Why did it take so long for Adolph Rupp to sign a Black player? Listen to his explanation

Longtime UK coach Adolph Rupp spoke about trying to recruit Black basketball players to his program.

Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON – Should Adolph Rupp have been faster to integrate the Kentucky basketball program?

To hear Rupp tell it, his delay in signing a Black player until 1969, six years after the university’s athletic teams were officially desegregated, was due to circumstances beyond his control.

“We had a very, very difficult time in doing so, because as you can see a conference that had not allowed Negroes or Blacks to participate up until this time, no one wanted to be the first to break with that tradition,” Rupp said in a 1971 interview. “I never felt at all that Negroes should be barred.”

The Rupp comments come from a series of interviews housed in the UK library system’s Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History. The dozens of hours of interviews conducted by longtime UK sports information director Russell Rice sound more like Rupp reading his personal memoirs than a question-and-answer session about his tenure as one of college basketball’s most legendary coaches, but he does not shy away from some of the more controversial moments in his career.

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The topics covered are wide-ranging from coaches who influenced Rupp, the most memorable moments of his UK career and his interactions with the campus community as a whole. In a long breakdown of his relationship with each of the UK presidents during his coaching career, Rupp spends more than 13 minutes discussing the criticism levied at him for not integrating the team faster or leaving the SEC due to many of the league’s programs being unwilling to play teams with Black players.

“I don’t drop out of a conference,” Rupp said. “That is a matter for the athletic board, and for the board of trustees to decide the conference that the university belongs to, and not the basketball coaches. It’s just as simple as that. And people don’t do a great deal of thinking when they say, ‘Well, why didn’t you drop out of the conference?'”

In the interview, Rupp points to the presence of a Black player on one of his high school teams in Illinois in the 1920s as proof he was not opposed to integrated teams. He outlines the unsuccessful recruitment of Black Louisville stars Wes Unseld and Butch Beard in the 1960s – several years before he signed Thomas Payne as the program’s first Black player in 1969 – as proof he was making an effort to recruit Black players.

Still, Rupp’s questionable record on racial integration has led to a call from the UK’s faculty of African American and African Studies program to change the name of Rupp Arena, where the men’s basketball team has played its home games since 1976.

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