the boys are back in town. The boys "Sweet Sixteen" high school tournament is held in March, welcomed by banners that say "Have a Rupp-Roarin' Time." And many a team, from Paintsville or Highland or Corbin, often finds its way down West Main Street to pay a short visit.
Henry Clay, the famous statesman, is buried at Lexington Cemetery. So is John Bowman, founder of the University of Kentucky. And a basketball coach, Adolph Rupp, founder of Kentucky basketball.
"They always ask directions to Rupp's grave -- the coaches and their players who weren't even born when Coach Rupp died [in 1977]," says Mark Durbin, a cemetery official. "You see fathers bringing their sons here. Old fans, young fans. "Adolph Rupp will never be forgotten, not in Kentucky.''
The "Sweet Sixteen" teams make the pilgrimage, for the coaches are determined the younger generation understands. They need to know that "Rupp" means more than a basketball arena downtown, that he was a basketball institution for more than 40 years. The monument -- not quite rim height -- is distinctive. White granite, a basketball is sculpted near the top. On the stone is written:
"U.S. Basketball Coach 42 years"
"Olympic Coach 1948"
"Four NCAA Championships"
"National Basketball Hall of Fame"
Simple. Succinct. Curiously, "Kentucky" doesn't appear on it.
"Daddy picked out that spot," says Rupp's son, Adolph "Herky" Rupp II. "His longtime assistant, Harry Lancaster, also is buried just a few feet away, which is fitting. "Daddy loved that spot because of a big tree there -- a big, shady oak tree." The tree is gone, though. It was blown over during a recent storm, then chopped and removed. To some, there is symbolism in it -- and not that far-fetched. Rupp no longer is a towering figure in the sport. His record for career victories has fallen, broken Saturday by North Carolina's Dean Smith.
Many memories of Rupp's career have faded, with the graying hair of such former stars as Frank Ramsey and Wallace "Wah-Wah" Jones a reminder that many of Rupp's deeds were accomplished so long ago, sandwiched around World War II, when the South and Lexington and the university and basketball were all so different. Rupp, who went to Kentucky in 1930, is credited by many with bringing big-time basketball to the South. He introduced the fast break, honed offensive execution, pumped up the action, won 876 games.
"He was one of the soundest coaches basketball has ever seen," former UCLA coach John Wooden once said. "He didn't use a lot of fanciness and flair. He didn't need to. "A lot of coaches consider Rupp the best offensive coach and Hank Iba [of Oklahoma State] the best defensive coach, but Rupp's teams were as sound defensively as offensively."
Rupp won championships -- the four NCAA titles, the Olympic gold medal in '48, Southeastern Conference titles year after year. But he also won converts to the sport. "He should be credited with basketball's growth, not just in the South but all over the country in the 1940s and '50s," says Cliff Hagan, a former Kentucky All-America and later the school's athletics director.
"Every time you see a basketball goal on a barn or kids in a playground, you have to credit Coach Rupp. His presence will last forever, in Kentucky and nationally." But like the cemetery oak, Rupp's reputation has been splintered as the years passed. And it saddens those who knew him best.
Rupp was called a lot of things in life: scathing, cantankerous, uncompromising, ruthless. "He wanted us all to hate him -- and he succeeded," Ramsey says. And vain. Rupp could be vain. Once asked why Kentucky was so successful, Rupp bellowed, "Good coaching, of course." He meant every word.
But Rupp also could flash some humor. He once told his players that the Bible says it was better to give than receive. Translation: win. Told that the Bible also says to love thine enemy, the Baron growled: "That's the old version. The rules committee changed all that." Then there's the bit about being the Man in the Brown Suit. Seems Rupp had one brown suit in the 1920s, when he was coaching high school ball. He finally got enough money to buy a new one, settled on a blue suit, and lost his next game. "Blue ain't the color to wear to basketball games," he said. It was always a brown suit, white shirt and brown tie after that.
Such was the legend born.
But there's another view of Rupp and another, far harsher description that came to be used: racist. It's true that Rupp did not sign his first black player, 7-footer Tom Payne, until 1969, just three years before retiring. But the rest of the story mostly is conjecture, subjective. And Rupp has his defenders. "I never heard him say one bad comment about blacks," says Vernon Hatton, an All-America on the "Fiddlin' Five," 1958 NCAA champs.
"That's just the way the South was in that era. Southern teams just didn't have black players, not in the Southeastern Conference." But the perception has grown that Rupp was a coaching white supremacist. That he fought against integration until Kentucky chancellor John Oswald ordered him in 1965 to recruit a black player. Syndicated columnist George Will once wrote that Rupp was "a great coach and a bad man." As the years pass, more tend to agree.
Rupp did pursue such black players as Wesley Unseld, the country's best high school player. He recruited Butch Beard and 7-footer Jim McDaniels of Allen County. Unseld and Beard wound up at Louisville, McDaniels at Western Kentucky. "Daddy petitioned the SEC to change its rule and integrate," Herky Rupp says. "They didn't do it, but it's not his fault."
The watershed moment for Rupp came in 1966, when "Rupp's Runts" rose to No. 1 in the polls and seemed destined to win the school's fifth national championship. The Wildcats topped Michigan -- a team led by Cazzie Russell -- in the regionals then edged Duke in the national semifinals in College Park, Md. The final matched Kentucky against Texas Western, and Texas Western won in an upset, 72-65. At the time, it was just a game. In time, it would be hailed as a landmark -- college basketball's version of Brown vs. the Board of Education. People would say it was the final vestiges of Southern lily-white basketball, with Kentucky starting five white players and Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso) five blacks.
"What I've always wondered is what would have happened if Duke had beaten Kentucky?" Herky Rupp says. "Duke didn't have a single black player. "Vic Bubas was coaching Duke then. Would that have made Vic Bubas a racist? Is that the way he would have been remembered?" Herky Rupp doesn't wait for an answer. "No, Vic Bubas is not a racist," he says. "Neither was Daddy, and I'm terribly upset about it." Herky Rupp notes his father had black players on his teams as a high school coach in Freeport, Ill. "If he was a racist, there wouldn't have been any," Rupp says. "He would have found a way to cut them."
Adolph Rupp was once asked whether he would have liked to have had Wilt Chamberlain, the Philadelphia sensation who played for Kansas in the late 1950s. "Sure," Rupp said, "but could I take him to Atlanta and New Orleans or Starkville [Miss.]?" Rupp reluctantly was forced to give up his coaching duties after the 1972 season after turning 70, the mandatory retirement age in Kentucky. There was talk that he might resurface at Duke, but he turned down a coaching offer when the manager of one of his cattle-raising farms died.
On Dec. 10, 1977, a day before Kentucky played Kansas, Rupp's alma mater, the old coach passed away. A day of mourning was proclaimed in Kentucky, but not everyone did mourn -- then or now. "A lot of the black community still does not like him," says Tom Behr, a Lexington resident. Rupp's critics say that given the racial allegations and animosity, someone such as Smith, who opposed segregation in Chapel Hill in the '60s, is a better fit as basketball's winningest coach. "It's hard to compare eras and Dean Smith is a super coach," Hagan says. "Coach Rupp was very demanding, but his players always held him in high esteem, always thought he was the best coach on the bench, always felt they were the best-prepared, best-conditioned team. "The final judgment should be that the game of basketball would not be where it is today without Coach Rupp."