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Mr. Wildcat: Gone But Never Forgotten

The time between the final game of the regular season and the beginning of post-season play seems to last an eternity.  Each year, I have to find ways to help pass the time, yet still keep my excitement levels high.   Sometimes, it’s watching great games from seasons past on the DVR.  Other times, I go through my memorabilia, newspaper clippings and other items I’ve accumulated over the many years of my life as a Wildcat fan.  This year, I came across a great memory, one that I thought I would share with all of you:  my 2006 interview with the late, great Mr. Wildcat, Bill Keightley.  I hope you enjoy this trip down memory lane.

Photo: UK Athletics

Photo: UK Athletics


The following interview originally appeared on the Wildcat Maniacs message board.  We met with Mr. Keightley in late September, 2006, about 3 weeks prior to Midnight Madness.  He was gracious enough to give us an hour of his time at his office in Memorial Coliseum. 

MB:  First Mr. Keightley, we would like to thank you for giving us your valuable time today. We really appreciate it.

BK: We’re thankful for people like you guys that have this interest because fans are what really makes the program. You know, uh, the situation being as it is now, total fans from the university of all sports is focused on basketball at this point.

MB: We told the members at our message board of this wonderful opportunity and asked them to post questions and the one common theme we found with most members is they had very complimentary remarks they wished us to pass along to you. I’d like to share a few of those comments with you.
· God bless you Bill. You rank right up there with Rupp and Cawood in my book. You are a true classy UK icon.

BK: Hey, now that’s a pretty…that’s a pretty strong statement there. You know, things like that are greatly appreciated.

MB: Another member says:
· Thank you for giving so many dedicated years to our beloved university and we the members of the Big Blue Nation appreciate what you have given to our Wildcats. Yes, you are paid and paid well…but you go above and beyond and it’s absolutely priceless.

MB: We have one more….
BK: (laughs) Hey now, just keep reading! I need these on a tape myself so I can play it to other people!
MB: First, my thanks to you for your lifelong service to the greatest college basketball program in the nation. You have truly been an ambassador not only to UK but to the game itself and we UK fans are proud to have you associated with our program.

BK: Well, thank you for your kind thoughts and comments.

MB: So now knowing and getting a small taste of what the fans feel for you, do you have any message you would like to give to the fans?

BK: Well, it’s like as I stated earlier and you know, I speak quite a bit, and I always say the fans is what makes us what we are. You know, the expectations are high and that’s the way its supposed to be. I don’t care where we go, there’s always Kentucky fans…and not just a few. Many Kentucky fans. You know, I’ve only been at this one university, but I’ve had an opportunity to see how these fans respond. For instance, uh, the last time we played Duke in the NCAA tournament and made that comeback to beat them, you know they always want to use that Cameron Indoor Arena there as a yardstick you know. But it only seats about 9000 people, so any how, I’m sure half of it is students, so they don’t have that many fans that can get in and see them. But getting back to the point I was going to explain to you, I guess wherever we played them—we’ve played them so many places—but that particular game I believe that one was in Florida, at St. Pete, where the Devil Rays play. But any how, you know that particular night, I was able to see which school had the fans. You know, Duke had theirs. They filled about 3 sections of that place, but Kentucky fans were spread through all of that arena and I’d say they outnumbered the Duke fans 3 to 1. Now that tells you, that tells you a little bit about Kentucky fans. But you know, they demand perfection and it makes, uh, it makes the staff work harder because we feel an obligation to please the Kentucky fans and, uh, therefore you know we work harder than other staffs and then I think the overall result is magnified in the stats, like the University of Kentucky has made 45 NCAA appearances. No one else is close. And of course, won more games than anybody else. North Carolina is, oh I don’t know, they’re 49 or 50 behind us, or whatever, but uh, you know we’ve just, uh, it has such a tradition and it’s a common bond for the state of Kentucky. You know, there are other fine schools and teams in this state that people support, for instance, I like to play, we’ll say Morehead because it helps them. I like to play Eastern or Western, but the worst part of it is, I hate to beat up on them because their fans are Kentucky fans and you know, its just a bittersweet thing because you don’t want to really beat up on the ones you love and their fans are Kentucky fans, too.

MB: Here’s a question I found quite interesting: of all the opposing coaches you have met over the years, which one do you hold in the highest regard?

