Coach Joe B. Hall passed away at the age of 93. I penned this piece a little less than two years ago right after his memoir was published. It was my last encounter with the “keeper of the flame.” As you’ll see, it provided for a heck of a good memory.
Just mention the name Joe B. Hall, and everybody in Big Blue Nation goes gaga. After all, we’re talking about the basketball coach who followed in the footsteps of the legendary Adolph Rupp by leading Kentucky to their 5th National Championship in 1978. This is the same guy who won 297 games in his thirteen years at the Wildcat helm, and after retirement, became arguably the greatest ambassador for the program with the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball.
So imagine how excited I was to be able to read Coach Joe B. Hall’s brand-new book, “Coach Hall: My Life On and Off the Court.” Joe B. claims it’s not a basketball book, but I’ll have to disagree. Because to those of us who love UK sports, anything associated with our cherished Coach Hall is ultimately related to basketball.
Don’t anybody worry. I’m not going to spoil it for you. But here’s my take for those who want to know if the book is really any good.
Oh, it’s good all right—much better than I thought it would be. Granted, the suspense lags a bit as Joe shares stories about his youth, but it really ratchets up when basketball enters the picture. As Adolph Rupp steps on to the stage, the narrative suddenly goes ballistic.
I won’t say that Joe throws Coach Rupp under the bus. No—far from it. He maintains the same level of respect and deference for his mentor that we’ve always known him to have. But make no mistake about it, Joe goes out of his way to set the record straight on how Coach Rupp did everything in his power to avoid losing his job—including sabotaging Joe’s desire to follow in his footsteps. In Joe’s own low-key approach, he pokes fun at Coach Rupp in ways that made me laugh out loud. I thought I was fairly knowledgeable on what went on behind the scenes—but what Joe ultimately reveals will make you do several double takes.
The book’s an easy read. I finished it in one sitting in just a couple of hours, so don’t expect a whole lot of deep character development. In fact, most of the star players get just a quick mention, and there are only a few chapters devoted to some of the more memorable games. Not surprisingly, Bobby Knight comes across as the jerk that he is. And bring out the Kleenexes for his farewell to Katharine.
Overall, Marianne Walker does an excellent job of making the book readable, entertaining, and most importantly—an accurate portrayal of arguably the most beloved coach in the history of UK Basketball. If I had one major criticism, it’s that the book needed to be longer. It glossed over issues I thought needed closure. From that perspective, it didn’t do justice to the legacy Joe deserves.
Joe B’s popularity has skyrocketed since he stepped down as head coach after the 1984-85 season. Those of you familiar with the program back in the 80s surely remember when this grandfatherly figure from Cynthiana wasn’t loved by everyone. Believe it or not, a lot people wanted him fired.
Since confession is good for the soul, permit me to clear my conscience. I was one of those people who wanted Joe ousted after Kentucky lost to Middle Tennessee State University in the first round of the Mideast Regional of the 1982 NCAA Tournament. Are you kidding me? How can a team with all-stars such as Dirk Minniefield, Jim Master, Charles Hurt, Derrick Hord, Melvin Turpin, and Dicky Beal lose to an opponent with the likes of Ed “Pancakes” Perry and Lucious “Buck” Hailey?
“Joe can’t coach his way out of a wet paper bag,” I remembered saying to my dental school classmates. “Joe must go,” we all chanted. “Hall must fall,” the people screamed.
All these memories came flooding back to me a couple of months ago when I was invited, by Kentucky sports guru Oscar Combs, to former UK player Larry Stamper’s 70th birthday celebration. Of course, Coach Hall was also invited. The legend himself made the trip all the way from Louisville, and fortuitously (for me), ended up sitting immediately to my left.
Here was someone who was larger than life, who I had literally worshipped back in ’78 when the Cats won that first title of my lifetime. (Never mind, just five years later, I wanted him tarred and feathered—but that’s neither here nor there.) The point being now—nearly four decades later—I’m literally breaking bread with the basketball icon of my youth. You talk about living a dream!
We talked about that ’82 team…and when the moment was right, I admitted to him that I wanted him fired after the loss.
“So did a lot of other people,” Joe answered with a wry smile. “Welcome to the club.”
I think that’s exactly why Coach Joe B. Hall is the most beloved coach in America. Despite his exalted status, the guy remains forever approachable. If you ever saw him shopping in Sam’s Club, you felt like you could go up to him and talk hoops anytime. Don’t get me wrong—Coach Hall was serious about his coaching responsibilities, but he never took himself too seriously. As such, he never really got the credit that he deserved.
As the successor to Coach Rupp, Joe B. Hall was “the keeper of the flame.” He knew the importance Kentucky Basketball played in the lives of the people of the Commonwealth, and he guarded that knowledge with every ounce of his being. He knew how vital it was to keep not only the winning tradition, but the passion alive.
During his coaching tenure, Joe B. took a boatload of All-American primadonnas and not only made them winners on the basketball court but also instilled in them the discipline necessary to be productive young men. In other words, Coach Hall—through the players he coached—reflected (and continues to reflect) the glory that is Kentucky Basketball back to the rest of world. He made us all proud to be citizens of BBN.
As the party celebration wound down, I relished my time in the presence of Wildcat royalty. I sat enthralled—between bites of Larry Stamper’s delectable homemade banana pudding— listening to Larry and fellow teammate Jim Andrews reminisce about their playing days. I learned that Kevin Grevey and Jimmy Dan Conner were two of the messiest teammates around. I also learned about a harrowing plane ride down to Louisiana and the subsequent reason why Larry had a clunker of game against LSU.
All the while, Joe B. listened patiently, sat serenely, and just smiled—like a proud father watching over his precocious kids, basking in his own memories as the patriarch of the greatest blue-blooded family in the history of the game.
Godspeed Joe! Thank you so much for being exactly who you are. Here’s another big hug on behalf of a loving and grateful Big Blue Nation.