Big Blue Nation stood as one in silence to remember Joe B. Hall Saturday. John Calipari carried a rolled-up program and sent Kentucky out in a 1-3-1 zone against Tennessee because those were Hall trademarks and they needed to be memorialized, on the day he died at 93. The applause poured in from throughout the Commonwealth.
It wasn’t always that way.
Before Joe B. Hall was legend, before he was loved, before he was a grandfatherly state icon, he was the coach at Kentucky. He was the man who replaced the irreplaceable, assigned the Mission Impossible of heir to Adolph Rupp. You pretty much know your job is a tough one when you go to work each day in an arena named after the man you’ve followed.
There were times — plenty of times — Hall’s road was a wide-awake nightmare. That, too, should be remembered on the day he passed away. His journey is one of the more remarkable that any college basketball coach has ever traveled — with pressure and doubt and criticism and tumult. And reverence in the end. He was the caretaker of a program whose faithful have limitless fervor but very little patience, with stratospheric adulation but expectations even higher. He was the son of a sheriff from a small Kentucky town named Cynthiana, 30 miles from Rupp Arena, making him the only state native son to coach the Wildcats the past 95 years. He was so popular in high school, he was class president all four years. Born, it seemed, to be a local hero.
He would coach the Wildcats to the 1978 national championship, come up with the game plan to knock off undefeated and No. 1 Indiana in the 1975 Elite Eight, and squire Kentucky to three Final Fours in 13 years.
But he wasn’t Rupp, and for the longest time, that seemed to matter. He lost to Middle Tennessee in the NCAA tournament. And UAB. And Louisville. As every Kentucky coach understands, from Calipari back, the Wildcat masses have a simple rule: If it ain’t perfect, something is terribly wrong. Even Rupp sometimes went public in his criticism, a breach of protocol that Hall was once quoted as saying, made his job “10 times harder.”
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Hall felt every inch of the two-edged sword of his position. All that Kentucky glowing aura, all that Kentucky endless heat. There were times during his active years in Lexington that, to the outsider, he seemed as tense and tight as if he were being sent out to diffuse bombs. But then one day he retired and went off to his horse farm and still showed up at Wildcat practices and games and smiled at life as a college basketball elder statesman. The Kentucky fandom took a less impassioned and more perceptive look at his record and decided that, hey, those were pretty good years after all. The love affair blossomed.
It would stay that way to the Saturday he died. So the saga of Joe B. Hall is very much a multi-toned tale. To get a feel for the Hall era, here are eight Kentucky NCAA tournament games not to be forgotten.
1. March 22, 1975 | No. 5 Kentucky 92, No. 1 Indiana 90
In his third season, he still burned for the one game that would make Big Blue Nation believe he belonged. The Wildcats were in the Elite Eight in Dayton, facing the mighty Indiana Hoosiers, who were 31-0. Among the Indiana wins during the season was a 24-point thrashing of Kentucky in Bloomington that included Bob Knight cuffing Hall on the back of the neck. Knight insisted it was a playful tap. Hall never took it that way.
No matter, Hall and Kentucky was seething at a chance at revenge. Notorious for putting handcuffs on his guards’ shooting, Hall this day went against his own philosophy. He was convinced the way to beat Knight’s feared defense was to attack from the outside and told his guards Jimmy Dan Conner and Mike Flynn they had a green light. They combined for 33 shots and 39 points, and Kentucky won 92-90, aided by the absence of injured Indiana star Scott May. Hall once said it was the most important win of his career. It might have been Knight’s most painful defeat, as the ’75 Hoosiers were probably even better than the 1976 team that still own college basketball’s last perfect season. Indiana went 63-1 those two years. Kentucky was the 1.
