It has been a long and terrible winter in Kentucky. Even now, late in March, the cattle are just getting out to pasture, and the tobacco plowing is behind schedule. It is a Tuesday, two days after Easter, and the sun is warm for the first time in months. There is not a cloud in the sky. In Plot 46 at the Lexington cemetery, under a barren oak tree, the ground remains scarred where the grave was dug almost four months ago; after this rugged winter it will take a while for the grass to grow in. But all things heal in time. Adolph Rupp, interred in this unmarked grave, would have admitted that. The seasons pass, legends are buried, but always the scarred earth turns green.
At the head of Rupp's grave is an arrangement of Easter lilies. A mile away in downtown Lexington the citizenry is celebrating another resurrection. Yes, this has been a winter to remember in Kentucky. The snow kept coming and the Baron died, but when the folks talk about this winter, they will speak of it as the one in which, after a 20-year lapse, the boys brought the NCAA basketball championship back to their old Kentucky home.
The University of Kentucky team that is being cheered and cheered at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington was in deep trouble twice: near the end of the regular season and in the first round of the NCAA tournament. A couple of times Joe B. Hall, the team's 49-year-old coach, had to all but pistol-whip his players to whet their competitive fervor. But the boys won. And now they have come home as heroes, not only to the 15,000 fans in the arena and the 7,000 others clustered outside, listening over the P.A. system, but also to the team's followers in Berea and in Pikeville, in Wolf Coal and in Wax. Kentucky basketball is no mere college-town love object; the team and its games are a statewide mania.
For half a century grown men have cried over Wildcat defeats, and in victory they have often done the same. The country's largest basketball facility, 23,000-seat Rupp Arena, is in Lexington; every ticket is sold for every game. On nights when the Big Blue plays, Kentuckians who have never actually seen the Wildcats in person refuse to move out of earshot of their radios. Some tape each game. Others keep scrapbooks. There is a woman living outside of Lexington who considers it a sacred duty to bake cupcakes for the Wildcats whenever they go on the road. Basketball is almost a religion in Kentucky. Hall speaks of "Wildcat Fever."
Hall had the fever bad as a boy in Cynthiana, Ky. The son of the county sheriff, he spent his youth dreaming of and working toward the day when he would play for Kentucky. While a Boy Scout, he ushered at Wildcat games and then raced home to practice shooting and to lift weights fashioned out of concrete-filled coffee cans fastened to broomsticks. He ran four miles a day, studied diligently, earning the highest grades of any boy in Cynthiana High, and was class president four straight years as well as captain of the basketball team. When he entered the university, it was his misfortune as an aspiring basketball player to arrive in the era of the Fabulous Five (Alex Groza, Ralph Beard, Kenny Rollins, Wah Wah Jones and Cliff Barker). Still, he worked hard, during one stretch struggling daily from his hospital bed to practice despite a sprained right ankle and an infected left foot. But the talent ahead of him was just too good. He transferred to Sewanee, where he became the basketball captain and set a single-game scoring record of 29 points.
Hall returned to Kentucky as Rupp's assistant in 1965, and he took over as head coach in 1972, when the Baron reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. At the time a lot of Kentuckians thought Hall would again fail to measure up to the university's standards. Rupp's retirement was painful for Wildcat fans; he had won four NCAA, one NIT and 27 SEC championships, and what replacement could be expected to do anywhere near that well? Rupp certainly thought he was irreplaceable. When it became clear in 1971 that Hall was going to succeed him the following year, the old coach became more irascible than usual. Kevin Grevey, a freshman then, remembers that when Hall blew his whistle at practice one day to correct a mistake, Rupp jumped all over his assistant. "Coach Rupp said, 'Don't you ever blow your whistle and stop one of my practices again,' " recalls Grevey. "He embarrassed Coach Hall in front of all the players." That year Hall drove Kentucky's freshmen to a perfect season and they played several games before sellout crowds in Memorial Coliseum. Meanwhile, Rupp instructed the managers who officiated the daily scrimmages between the varsity and freshmen to make sure Hall's team never won. It was Kentucky's version of the Civil War, and Rupp's shadow loomed over Hall through the years. Although Kentucky averaged 21 victories during Hall's first five seasons as head coach, he began the '77-'78 campaign with the discomfiting knowledge that a lot of Kentuckians would be dissatisfied with anything less than the NCAA title. His "hate file," a collection of crank letters he had received, was swelling. He would either do his job or lose his job.
Saturday, Oct. 1—We start practice in two weeks, and everybody wants to know if we are going to win the NCAAs! We can be good, but I don't know how good. I do know a lot of fine teams have failed to go all the way. We have almost everybody back from last year's squad, which lost in the Eastern Regional final to North Carolina, and we've picked up Kyle Macy, who transferred from Purdue. The nucleus of our team is our four seniors: Rick Robey, Mike Phillips, Jack Givens and James Lee. But in basketball your strength often becomes your weakness. Seniors tend to be satisfied. If we get complacent and don't work hard every day, we don't have the talent to win. I'm going to have to find a way to keep them happy; maybe I should say they are going to have to find a way to keep me happy.