BK: Well, again almost goes back to that old, you know that question I answered earlier about favorite memory or favorite player. Oh there have been so many of them that have been, uh, good acquaintances of mine. You know, one of my favorites is a guy that’s here in this state that nobody really cared for until after he was gone, is Dale Brown. You won’t find a more congenial man anywhere than Dale Brown. Now he was a great ambassador for the game of basketball. Of course, you know when Coach Newton was in the league, but we carried that one a little further when he came here as athletic director. But of course he’s been here as a player so maybe we can’t disqualify him as a coach. Of course now you know I’ve got these youngsters that I worked with, like Kyle Macy and you’ve got Travis Ford, Billy Donovan, Herb Sendek and uh, but uh, opposing coaches, I always liked Norm Slone that was at North Carolina State and then at Florida. And Dave Odom down at uh, South Carolina and Eddie Pope. You know , Roy Williams, well the list goes on and on and on. Dean Smith. It just goes on. They’re all, you know when they were active coaches, I considered them buddies of mine and I was always delighted to see them. I’ll tell you one right now: Larry Brown that coaches the Pistons. A great human being, so there’s a, uh, well it’s hard for me not to like any of them.

MB: Which National Championship was the most special to you?

BK: Well they’re all special and I guess…I guess you know, you have to weigh it out. We went from 58 to 78 without one and of course, Coach Hall manages to win that one. That one was very special. And then, uh, you know, uh Tubby’s 1998 was really special because nobody expected us to pull it off. You know, many many times with, you know, Rick’s good teams there, you know we should have had another national championship when he was here with that Arizona game where Naz missed 6 free throws. (laughs) But you know, every national championship is special. And there’s a, uh, even the SEC tournament championships are special.

MB: Like that one against Arkansas several years ago?

BK: Oh yeah! Another one of those come from behind games! They just go on and on an on. When they’ve got a school that’s played, well, since I’ve been here, I’ve been a part of, let’s see, 1,329 games. You know, out of that you can’t come up with a special moment or a special win. All wins are good, there is so much history with each one.

MB: So what is the most difficult part of your job?

BK: You know what, I’m still looking! If I find something, I’m going to report it to somebody! But to this point, I haven’t found a difficult or anything difficult about it.

MB: I think back to the early 90’s when there seemed to be a lot of experimentation going on with the uniforms. Were there ever any uniforms you thought were just so ugly you really didn’t want to pack them and take them on the road?

BK: Well, I tell you, you know with the advancement now in society you have little control over that because you’re under school contract. You know what, you might not particularly care for it, but since the school is now in the marketing business, you support anything they put out there. The only ones I really never did, well, I totally disliked were those retro uniforms we wore when we played Michigan State, those old gray things, throw back things. Yes. That wasn’t a throw back to anything Kentucky ever wore! (laughs).

MB: Well, we’ve asked that same question on our message board before and the uniforms that commonly get mentioned are those zig-zags and the “cat scratch” designs.

BK: Yeah, well, we still you know, this year the average person won’t notice any difference in the game uniform, maybe a tad different in the neck up here, but we’re basically traditional blue and white. Somebody asked me yesterday what would I think if we, if we changed our colors to black. Now I don’t know, this was some media something. Well heavens no! No way! I personally don’t care much for that gray that’s in it, but that’s the way it is and you support it. I like the blue and the white. I would like, what I would really like some day, cause the pros do it, but I don’t know, you can’t get the NCAA to sanction it, but I would like to have a pinstripe uniform. You could have a blue with a white pinstripe and white with a blue pinstripe. And that would give you something totally different and I think people would like it as long as we keep their game pants at a reasonable length. You couldn’t go back today to the uh, little tight shorts, commonly called by our players as “cooch cutters.” They wouldn’t go over well today!

MB: We have a lot of younger members on our board and they never got to actually see Coach Rupp. All they have to go on is what they read about him, which not all is entirely fair in my opinion. But what would you like to tell everyone about Coach Rupp that most people might not know?

