A rivalry that seldom took place on the court

Adolph Rupp resisted recruiting black players for most of his career at Kentucky. When compelled by the school to do so, he usually lost out as recruits chose other schools. AP, file
Adolph Rupp resisted recruiting black players for most of his career at Kentucky. When compelled by the school to do so, he usually lost out as recruits chose other schools. AP, file (Adolph Rupp resisted recruiting black players)
Posted: March 30, 2012

Adolph Rupp had nearly as many dislikes as career victories. Somewhere high on the longtime Kentucky basketball coach's list, perhaps between suits that weren't brown and people who were, was the University of Louisville.

During a 42-year career (1930-72) at the basketball-mad state's largest university, he never scheduled a game with the second-largest, preferred not even to mention its name.

While Kentucky and Louisville would meet three times during Rupp's tenure, those games couldn't be avoided. Two came in NCAA tournaments, the other in an Olympic trials matchup at Madison Square Garden in 1948.

The historian Ronald Oakley wrote that in Kentucky there is "a strong belief in an orderly and hierarchical society, with everything and everybody in its place."

And Louisville's place, Rupp firmly believed, was not on the same court with his mighty Wildcats.

Before those two schools meet in Saturday's NCAA Final Four semifinal, the historic Kentucky-Louisville feud figures to get more air time than Geico's lizard.

And while he alone is not responsible for the enmity, Rupp, more than anyone, helped institutionalize it, something that became apparent when I was researching a book on the historic 1966 NCAA title game between Kentucky and Texas Western.

Rupp's Wildcats dominated - in the state and nationally - for decades. His teams would win 896 games, four national titles. They were such an overpowering presence that 83 percent of Kentucky's TV viewers tuned in each Sunday night to watch Rupp's show.

The "Baron of the Bluegrass" had his pick of the state's best players - its best white players anyway - and he wasn't about to start sharing with Louisville.

Rupp looked down his nose at Louisville, believing the university and the city were no match for Kentucky and Lexington. To even acknowledge that the Cardinals existed, Rupp felt, would be granting them a level of attention they didn't deserve.

The relationship worsened in the 1960s when shifting social attitudes and new federal mandates began breaking down segregation's walls.

Rupp had never had a black player and, by all accounts, was in no rush to find one. When in 1963 John Oswald, a northerner who would go on to become Penn State's president, was named to that position at Kentucky, he began prodding the coach.

"Rupp, in his very first discussion with me, sounded like a bigot," Oswald would recall in an interview for the university's oral history project. "I told Rupp . . . that I had heard so much about his success in basketball. But that it seemed to me that one of things facing us as a border-state public institution at that time was clearly the recruitment of some black athletes."

The coach didn't like anyone, let alone a liberal Yankee educator, telling him how to run his program. He returned to his office and complained to an assistant: "That son of a bitch is ordering me to get some [African-Americans] in here. What am I going to do?"

The Oswald-Rupp battle would continue for years with no change in Kentucky's racial makeup until 1970.

No better package

Meanwhile, sensing an opening, Louisville began recruiting the state's best black players, youngsters such as Butch Beard and Wes Unseld, both of whom would go on to long and distinguished NBA careers.

Rupp, in part to appease Oswald, made token gestures toward each, particularly Unseld, the powerful 6-foot-6 center who had led Seneca High School to consecutive state titles in 1963-64.

"Not only was Unseld the best high school player in the nation, but he was also more brown than black," Russell Rice, the former Kentucky sports information director, wrote in his Rupp biography. "Rupp couldn't have asked for a better package."

But blacks had an understandable unease about Rupp and his intentions. To ask a teenager to be a racial pioneer at Kentucky, in the Southeastern Conference, a coach was going to have to build trust. Neither Unseld nor Beard felt that from Rupp.

Beard visited Kentucky, escorted around campus by one of Rupp's stars, Pat Riley. Rupp even traveled to Beard's home in Hardinsburg, Ky.

"We decided that Rupp was under pressure to recruit a black player, but he really didn't want one," Beard said in 1997.