Discipline has always been part of Hall's technique. At Regis College in Denver, where he was coach from 1960 through 1964, he would check the players' rooms; if anybody was missing, Hall would leave a dime on his bed so the player could call him when he got in.
At Kentucky, Hall has stayed a step ahead of potential recalcitrants. During his second season he suspended his best player, Grevey, for one game after he visited his room late one night and found him absent.
"He lets the players know from the start that it's going to be tough," says Grevey, now a member of the NBA Bullets. On the night Hall visited Grevey's room, Hall stayed—and Grevey stayed away until Hall left. That was at 6:30 a.m. For the rest of that season the players called Hall "Goldilocks" and "Papa Bear" and kept asking Grevey, "Who's been sleeping in your bed?"
"If a kid just wants to have a good time, I don't think Kentucky's for him," says Grevey. "But if he's a good player, he'd be a fool not to go there. I went through it, and I loved it. It made me a better person. And I still managed to have a good time."
Monday, Oct. 10—I thought our season turned around last year when I suspended Mike Phillips, Truman Claytor and Jay Shidler for missing curfew just before our tournament in late December. Until then we had been undefeated, and I thought we could be the best team in the country, but after that we never really recaptured our intensity or played up to our capabilities. But I'm not sorry I did it. It may have hurt us last year, but I know it will help us this year and in the future.
What we try to do at Kentucky is stop the little things so we don't have to worry about something big happening. The players say, "Gosh, if he gets up at 6 a.m. and runs us for cutting class, what will he do to us if we come in at 3 some morning?" I really doubt if other schools have as few problems as we have. A lot of them don't have rules, probably because they can't enforce them. They've given up. We beat those teams.
Each season before the regular schedule begins, Kentucky plays an intrasquad game in a remote part of the state. On Nov. 15, 1977 the Wildcats travel 85 miles to Hazard, a coal-mining community. After the game a manager is standing under a basket holding the game ball when an elderly woman, who has picked her way gingerly through the excited crowd, appears before him. "I'm awonderin'...," she says shyly. "I've listened to Kentucky basketball all my life. Could I touch that there ball?"
Thursday, Nov. 3—I got mad and sent them all home early from practice today. They didn't feel like working. Last season we didn't have one bad practice. But this year we get to coolin' it at times. After about 15 minutes today, I just ran 'em out of the gym.
In the first weeks of the season, the Wildcats run their opponents out of the gym. Macy establishes himself as a regular at guard when last year's freshman sensation, Shidler, breaks a bone in his foot on the second day of practice. Thus the starting lineup is Macy and Claytor in the backcourt, and Robey, Phillips and Givens strung along the frontline, with Lee, "King of Dunk," ready to come off the bench. Robey and Phillips are both 6'10" and weigh 230 and 240 pounds, respectively. Their opponents treat them respectfully.
The Wildcats beat SMU 110-86 in the opener, rolling to a 42-point lead before the freshmen and other reserves dissipate it. Afterward Hall is disappointed. At Kentucky you play hard for 40 minutes, even if you have a 42-point lead. Both polls rate the Wildcats No. 1.
Saturday, Dec. 10—Kentucky defeats Kansas 73-66. At halftime Hall goes to the public address man and requests that he call for a moment of silence for Rupp, who is critically ill in the university's medical center. Rupp had entered the hospital on Nov. 9 for treatment of cancer of the spine. After the game, the Kentucky players learn that Rupp has died.
Rupp will be remembered as one of the great coaches. In 41 seasons at Kentucky he was the most dominant figure in his sport, winning 874 games. His was a large and intimidating presence.
Sunday, Dec. 11—As a player I lived in fear of Adolph Rupp, the fear that I would fail him. That helped me when I took over as coach because I was under unbelievable pressure then. There was no halfway for me; I'd either fail totally or carry on the winning tradition of Kentucky basketball. People said the program was going to hit rock bottom. Rumors started almost immediately that I'd be fired. Some people almost wanted me to fail, because they loved Rupp so much they could not stand to think anyone could take his place. It wasn't me, it was just whoever followed the legend.
Hall has a professorial air about him. Off the court he is courteous and soft-spoken, unassuming and gracious. On the job he is a different man. When the team is winning, he is at his most demanding, driving his players, barking at them. When they are losing or tightening up, he makes do with a nod or a clap of his hands. In late December, as the Wildcats get ready to play third-ranked Notre Dame, Kentucky has a 7-0 record. So Hall is tough. In practice, Phillips has trouble finding the holes in a zone defense and makes a bad pass that promptly draws a carping response from his coach. Disgusted, Phillips slams the ball down with such force that it flies 25 feet into the air. Hall runs onto the floor. "Here, let me do that," he yells, flinging the ball down in imitation of his player. "Hail, you made the mistake. What good does that do?"
