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Rupp creature of his time

When the formidable records in sports are surpassed, we appropriately reflect on history.

Dean Smith wins his 877th game as North Carolina basketball coach, which triggers retrospectives on Adolph Rupp, the old Kentucky thoroughbred whose victory clock stopped at 876.

Smith modestly strains to duck notoriety, but we won't allow it. Tar Heels past and current are putting the hug on Dean. Cheering outsiders also embrace. Celebrating not only Smith's gymnasium masterworks but also his quiet, long-running initiatives in the arena of life.

Rupp's rekindled notoriety has been less flattering. Twenty years after Adolph's death, he undergoes a new autopsy. Critics dig more into personal beliefs than into Rupp's on-court expertise, which delivered three national championships.

Fairness is difficult. Adolph isn't around to defend himself. Nobody is suggesting comparisons between Rupp and Gandhi or King. Nonetheless, evidence is insufficient for today's media to so widely characterize him as a bigoted Baron who saw his coaching career disintegrated by evolving dominance of African-American players.

Thirty-one years ago, college basketball experienced a dramatic sociological pivot. In the most chronicled of NCAA Tournament milestones, Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso) won the 1966 national championship, using a trend-busting lineup of five black players to mow down Rupp's all-white team.

I was in the house that night. Like a moment frozen in hoops time, it has become the unsubsiding focus in assessing Rupp's wondrous 41-season coaching career. I don't know if he used racial slurs. Many of his players have been quizzed, but have any recalled such smears? Still, 31 years later, we keep reading devastating Rupp quotes.

Real or imagined?

"Who can now be sure whether or not he ever had such thoughts?" said Miami Heat coach Pat Riley, an old UK guard who was one of the so-called Rupp's Runts who were squashed by Texas Western. "I never, never heard him say any such things. Adolph Rupp was, at the least, too smart to get involved in something of that sort."

Can we take another path to the Smith-Rupp debate? Comparing the Baron's maxi-generation to the contemporary times of an 877-time winner from Chapel Hill. It's for sure that coaching in the 1990s is more complicated, more competitive and more exposed.

Comparing eras is always tough, whether we're talking Ruth versus Bonds or Unitas-Marino or Grange-Payton. But let's spend a minute considering this: Could the Rupps, Phog Allens, Hank Ibas and John Woodens from the basketball long-ago have been nearly as successful if they'd come along in the late 20th century?

I'd bet on it.

Those bygone giants were mentally sharp, strategically gifted and tremendous competitors. Had they surfaced in, say, 1990s college basketball instead of long ago, it's an immortal lock that Wooden, Rupp, Allen, Iba and similar wizards would have adjusted to the modern game, modern athletes and modern demands.

Rupp so ruled the Southeastern Conference, which was more devoted to football, that the league was known during basketball season as "Kentucky and the 11 Dwarfs."

Adolph gets belittled for having beat up on a football conference. But might comparison be made to FSU football coach Bobby Bowden, who so dominates his game in the ACC, where basketball is undeniably the boss sport?

I don't know if the Baron was a racist. Rupp might be more accurately labeled as a creature of his time, perhaps no more bigoted than 95 percent of coaching counterparts across the NCAA landscape. It is wrong to play a solo harp while ignoring so many extraordinary deeds.

Adolph was the first college basketball coach to widely travel his team around America. It was a provincial sport then, even in recruiting. Rupp took his Wildcats to New York, to the Carolinas and to Big Ten country. Winning big almost everywhere. Oh, by the way, in 1966 when Rupp's Runts became Texas Western's punching bags, Dean Smith was in his fifth season at UNC, coaching an all-white team.