Rupp also went to visit Unseld, but it came on a night when the player, who had a speaking engagement at a nearby reformatory, wasn't home. Despite more urging from Oswald, the coach wouldn't return. Finally, the school president himself, accompanied by an assistant coach, traveled to the Unseld home.

"The mother and father were very gracious to me, and he was too," recalled Oswald. "He said, 'Thank you for coming, but I've already decided to stay in Louisville.' "

Rupp was so angry with Unseld and Louisville that at one point he told reporters he was thinking about going public with the "real story" of how Louisville landed him, implying something underhanded had occurred.

'Always some excuse'

By 1966, Oswald was still pushing, Rupp still resisting. That year the focus of the university president's integration dreams, if not Rupp's, turned to Perry Wallace, an A student and basketball star from Nashville.

Frustrated by Rupp, embarrassed that even Louisville had integrated first, Oswald grew more determined than ever. He appointed Robert L. Johnson, an aide with no sports background, to oversee the athletic department. Johnson's principal mission was to get Rupp to recruit a black.

"The feeling among a lot of people at the university was that Adolph was a racist who was never going to bring blacks on to the team," Johnson said in 1998. "He would keep saying, 'The last thing we want to do is sign somebody who never gets off the bench. Then we'd be accused of tokenism.' . . . But there was also a double standard in that they'd picked a lot of white kids who were probably going to sit on the bench, too."

On March 24, 1966, Rupp invited several recruits to Kentucky's annual basketball banquet. All were white. The coach insisted he had asked two blacks - including Wallace - but that both were unable to attend.

"There was always some excuse with Rupp," said Unseld.

The snub prompted a stern memo from Johnson to athletic director Bernie Shively.

"I would like to be assured that we are indeed recruiting Negro student-athletes," Johnson wrote. "I have already had several individuals make it a point to tell me that Coach Rupp will never have a Negro basketball player and the University is being hypocritical when it says it is trying to recruit such men."

Shortly thereafter, two Rupp assistants went to see Wallace and his parents. Rupp stayed home.

"Both were very nice," recalled Wallace, an American University law professor who in April 1966 became the SEC's first black athlete when he signed with Vanderbilt. "But I was always concerned that Rupp never came. It left you with concerns about the attitude of the head man. Later, when I had dealings with Rupp, he was always very polite and nice to me. But of course I was 'a good boy.' I spoke well and was polite."

Wallace took a recruiting trip to Louisville, where he said the anti-Rupp, anti-Kentucky sentiment was palpable. Suddenly, black players all across the state were rallying around Louisville as well as other in-state schools Rupp had snubbed.

"Whatever Louisville had been about in the past, it enthusiastically recruited those guys," said Wallace. "All of a sudden they went from saying, 'We don't want you here' to 'We want to recruit you, and we want to show you an enthusiastic face.'"

Reacted with glee

Louisville, with overwhelmingly African-American rosters, would win two national titles in the 1980s.

Rupp never played against an integrated Louisville. The series, which had stopped in 1922 after just nine games, resumed four years after his death in 1977.

Blacks across the state reacted with glee when, at the 1971 Mideast Regional, in the first meeting of the schools, Western Kentucky thumped the Wildcats, 107-83. Western started five Kentuckians, all of them black. Kentucky, by then, had one black player.

Rupp had been infuriated when he heard Western star Jim McDaniels suggest the NCAA pairings favored Kentucky.

"I doubt that he has the intelligence to comprehend how the NCAA brackets are made," Rupp fumed. "And you can quote me on that."

History had to delight in the irony of Rupp's last game, the 1972 Mideast Regional final. Kentucky was eliminated by Florida State, 73-54.

Though the rest of the SEC was integrated by then, Rupp's last team was all-white.

And Florida State started five black plaayers.


Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @philafitz. Read his blog, Giving 'Em Fitz, at www.philly.com/fitz. He is the author of "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: Kentucky, Texas Western, and the Game That Changed American Sports"

 

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