"Yes, sir," says Phillips.
Wednesday, Dec. 28—We had too many distractions at practice today. There must have been 20 people in the stands and all kinds of TV and radio folks. I had so many interviews to do that Robey had to get the drills going. Practice is supposed to be closed, but there are people connected with the program—boosters and such—who ask to come. They were all there today. Pretty soon you're not practicing, you're performing.
The visitors at practice are worth examining. At Kentucky there is a cadre of loyal supporters. Thus if Hall needs a ride to the airport, Tracy Farmer, a Cynthiana banker, is at his office door. Tim Lindgren, general manager of the Hyatt Regency in Lexington, finds hotel rooms all over the country. Coal-mine owners loan Hall their private planes for recruiting trips. Cecil Dunn puts his law practice in cold storage during the basketball season and handles the coach's administrative chores. Andy Palmer, an attorney on Governor Julian Carroll's staff, has a special doorknob in the UK basketball office on which he hangs his coat late each afternoon. Dr. Roy Holsclaw, a Lexington dentist, passes out Wildcat Slush, a frozen fruit concoction, to the players after games. He has an auto license plate that reads GO NO. 1 UK. The team physician is Dr. V. A. Jackson, age 71, who moved his practice to Lexington from Clinton, Ky. to be closer to the Wildcats. His automobile horn is rigged so that it sounds the first few bars of the Kentucky fight song, and Kentucky fans know that a Wildcat victory is assured when Dr. Jackson jumps off the bench to hug a cheerleader.
Friday, Dec. 30—On the day before the Notre Dame game, 9,000 fans show up in Louisville's Freedom Hall to watch Kentucky practice. One zealous female fan sneaks up behind Robey and snips off a lock of his hair.
Saturday, Dec. 31—Just before his team takes the floor against Notre Dame, Hall addresses the players in the locker room. "I got to believe, the way you beat 'em last year [Kentucky won 102-78] they're going to be super fired up," he says. "They're going to come at you physically, and they're going to try to intimidate you. But they're not as tough as you. I know this, they don't have toughness in their bellies the way you have. You can sustain yours, and I don't think they can. You're going out there stomach to stomach, chin to chin, and it's going to be hard but you're going to do it. Let's go."
If this sounds like Knute Rockne stuff, so be it. Hall believes in it, and his players respond to it. At some schools, if a coach gave such a speech the players would break out laughing. At Kentucky, they break out clapping.
The Wildcats beat Notre Dame 73-68. Afterward, Hall is effusive in his praise. He tells the players they can stay out until 12:15 that night, so "you can get a New Year's kiss and get back to the dorm and get your rest."
The previous day Notre Dame Coach Digger Phelps, a snappy dresser, had described for reporters the suit he would be wearing during the game. A silk and wool blend, said Digger. Hall wears an unfashionable polyester ensemble, with red stitching on the lapels and pockets, and a corny tie with the map of Kentucky embroidered on it. Walking out of Freedom Hall after the victory, he has the stride of a man who thinks himself as natty as Beau Brummell. His Wildcats are closing out 1977 as the top-ranked team in the country, and it feels good.
Kentucky opens its SEC schedule on Jan. 2 with a 72-59 victory over Vanderbilt in Rupp Arena, and five days later wins 86-67 at Florida, whose arena, nicknamed Alligator Alley, is the toughest stop in the conference. Hall is ecstatic. "Fellows, that was an awfully good win," he tells his players. "You can be proud of that one. Get yourself together. Work together. Hang together. Feel good together."
Everywhere the Wildcats play they encounter Kentucky fans. At Gainesville are Mr. and Mrs. James Burchett and their daughter Vicky, formerly of Russellville, Ky., now of Bradenton, Fla. "Dad listens to UK's games on radio, though sometimes it's faint and Spanish music interferes with it," says Vicky.
The Burchetts paid $100 for their motel room and $20 apiece for three tickets from a scalper, but figure they have spent their money well. "They give me a hard time where I live," says James Burchett. "But I bet they won't now. Golly, 19 points! We beat Florida by 19 points!"
Joining in the Burchetts' jubilation are two other fans. One is Steve Rardin, a Lexington news distributor, who drives to all the Wildcat games. The other is a Kentucky state police sergeant named Ron Hunt. He explains that "for security reasons" two state troopers accompany the Wildcats on every road trip. The officers use their days off and vacation time for the trips and pay their own expenses. "We've got about 800 troopers who'd be glad to do it," says Hunt.