BK: Coach Rupp was definitely a man before his time. Uh, you know Coach Rupp started out coaching in Freeport, Illinois and uh, but when he graduated from Kansas, he wanted to go into the banking business. Of course, back in that time, 1924 when he graduated, and times weren’t very affluent and he wanted to get into the banking business. Someone gave him the advice that the best way he could get into the banking business was to marry somebody’s daughter that was in the banking business and Adolph said, “I don’t know if I want to get into the business that badly or not!” (laughs) But uh, yes he coached in Freeport, Illinois. You know his first championship came as a wrestling coach. The first championship he ever won was as a wrestling coach. And uh, but he was man that was well ahead of his time. You know, he had, uh an African-American kid on his Freeport, IL high school team in 1925-26 and then you know, of course he moves on through his career and became a successful farmer. A very warm and humane person, contrary to what people might want to believe about that. He had the support of so many people. Coach Whitney, who was from Lexington who coached down in Louisiana is now retired from coaching, he’s a big advocate of Adolph Rupp and how good Adolph was to him. So, Adolph’s record speaks for itself. He won 876 games and the guys used to like to say “and the boys lost 190.” (laughs) But he’s a person who was a good family man, has the one son Herky who lives here in Lexington and Herky has two wonderful people…they were quite close to their grandfather. But Coach Rupp was such a big worker with the crippled children’s hospital. He was, uh, a mason and a potentate and all of that in the Masonic lodge. And he did so much for crippled children and all of this has gone, you know, unnoticed. People just choose or try to paint a picture when they don’t know what the picture should be. They can’t tell it like it is. If you don’t know a person, you don’t need to be trying to write about it. If you’re only going to write about what you’ve heard, then you need to put your pen up because you’re not going to be on target.

MB: I suppose you have a lot of fond memories of Cawood as well.

BK: Of course, yes, well Cawood was you know a true professional in his profession. He was a guy that did his homework just like coaches do their homework in scouting a team. When Cawood went on the air, he knew everything he needed to know about the opposition and he could tell his listening audience. Of course, he came to a lot of our practices and, over a period of years, Cawood was a very private person. But he, uh, he always got up early in the morning when we were on the road and of course I always got up early and we always had breakfast together on the road, every single game. I miss that, of course we had Ralph Hacker. He’s a great guy. Tom Leach is a great guy. Again, I’ve been blessed with great people to travel with. Now, you know I miss Ralph. He’s retired. Tom Leach has come along and he does a great job. But talking about Cawood, well, Cawood always smoked one cigarette right after another. But we would sit and we would have breakfast and sit and talk. We would always eat at 7:00 and then about 8:00, the other people that were traveling with us and fans and so forth would start to filter in, and when that would start to happen, Cawood would get up and go back to his room. He uh you know, he was just a private person. But Cawood was one of my real great, close friends and uh, I always think about this one little story. Ralph Hacker told it, but I remember about when it happened. We were playing in Florida in the old Gator Alley before they built the new one. It was impossible to broadcast from in that place because really you couldn’t see both ends of the floor. Well, something happened in the game and Cawood was leaning out trying to look to see what happened at the end of the floor and he couldn’t see and he said to Ralph, “Ralph, I’d like to tell our listening audience what happened, but I can’t see because the Florida cheerleaders are standing there shaking their fuzzy things in front of us.” Ralph says, “Pom poms, Cawood. Pom poms!” (laughs a lot)

MB: I guess our time is about out here. We know we can’t find any favorite moments here, but what would you say was your darkest moment in the program?

BK: Uhhhhhhh, you know what? I don’t know, uh, I don’t know that I’m a person that ever looks for a darkest moment. At times in life, you need to become like an artist. You know what? If there’s ever anything unpleasant, just paint it out of your mind and only remember the pleasant parts. There’s too many great memories to even think about a negative one. And I really don’t think of them.

MB: I’ve said a similar thing on our message board before. There’s too many unpleasant things in life to look for the negatives in basketball.

BK: That’s right! It’s unhealthy to look for the bad stuff! You know its just like the old saying, you know what, a bulldog can whip a skunk every day of the week, but sometimes it just ain’t worth the stink.

MB: On behalf of Wildcat Maniacs and of the fans of Kentucky, we really appreciate you and we love you.

BK: Well, you know what? I appreciate you people, so there! That’s what I say, we were talking earlier. I’ve been well-compensated, monetarily. But I’ve also been compensated by the people I’ve come in contact with and uh, wouldn’t have known had I not been here. I would have missed out on a lot of people that I have enjoyed. So you know, you people are part of that group!

MB: How great it must be to get up and do what you love! You are blessed to have a job you truly love to do every day.

BK: That’s right! It surely is.

MB:  Well, we won’t hold you up any longer. We know you’re busy.

BK: Yeah, well, we’ve got to get to work on this Midnight Madness.

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Spending that time with Mr. Keightley will surely go down as one of my all time favorite moments as a fan (as well as my very first experience as a “writer”).   I leave you with this tribute that was made for Bill after his death in 2008.   Oh, and have some tissues handy.

Michele Brown
Michele Brown
Writer at since Feb. 2015 Co-host of Big Blue Views podcast. Mom, Christian, sports junkie, golf addict and speed typist. I can cook your mama's food better than she can.

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