After I read about the tragedy involving the KC Chiefs linebacker and his girlfriend, I looked at an article on the University of Kentucky basketball program. Specifically, the history of UK basketball under Head Coach Adolphus F. Rupp. It’s a long, lengthy story, but an interesting one.
I had seen the movie about Texas Western (now UTEP) playing UK and starting five black guys against five white guys in the NCAA final. It’s really more complicated, far more complicated than it appears.
Adolph Rupp, the UK coach is often viewed as an impediment towards integration. Evidence towards the opposite is abundant. Rupp tried to bring black players to the University of Kentucky for years. Many black players, notably Wes Unseld and Butch Beard did not want to become the first black player at UK, specifically because of the atmosphere in SEC road games in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Beard recalls:
(Butch) Beard can still see Rupp, the so-called Baron, in his living room, sipping his mother Maybel’s iced tea, bragging about how reviled he was in a Southeastern Conference sick of being dominated by his Wildcats.
“He told us how they cursed him in Tennessee and threw bottles at him in Alabama,” Beard said. “At one point, my mother asked, ‘If that happens to you, then what’s going to happen to my son ?’“
I’d have to say that movie demonizes Rupp, who is no longer around to defend himself. He’s not even a product of the times, because that’s not fair to him. If he could have brought black players to UK earlier, he would have. Rupp wasn’t a racist. Rupp was for whomever could help UK win basketball games.
The SEC, however has a dreadful history. While Rupp was for whomever could help, the SEC was not. During Rupp’s tenure, several southern states passed laws where collegiate games between integrated teams could not be played. One of Rupp’s hurdles was just getting a black player to agree to go on the road to other SEC towns. It wasn’t just Rupp’s problem, either. Even someone as well known and revered as Paul “Bear” Bryant couldn’t get past segregation. Not until the famous Sam “Bam” Cunningham game where the University of Southern California came to Legion Field and walloped the Tide:
During that memorable night, Sam Cunningham torched the Crimson Tide defense, rumbling for 135 yards and two touchdowns on just 12 carries, as the Trojans humiliated the Tide 42-14.
After that game in 1970, Bryant began recruiting black players, and the rest of the SEC followed suit. The old laws crumbled.
Anyway, the SEC became the college sports powerhouse and the reason why it got that way was, winning trumps everything. Even deeply ingrained behavior. It’s hard to believe a lot of that stuff went on in our lifetimes, and our friends/families had to deal with it.