Monday, Jan. 9—Kentucky looks invincible against Auburn. By halftime the Wildcats lead by 16 points and Givens has scored 16 himself, but Hall knows there are 20 minutes still to play. "Well, Jack, are you through for the night?" he says derisively to Givens. "Is that all for you? Shoot, that's what you've done all year. When you have a good half, I ought to just sit you on the bench, because you're no good the rest of the night!" Givens comes back with 13 points in the second half, finishes with 29 in only 31 minutes played and adds 10 rebounds. At halftime Robey had shouted, "This is a time to have fun." And it was. Kentucky wins 101-77.
Wednesday, Jan. 18—I kissed Kyle Macy today. He made a mistake during practice—let his man go backdoor on him—and I jumped all over him. Macy is the sensitive sort and he went into a sulk, hanging his head, so I walked over, put my arm around him, kissed him on the cheek and said, "Kyle, you know we love you." It brought him out of it. Some players you can get on, others go into a shell. What you have to do is find one you can get on so much that the others just shudder at the thought of making a mistake. Larry Johnson, who was a senior last year, was like that. He could take it. This year I've stayed on Robey and Givens. They're seniors and All-Americas. If they can't take it, who can?
Monday, Jan. 23—After 14 victories, including half a dozen in the SEC, Kentucky loses at Alabama by the embarrassing score of 78-62. Bama Coach C. M. Newton uses a three-guard offense and gets 57% field-goal shooting to pull off the upset. Though he plays 38 minutes, Givens is held to six points. He makes only two of seven shots from the floor.
Nonetheless, Kentucky maintains its position atop the wire service polls. That does nothing to quell Hall's anxieties, which most Kentuckians dismiss as paranoia. The big blowup comes on Feb. 11 at LSU, where the Wildcats lose in overtime, 95-94, to a team they had beaten by 20 points several weeks before. Because Givens had what Hall thought was another lackluster game, Kentucky fans are starting to say that he cannot play well in the big ones. Of course, a lot of them had long ago begun saying that Hall cannot win the big ones.
Sunday, Feb. 12—Hall is fuming. On the trip to Oxford for Monday night's game against Mississippi, he tells why to Billy Reed, the sports editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal. Hall calls his team "The Folding Five" and "The Quitting Quintet" and says it could lose six more games. Givens, says the coach, is in a horrible slump and does not want the ball in pressure situations. Macy did not guard anybody at LSU, and Claytor, Shidler and Dwane Casey all took injudicious long shots. And Phillips had only one rebound and committed four traveling violations. "We had that look in our eyes, like zombies," sputters Hall. "Blank stares. We were just not mentally alert."
Monday, Feb. 13—The Wildcats are going to the Ole Miss arena for morning shooting practice, but Casey, Lavon Williams and Freddie Cowan are late. When the tardy trio is about 10 yards from the bus, Hall tells the driver, "Shut the damn door and let's go. If they can't get here when they're supposed to, the hail with 'em." The bus drives off.
That night Hall benches Phillips and Claytor and starts a lineup that includes Tim Stephens and Williams. But no one stays in the game long. After every mistake Hall points to a substitute. He makes 17 lineup changes in the first half, and Kentucky struggles to a 64-52 win. Back home, fans get out pen and paper to write letters of dismay. Newspapers and the university mailbox are full of them. This was supposed to be the championship season. Instead, the SEC title is slipping away, and Hall is making radical moves.
Hall has long been criticized for being rash, but one quality of a superior coach is an ability to make correct snap judgments. Twenty-seven years ago Hall dated Katharine Dennis for only six weeks before he married her. Now he is being just as impulsive with his team.
Tuesday, Feb. 14—After practice, in which a couple of players get involved in a shoving match, Robey says, "We've got some moody people. I know it's a long season, but there're only five weeks to go. You can put up with anything for five weeks, especially when it can make a difference in your life."
Newspapers across the state all banner the same story: for the first time since December the Wildcats have dropped out of the top spot in the polls.
Wednesday, Feb. 15—Tonight Kentucky plays Tennessee in Rupp Arena and Hall has a new problem—ear complications from flying in an unpressurized airplane on a recruiting trip. At the noon team meal he comments to the players on the lurid newspaper stories. "The writers are trying to help us," he says. "Let's work together with them on this and see if we can't work it out."
Later he explains his motives in allowing practices to get rough and in downgrading his players to Reed and other newsmen: "I had to do something to shake them. We needed that practice yesterday. It was the first time in five weeks that we made a muscle."
That night Hall gets a different kind of earache. When he is introduced before the game, there are boos from the fans. They are extinguished when the Wildcats jump to a 49-34 lead at the start of the second half and coast to a 90-77 victory over a team that has always given them trouble.
