Adolph Rupp’s bronze plaque outside the University of Kentucky’s former basketball arena lauds him for capturing four national titles, for retiring as college basketball’s winningest coach and for never enduring a losing season.
Left unmentioned is a less flattering aspect of Rupp’s legacy that some Kentucky professors say merits further scrutiny.
The faculty members in Kentucky’s African American and Africana Studies department have asked university president Eli Capilouto to change the name of Rupp Arena. In a letter sent to Capilouto on Thursday, faculty members said that Rupp’s name “has come to stand for racism and exclusion" and "alienates Black students, fans, and attendees."
“If you’re serious about inclusion and accountability, then we have to have these types of hard conversations about people whose names are on buildings,” said Derrick White, a Lexington native who last year returned home to become a professor in Kentucky’s African American and Africana studies program. “It doesn’t mean we’re never going to talk about Rupp again. It just means we as a university should not glorify people with segregationist legacies.”
Changing the name of Rupp Arena is the highest profile of the faculty group’s 10 proposed reforms to eradicate racism on campus. AAAS faculty also asked university administrators to require undergraduates to take a course on race and inequality, to offer more resources to Black students and to increase Black representation among faculty to 15 percent, which reflects the Black population of Lexington.
In a statement in response to the faculty letter, the university promised further reform but did not specifically address the proposal to rename Rupp Arena. In January, amid concerns that the university could sell the naming rights of Rupp Arena to a corporate sponsor, Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhardt promised the name would be safe under his watch.
"It has to be Rupp Arena," Barnhart told the Louisville Courier-Journal. "When you’re recruiting, when you’re having teams come in here to play and people come in here, this is Rupp Arena. It’s set apart from all other places. … This one’s been this way for almost 50 years, and it can’t change."
The association between Rupp and racism begins with him not integrating for so long. Rupp did not sign a Black player until 7-footer Tom Payne in 1969, six years after Kentucky opened its athletic programs to all students and four years after the Wildcats’ football program added its first Black recruits.
In 1966, Rupp’s all-white Kentucky team famously lost the national championship game to a Texas-Western team with an all-Black starting five. Rupp allowed Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford into the Wildcats' locker room at halftime and Deford was stunned by what he heard.
"He said, ‘You've got to beat those coons,' " Deford told the Chicago Tribune in 1997. "He turned to [center] Thad Jaracz. ‘You go after that big coon.' . . . He talked that way all the time.”
Supporters of Rupp often counter that the Kentucky coach was a product of his times. They point out that he had a Black player on the Illinois high school team he coached before coming to Kentucky and that he unsuccessfully tried to recruit Black future Louisville standouts Butch Beard and Wes Unseld to Kentucky in the mid-1960s.
Even those on Rupp’s side would admit some of his peers were far more progressive.
John Wooden, then the coach of Indiana State, refused to participate in the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball tournament in 1947 after being told his lone Black player wasn’t welcome.
Babe McCarthy’s all-white Mississippi State team defied a state injunction and snuck out of Starkville in 1963 to play an NCAA tournament game against predominately African-American Loyola (Illinois).
Dean Smith not only integrated North Carolina’s basketball program in the mid-1960s but also exerted his influence to help Blacks buy homes in all-white neighborhoods and eat at restaurants notorious for turning Blacks away.
“We give Rupp too much of the benefit of the doubt,” White said. “He shows no evolution on this racial issue despite amassing tremendous amounts of power. It’s OK to acknowledge that he is the founder of a great basketball program here at the University of Kentucky, but that doesn’t mean his name belongs on the side of the arena.”
For White and his colleagues, the fight to change the name of Rupp Arena promises to be an uphill battle. This is a revered figure in Lexington, the “Baron of the Bluegrass,” the architect of maybe the nation’s most storied college basketball program. Many longtime Kentucky fans won’t be receptive to any change diminishing his legacy.
“Changing the name of Rupp Arena would clearly be the hardest thing for us to achieve, but it’s something that the city and the university has to take seriously,” White said. “Would some fans be upset? Absolutely. They’ll say that this is too far and that they’re never coming back, but they’ll all say that until basketball season starts. Then there will be 25,000 people at the arena rooting for the University of Kentucky.”
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