The Real “Glory Road”: Coach Rupp as a Source

Glory Road,” the movie, comes to a theater near you today.

But
if you were around 40 years ago and followed college basketball, you
remember the real moment of glory, the moment when five young
African-American men, dressed in shorts and representing Texas Western College, wrote a page in the history books.

It
has stuck with me for two reasons: One has to do with history and the
other is professional, involving the legendary basketball coach Adolph Rupp. It involves not only the question of diversity, but that of sourcing and denial. The more things change…

Let’s
go back to 1966. Journalists across the land were chronicling two of
the biggest stories of the century: the Civil Rights Movement and the
volcanic social eruption over the war in Vietnam.  

March Madness,
that crazed period when 64 college basketball teams compete for one
trophy and millions of dollars are won and lost in office pools and
Dick Vitale is screaming at us every hour of the day, didn’t loom quite
as large back then. But it meant just as much to the participants and
their legions of fans as it does today.

Here came this team of black basketball players, with a relatively unknown coach named Don Haskins, into Maryland’s Cole Fieldhouse to meet “Rupp’s Runts” from Kentucky for the national championship.

Kentucky,
the gold standard of college basketball. Rupp, the legend. Never before
in history had a team started five black players in a game for the
national title. Rupp had never recruited a black player. And that
year’s all-white team, including a player named Pat Riley — yes, the same Pat Riley of the Lakers, Knicks and Heat — was sure to return home with the coveted trophy.

But hold on a minute. Texas Western, now the University of Texas at El Paso, won the game, 72-65. The road to glory was completed. Another historic rip was torn in the quilt of injustice that had blanketed this nation.

And it was even sweeter for me that it was Rupp on the losing bench.

Let’s go back again. To 1961 in Atlanta. I was a young assistant sports editor of The Atlanta Journal, young enough to still have hair. Coach Rupp came to town to speak at the basketball banquet at Oglethorpe University, home to a small college team coached by a man named Garland Pinholster,
who that same year would schedule a home game with the University of
Rhode Island and play the first integrated college basketball game in
Georgia’s history. And when Charles Lee, an All-Yankee Conference
player, fouled out late in the game, the Oglethorpe crowd gave him a
standing ovation.

But back to Rupp. In a conversation on the way
to the banquet, I asked Coach Rupp when the end of segregated athletics
would come to the Southeastern Conference. My story the next day quoted
him as saying that it would happen “when I turn my hand.”

“Many
schools in our league,” Rupp said, “allow their teams to go off on
strange grounds and play against Negroes, but they won’t allow
integrated competition on their home soil. What will these schools do
if I bring an integrated team into their cities to play? If they refuse
to play me, then they will just have to forfeit, according to the rule,
and I will take all those easy victories I can get.

“There may
be some schools that will refuse to play Kentucky if we have an
integrated team, but if they do, those schools don’t belong in our
league.”

You can imagine the wave of reaction that caused in the
South. By the time Rupp arrived in Birmingham, Ala. for another speech
the day of publication, he was met by a herd of reporters. And what did
he do?

In print he was quoted as saying, “How ridiculous can
you get? Why the kid [that's me] knew I didn’t mean for him to write
that. It’s a ridiculous story. There’s nothing to it. I absolutely deny
such a story.” And his athletic director, Bernie Shively, said Kentucky was planning no change in its policy of not recruiting black athletes.

But
there’s more. The phone rang that day and it was Coach Rupp. And what
he said has never escaped from my memory bank. “Kid, I know I told you
those things, but I am catching heat. How about just telling people
that you made a mistake and that you misquoted me?” This kid politely
said no. Well, maybe not so politely.

Five years later, Rupp’s
Wildcats were indeed part of history. Not because he turned his hand.
But because five young black men traveled the Glory Road.

Make room, “Hoosiers” and “Rudy“: there are some new heroes to cheer.

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