Thursday, Feb. 16—Basketball players have slumps. It just happens. First thing you know you're down, you're flat. But the pressure here at Kentucky adds another factor. It's the kind that either makes you great or it overpowers you. It'll make you a player or run you out of the game.
People are criticizing me now, but I know my team better than anyone. I know who has the right attitude. My phone number is listed, and people call me up to tell me whom to play. There is no way that a fan, even if he has more knowledge of basketball than I do, knows my team better than I do. I believe that greatness comes from demanding perfection. I want my pressure to supersede the pressure of the program, because then when they get out of the greenhouse and the sun hits them, they won't wilt.
Saturday, Feb. 18—Kentucky takes a wobbly step toward the SEC title with a 58-56 defeat of Mississippi State. In the locker room Hall goes over his players' mistakes and then he tells them, "Get in your rooms by midnight, and you stay in. I'm living with you the rest of the year."
Monday, Feb. 20—A victory over Alabama tonight will just about cinch the league title for the Wildcats. Kentucky explodes near the end of the first half, running off an 18-3 splurge to take a 47-31 halftime lead. Hall all but runs down the corridor to the locker room and bursts into the room. He tousles Robey's hair affectionately and yells, "Who's going to let up? I want to know, who's going to let up?"
"Let's blow 'em out," shouts Lee.
In the second half Kentucky continues to dominate until, in the final minutes, the subs allow Bama to cut a big lead to 97-84. Afterward Hall is his crusty self, criticizing his team for lacking "the killer instinct." Then he apologizes for his outburst. "I'm just uptight," he says. "But it kills me to see you give away a lead like that."
I knew we were going to play tonight. I could see it in their eyes. I've made a little fur fly the last few weeks, but they're back now and I think they'll stay back. I feel good about the rest of our season, but this team has taught me you can't let up. A few days ago in practice James made a great play and I felt like cheering. But I just called him over and told him, "James, you know I can't brag on you." He said, "I know, Coach." I die when we're not playing, when we're not executing, but, hey, I'm a great guy when we play like we ought to.
Hall is prophetic about Kentucky's return to top form. The Wildcats roll to successive wins over Tennessee, Georgia, Nevada-Las Vegas and Vanderbilt and finish with a 25-2 record. They win the SEC by three games.
Only a few weeks before, Hall appeared to be cracking. Actually, his outbursts were calculated, as they had been in the past and as they would be in the approaching NCAA tournament. In 1975, during an important game at Alabama, Hall benched Grevey and called him "gutless" at halftime. Grevey came back to hit the winning basket. Hall has never forgotten that incident.
But Hall does not escape the season without one more controversy. Hall's pride and joy is his team's new basketball "house," a modern and luxurious $700,000 dormitory across the street from his office. He raised the money for it himself, and the foundation formed to supervise its construction voted to name the building after him. On March 3, the night before Kentucky plays Las Vegas, Hall is dining with Vegas Coach Jerry Tarkanian when he receives a phone call telling him that in the dead of night university maintenance men have removed Hall's name from a sign outside the building. The administration says proper technical procedure for naming the building had not been followed.
Tarkanian is appalled. He is aware that Hall has been under fire, but the removal of his name is too much. "What you ought to do is win the NCAA and then resign and take the Tennessee job," says Tarkanian.
Hall just smiles. Now is not the time to talk about quitting. There are three weeks to go. You can put up with anything for three weeks.
In Florida State, the Wildcats' first-round opponent in the NCAAs, Kentucky will encounter just the sort of opponent—fast and underrated—that had given it trouble.
Thursday, March 9—We beat Florida State by 40 points—97-57—last year. That right there could make it an even game on Saturday. It will hurt us and help them.
Saturday, March 11—Kentucky alumnus Bob Hardesty is distraught. He and three friends are on their feet in Hardesty's Covington, Ky. apartment watching the Wildcats play Florida State on television, watching Kentucky fall behind 39-32 at halftime, watching as the NCAA title is being washed down the drain by a defense that is leaking fast-break baskets. Then when Kentucky takes the floor for the second half, Hardesty and his friends let out a collective shriek of disbelief.
David Roos and Robert Howard are not happy, either. Roos, a science writer, is a Kentucky alumnus now living in Denver. He has called Louisville and is listening to the game on the telephone while his mother holds the receiver to the radio. Howard is a coal operator in Harlan County who has shut down his strip mine and is watching on a TV set he has installed atop a mountain to improve reception. Like the Hardesty party, Roos and Howard are stunned by Hall's starting lineup for the second half. It includes Cowan, a gangling, shy freshman who has scored in only seven games; Casey, a junior guard who has played only seven minutes in the previous six games; and Williams, a sophomore forward who, during one stretch, scored only two points in five games. At the height of Kentucky's February slump, it was this trio that was left standing dumbstruck when they were late getting to the team bus.
