As you’ll recall, former Kentucky basketball coach Joe B. Hall recently celebrated his 90th birthday. He is a beloved celebrity in the Big Blue Nation.
He was coaching the Wildcats when I was a student at the University of Kentucky back in the late 1970s. And, through my sportswriting career, I have lots of good memories of Coach Hall (pictured with former Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson) and interviewed him a few times. I’ll share some of my favorite comments from Hall, a former Adolph Rupp assistant who retired from coaching in 1985 with three NCAA Final Four trips, including a national title, and several SEC Coach of the Year honors.
While he was coaching, I remember there were rumors that he supposedly kept a “hate file” of certain sportswriters whom he did not like. Many years ago, I asked Hall about it in a book interview and he said that wasn’t actually true.
But he did keep a different type of “hate file,” which was composed of letters from angry fans, criticizing his team or his coaching tactics. “I never will forget what my secretary, Jane Rollins, asked me the first day that I was the head coach,” Hall said. “She said, ‘Coach, what do you want me to do with your hate mail?’“
I said, “Jane, what is hate mail?”
“Well, Coach Rupp always got letters, and you will, too, of criticism from people who disagreed with him,” she said. “I always screened his mail and trashed those.”
“No, Jane, I want to read those letters,” said the new boss. “I have to develop a tough hide if I’m going to survive in this job.”
So, during his 13 years as UK head coach, Hall read every letter – negative or positive. He felt like it was part of his job.
“I read every letter and answered every letter,” he said. “I did face the public and did understand their concerns. I sympathized with them and, in some cases, I used their suggestions. So, if you want to survive, you have to have a love for the program. You have to feel deep inside that you are doing a good job yourself and that you can look in the mirror and be satisfied with what efforts you are giving and what you’re accomplishing.”
During his younger days in the late 1940s, the 6-1 Hall was a little used sophomore reserve at Kentucky before he transferred to the University of South in Tennessee. The Harrison County native had this to say about Coach Rupp, a strict disciplinarian who conducted long and demanding practices.
“Everyone who played for Coach Rupp was intimidated by him,” recalled Hall. “Even the servicemen that came back, mature men who had been through prison camps, wars and everything else were intimidated by Coach Rupp and those who weren’t completely intimidated by Rupp were intimidated by (assistant) Harry Lancaster. The 1-2 punch just about got everyone.
“I was intimidated by Coach Rupp. He was very distant. You never saw him except on the floor. Occasionally, you might run into him in outer offices or somewhere on campus but rarely would he bother to even speak to you. You showed up for practice and did what was expected of you. That was all the contact you had with Coach Rupp.
“Of course, on the trips in those days (often by train), we had an opportunity to get to know him better and in a different way. Usually he had (athletic director) Bernie Shively, (radio announcer) Claude Sullivan and close friends around him and not so much the players.”
In another interview with this columnist, Hall was asked what was his most fun team that he had as far as coaching, which also included stints at Shepherdsville (Ky.) High School, Regis College and Central Missouri State College. "I had about 30 of them," smiled Hall. "I felt embarrassed when I called it work because I loved every minute of it. “Coaching was a blessing to me. I never had a day's work the whole 30 years that I coached and the 20 years I was at the university - seven as an assistant coach and 13 as a head coach. "I have had so many good kids to work with. They were just a real pleasure. I still stay in contact with most of them. To pick out one team would be really difficult.” Many teams, not always the championship teams, were the most satisfying. While Hall didn't pick his most "fun" team of his coaching career, he fondly remembers the 1975-76 Wildcats, whose leading scorer was sophomore Jack Givens with 20.1-point average, even though they failed to reach the NCAA tourney. "I thought the NIT team in '76 was a team that really played about their ability," he said. "We were shorthanded, and we won 10 games in a row down the stretch and took the NIT championship against some good teams."
That was when NIT was very respectable. Unlike today, NIT and NCAA both only had a total of 44 teams in post-season action with 32 appearing in the Big Dance back then.
With a disappointing 10-10 mark in mid-February, the Wildcats roared back and finished strong, winning 10 straight contests to come up with an overall record of 20-10. "It was very satisfying to pick up that (NIT) trophy and come home," said Hall.
Photo by Jamie H. Vaught
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com Magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.