2. March 31, 1975 | No. 1 UCLA 92, No. 2 Kentucky 85
If Kentucky could beat Indiana to get to the Final Four, it could beat UCLA for the national championship, right? But the day before the title game, word leaked out that John Wooden had decided to retire. The Bruins weren’t about to lose his final game, and the night turned into more of a testimonial in San Diego, just a couple of hours down the freeway from the Wizard’s Westwood. Kentucky lost 92-85 and years later, a bemused Hall remembered the veneration in the air for Wooden, including when the UCLA coach was up arguing a technical foul on the Bruins, while Kentucky’s Kevin Grevey waited to shoot a free throw.
“The referee was Bob Wortman and he very politely, like he would help his father off the floor, gently had the elbow of Coach Wooden and said, `Please Mr. Wooden, go back to your bench.’ And Coach Wooden wouldn’t go,” Hall said.
“So I walked to the scorer’s table and told Wortman to let Grevey shoot his free throws and he pointed at me and said, `If you don’t get back to your bench I’m going to call a technical.’ So I knew I was not in home territory.”’
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3. March 11, 1978 | No. 1 Kentucky 85, No. 13 Florida State 76
Kentucky fans had decided these senior-laden Wildcats had one acceptable outcome. Championship or bust. The pressure was palpable before the tournament, and even more so at halftime of the first round game when Kentucky trailed Florida State by seven.
Legend has it that Hall told an assistant at halftime that if Kentucky lost, he wouldn’t even return to Lexington, he was so sure he’d be fired. He’d go fishing. Hall did one other thing at intermission. He decided to bench three starters and turn to his reserves in the second half. It was an enormous gamble, but the Wildcats rallied to win 85-76.
4. March 18, 1978 | No. 1 Kentucky 52, No. 4 Michigan State 49
Back in Dayton, site of the magic over Indiana, Kentucky, was facing another Big Ten team in the Elite Eight. The Wildcats needed 10-for-11 free throw shooting from Kyle Macy to get past Michigan State in a defensive struggle 52-49. Hall’s defense was particularly effective against the Spartans’ point guard, who went 2-for-10 and had six turnovers. His name was Magic Johnson.
5. March 27, 1978 | No. 1 Kentucky 94, No. 7 Duke 88
Jack Givens’ 41 points carried the Wildcats past Duke 94-88 for the national championship. Deliverance at last for Hall, who was asked afterward about the pressure being on all season. He corrected that notion. “The pressure’s been on six seasons really,” he said.
6. March 13, 1980 | No. 14 Duke 55, No. 4 Kentucky 54
The regional was in Rupp Arena — the NCAA allowed home court advantage back then — and surely the Wildcats wouldn’t lose to a young Duke team, Except they did, 55-54. Ouch.
7. March 26, 1983 | No. 2 Louisville 80, No. 12 Kentucky 68 (OT)
Kentucky and Louisville had managed to avoid each other for 24 years, but the NCAA tournament bracket paired them together in the Elite Eight in Knoxville. Louisville won 80-68 in overtime. Ouch again.
8. March 31, 1984 | No. 2 Georgetown 53, No. 3 Kentucky 40
Kentucky was back in the Final Four, and apparently headed for another championship game, leading Georgetown by 12 points in the first half, with Patrick Ewing in deep foul trouble. Then the Hoyas revved up the defense. The Wildcats missed 30 of 33 shots in the second half — not one starter scored a second half field goal — and lost 53-40. It was Hall’s last Final Four game and he departed with one of his most memorable quotes, trying to describe what Georgetown had done to his team’s offense. It must have been, he said, “some kind of extraterrestrial phenomenon.”
One year later, he was done as a coach. He was only 57, but he had seen enough. The cheers he heard then only grew louder as the years went by. Maybe that counts the most, how they remember a man, not how they sometimes treated him in the heat of a Kentucky season.
For years, he and his old foil at Louisville, Denny Crum, have been the towers of the past in Kentucky, co-hosting a radio show. A picture on the Lexington Herald Leader website Saturday shows them sharing a box of popcorn while watching a high school game together several years ago, a giant in blue next to a giant in red.
Now only Crum remains. At 84, he is the oldest living national championship coach. He moved into spot Saturday when his friend died, leaving a state to mourn the legend that it learned to love.