It is a daring move by Hall, perhaps the most daring of his career, but it pays off as the substitutes, scrambling wildly on defense, wear down Florida State. Kentucky goes on a 14-0 spurt and wins 85-76. In the locker room Hall says, "I want our All-Americans to thank the subs for keeping us in this tournament."
Sunday, March 12—We were doing nothing. Robey and Givens weren't helping us at all. They wouldn't guard a soul. The seniors were dying on the bench, but I wasn't about to let them go back in. It worked, but if it hadn't, I would have been drawn and quartered. I told the press, "I may not be smart but I'm not gutless."
Kentucky is moving on to the Mideast Regional at Dayton, where it will play Miami on Thursday night. As they prepare for the game, the Wildcats recapture their enthusiasm. At Tuesday's workout Casey has an upset stomach, gets sick and throws up. Ten minutes later he is back on the floor. "You don't win by looking pretty," Hall yells at one point. "You win by going to work. Show some enthusiasm. Act like you want to play."
Macy certainly wants to play. The next afternoon, during a practice session in Dayton, his knee buckles. "My whole life passed before my eyes," says Hall. Macy has his knee wrapped and declares himself ready for the next night.
Thursday, March 16—Kentucky is apprehensive. Early in the day a woman asks Cowan whom the Wildcats are playing that night. Cowan cannot remember. But once the game against Miami begins, Kentucky plays with poise and assurance. It rolls to a 16-point lead at halftime and wins 91-69.
The press asks Hall if his team is out of the doghouse. "Yeah," he says. "But they know they're just right by the door. They're still on the leash."
Saturday, March 18—Minutes before Kentucky takes the floor against Michigan State in the Mideast finals, Assistant Coach Dick Parsons decides he does not like the "feel" in the locker room. "Come on," he yells. "You all look tight. Come on, Jack. You don't look loose."
Then on the dressing room blackboard Hall writes "40-40-40—120," the number of minutes of game time left for the Wildcats if they proceed to win the NCAA final.
"That's two hours of work, fellows," he says. "You can kill snakes for two hours. You can swim in the ocean and fight sharks for two hours. You can run uphill for two hours. You can do anything for two hours. And we got 40 minutes of that time today. Forty minutes."
The first half is anything but easy for Kentucky. The Wildcats have shot close to 60% during the past month. Now, befuddled by a zone defense, they shoot 40% and trail 27-22. Kentucky is so tight that it's squeaking, but Hall is not in a conciliatory mood.
"Oh for four, Claytor!" he yells at his junior guard in the locker room. He runs down the rest of the team, blasting performances, and slams his clipboard down on a table in disgust.
Then he goes to the blackboard and tells the Wildcats that he is moving Robey to the high post. As the team walks out the locker-room door, Hall mutters to another assistant, Leonard Hamilton, "We're in trouble." Hamilton suggests that while Robey is at a high post perhaps he could set some picks for Kentucky's guards. Hall agrees to try it, and he also orders Kentucky into a 1-3-1 zone. The zone puts the Spartans on the defensive, and Robey's massive picks make Michigan State defenders commit foolish fouls. The Wildcats take the lead with 6:16 to go and win 52-49 when Macy, who has used Robey's picks with extraordinary deftness, coolly swishes two free throws with eight seconds remaining.
In the locker room Hall tells his squad, "We got 80 minutes to play. We're on our way."
The ride home tonight was great. As soon as we crossed into Kentucky on I-75, there were people all along the road holding up signs, even though it was cold and windy and it was getting dark. All the way to Lexington they were out on the overpasses and in the fields. People ask what I mean when I talk about the pressure at Kentucky. That was the pressure, right alongside the road tonight. About two years ago a widow in Hopkinsville died and left the basketball program $42,000. No one around Lexington even knew her! She just wanted to do something for the team because it had given her so much enjoyment over the years. That's the pressure of Kentucky.
The pressure has led to problems for Hall. But the fans seem to ignore issues of this sort, and there is seldom any mention that in its zeal to win, Kentucky found itself in trouble with the NCAA over recruiting methods used in the basketball program. The NCAA—which received some press criticism for not penalizing Kentucky as harshly as other schools—limited the Wildcats to only three new scholarships in both 1977-78 and 1978-79. In its report, the NCAA said the head basketball coach "failed to report to university officials...[his] knowledge of and involvement in violations."
Sunday, March 19—Hall heads for his 160-acre tobacco farm, located between Cynthiana and Paris. He bought the spread as much for its good fishing stream as its good soil.
"Done any plowin'?" Hall asks his tenant farmer, Furman Johnson, upon arriving.
"This time last year I'd a had got the 'baccer beds planted," says Johnson, a small, wiry man with an expressive, crinkled face, false teeth and a battered hat.
Hall and his caretaker tour the layout, inspecting the fields, the livestock, the tobacco-curing barn, the feed barn and the pond.
"The boys had me skeered there the other day, they did," says Johnson as Hall climbs into his truck.
"Me, too," says the coach.
The rest of the afternoon Hall visits his uncle and goes fishing in a fast-running stream. He catches nothing but is content. He also stops by his parents' home, where his mother tells him not to worry about Arkansas, which Kentucky will play Saturday in St. Louis.
"They can't shoot," she says. "My best friend watched them play yesterday and said they can't hit outside." In Kentucky everybody is a basketball expert.
Thursday, March 23—You're supposed to be able to hurt Arkansas with full-court pressure, and we've worked on it all week. But we haven't been able to press anybody all year, and we don't look good doing it now. People say Arkansas is the weakest team in the held, but I don't believe it. I know that in every game in the tournament they've been up by 15 at the half. That doesn't sound weak to me. I think the key to the game is putting pressure on their forward, Jim Counce. Everybody talks about their three great players, Marvin Delph, Ron Brewer and Sidney Moncrief, but Counce is the one that passes the ball. If we can pressure him, it could take them out of their offense."
Friday, March 24—Two planes bring the Kentucky contingent to St. Louis for the final two games of the NCAA tournament, and all the fans are wearing buttons proclaiming I'M A JOE B. FAN. Before the tournament is over, someone will slap one on Hall's jacket. His will say I'M JOE B.
Insiders say Hall has a remarkable ability to sense the mood of his team, to tighten it up when it is too loose, to relax it when it is tense. Years ago, when Hall coached at Regis College, he and the team chaplain brought a go-go dancer into the locker room before a big game. Today, before the Wildcats work out in the Checkerdome, the site of the NCAA finals, Hall begins speaking somberly of the importance of the next few days. He is sitting on a training table, and as he talks he lets his body slide absurdly over one edge. Ever so slowly he slips off the table and onto the floor, where he rolls back and forth on his back. By now the players are roaring, but they get Hall's message: go out and have a good time.
Saturday, March 25—Hall is awakened at 7 a.m. by Tombstone Johnny, a "memorial consultant" from Algona, Iowa, who drives 775 miles to see Kentucky games in Rupp Arena. He almost always calls Hall on the morning of a game. The two times he didn't this season, Kentucky lost.
The Wildcats have a 9:30 a.m. shooting practice at the Checkerdome, where the players discover that one of the baskets is too low. NCAA officials scurry to fix it, while the Wildcats clown around, pointing an unattended television camera at each other.
Five hours later Kentucky is back in the arena and deadly serious as it huddles in its locker room, waiting for Duke to fight off a late Notre Dame rally and win the first of the semifinals. The players mark time by passing around the game ball. Macy stretches his stiff knee. Trainer Walt McCombs completes his pregame chores by dousing a towel with something called Florida Water, an aromatic substance that is used to freshen up players during time-outs. Hall walks in and calmly begins tearing apart the game program, whittling it down to manageable thickness. As always, he will carry it like a relay runner's baton throughout the game.
After 20 minutes of play, Hall is not so restrained. After falling behind 12-8, Kentucky takes a 24-18 lead, rattling Arkansas with a tenacious man-to-man defense that denies passes everywhere but out of bounds. However, Hall is angry because in the closing moments of the half the Cats frittered away all but two points of their lead.
His face red, Hall tears off his coat and berates Claytor and Phillips. "All you got to do is go out there with some guts and play!" he shouts. "We haven't got a guard who can get the ball inside."
"I'm open, Coach," interjects Lee.
"I know it, James," says Hall. "But I don't have a guard who can get it to you. They throw it to Arkansas, and Arkansas goes down and shoots layups. I just by Gawd wonder what some of you are doin'. Shoot, Truman. I don't know. Can you play? Can you open your eyes? Can you do something?"
"Yes, sir," says Claytor, his brow furrowed contritely.
Kentucky controls the second half. Its lead is six after four minutes, eight after six minutes and 54-45 with a little less than nine minutes left. The Wildcats win 64-59.
In the locker room, Hall asks the players if they want to have dinner and see a movie later in the evening.
"How about if we watch a tape of the Duke-Notre Dame game?" asks Robey.
"Yeah, let's watch Duke," other players chime in. Kentucky is here to win. When the writers enter the dressing room, they are struck by the fact that the players are not celebrating.
We watched the Duke tape tonight and everybody saw the same thing. Their zone is wide open in the middle, and their center, Mike Gminski, will not challenge you if you get the ball inside. That's what we want to do against them. Hit the man in the middle and then take it to Gminski.
Sunday, March 26—An Associated Press story suggests that Hall may retire after Monday night's game. But the article does not bother Hall as much as the discovery that, only a week before, 400 people had been taken ill at the Wildcats' hotel.
Every year since I've been at Kentucky there has been a story that I would be fired or that I would quit. Do you realize what that does to your recruiting? Last year at this time Brent Musburger of CBS broadcast that I was being fired. We got our athletic director, Cliff Hagan, to call him up and demand a retraction. So about two weeks later, at 3 a.m., I'm sleeping when I get a phone call. Here's the conversation:
"This is Brent Musburger. I'm sorry about that erroneous story...." (click).
Monday, March 27—Hall spends the day reading newspapers in his hotel room, flabbergasted by comments that his team does not appear to be "having fun." In 1975, when Kentucky played in the NCAA finals in San Diego, Hall spent all of his time being interviewed, while his team traipsed off on sightseeing trips to the zoo, a marine exhibit and other attractions. Wiser now, Hall has vowed to avoid distractions. He is the only one of the final-four coaches who refused to be wired for television. And now at 3:30 p.m. he sends someone to make sure the players are resting.
Meanwhile, Kentucky fan Wilma Watson of Waynesville, Ohio is at the Dayton airport and frantic. Can she make it to St. Louis in time for the final game? No way, says the ticket agent. "But I have to be there!" she fibs. "I'm singing the national anthem." Concerned now, the agent devises a special routing that will get her to the game on time.
Late in the afternoon, just before the Wildcats are to leave for the arena, there is a knock on Hall's door. A group of eight players whom he coached 15 years ago at Regis has come to visit. Hall is touched. All day he has been reading that his Kentucky players are cold, emotionless. When he walks with the Regis delegation to the elevator his eyes are glistening.
At the arena, Kentucky's players, probably for the first time all year, appear to be more relaxed than their coach. While Notre Dame and Arkansas play in the consolation game and Wilma Watson settles into her seat, the Wildcats lounge around their dressing quarters. When someone asks Kyle Macy about the condition of his knee, he says, "It's a game knee. It's all right the day of a game. Heh, heh." Coming from the normally taciturn Macy, the comment is a speech.
Hall watches the consolation game and then walks beneath the stands toward his dressing room. Engrossed in thought, tense, by mistake he starts to enter the Duke locker room. Gene Banks, the Blue Devil freshman, and several other players look up, startled. Hall catches his mistake and heads for his team's locker room. There he goes over defensive assignments, reminds everyone to look to the middle of Duke's zone, gives Phillips a quick demonstration on how he wants him to take the ball to the basket and then writes a big "40" on the blackboard. "This is it fellows," he says as the players huddle up. "Forty minutes to glory."
Hall is toughest on his players when they are in the lead. He drives them like a jockey whipping his mount down the stretch, flailing away with his rolled-up program as Kentucky leads throughout the first half. The score mounts to 45-38 as Givens, criticized earlier in the year for not being able to play well in big games, puts in his team's last 16 points, six of them in the final 31 seconds. But Hall is not about to let anyone relax. He charges into the dressing room right behind Williams and chews him out for his defense.
Williams says something back to him.
Hall explodes. "This is a hail of a time for you to get upset, Lavon."
Then Hall starts in on Cowan and finally he blasts Phillips, who has had a woeful first half, missing all three of his shots and drawing four fouls.
His mission accomplished, Hall now stands before a team that feels as if it were losing instead of winning. He goes to the blackboard. "I guarantee you that they cannot guard you right here," he says, pointing to the middle of the Duke zone. He spends the rest of the intermission talking about technical matters until, just before the Wildcats go back on the floor, he says to Phillips, "Mike, hang in there. You may have a hail of a half."
In the second half, Kentucky hits nine of its first 14 shots and has a 66-50 lead with 12:42 left. Thereafter, Kentucky plays just well enough to win. The Cats are cautious, giving up a 15-foot jump shot that Duke's Jim Spanarkel keeps firing in. A 13-point lead with 2:44 left is trimmed to four before Lee ends the game with a dunk shot. That makes the final score 94-88 in Kentucky's favor.
As the game ends, Hall wades through an engulfing crowd, climbs over the press table and a railing, and goes into the stands to hug his wife. On the floor, one net is down. The players are going down to the opposite end to cut loose the other when Lee, who had been castigated almost daily during his four years at Kentucky, calls out for Hall. "Joe, Joe," he yells, but Hall does not hear him. So Lee goes into the stands and pulls Hall onto the floor. Phillips lifts the coach up on his shoulders, and Hall snips away all but one of the final strands of the net. He leaves the last one for Givens, who has scored 41 points and forever silenced his critics.
As the crowd surges around him, Hall hugs and thanks each of his players.
Mike Phillips says, "It made it all worthwhile."
Lavon Williams apologizes for his locker room back talk.
"Jay, you know I love you," Hall tells Shidler.
"We love you too, Coach," Shidler answers.