- Tennessee Volunteers - January 24, 2017 - 9:00 PM EST - Thompson-Boling Arena, Knoxville, Tenn. - ESPN
Kentucky Wildcat basketball fans are known around the nation as the most passionate and dedicated fan base in collegiate athletics. The Big Blue Nation lives for each Wildcat victory and dies a little inside with each loss. Over the last many decades, faithfully following UK basketball has become a rite of passage among the youth of Kentucky, passionately passed down from father to son and mother to daughter.
But never, in the 110-year history of Kentucky basketball, has there been a fan as passionate, as dedicated, as dyed-in-the-wool Big Blue as Bob Wiggins. At 85 years old, Mr. Wiggins, although cruelly robbed by time of memories of long ago Wildcat games, continues to hold in his heart an unsurpassed passion for Kentucky basketball.
“When I think about Mr. Wiggins, I think about a consistent, first-class, professional gentleman that loves Kentucky basketball and all that make Kentucky basketball happen,” said Jeff Sheppard, 1998 Final Four MVP. “From the players, to support staff, to the equipment managers, he truly loves every aspect of Kentucky basketball.”
Mr. Wiggins’ love of UK basketball began in the mid-1940s. As a young man living in Falmouth, Ky., he began following the Cats primarily due to a lack of options in the small Pendleton County hamlet.
“Living here in this little town, there wasn’t anything to do,” Mr. Wiggins said about the genesis of his love for UK basketball. “I didn’t golf or anything, although I did play high school basketball (for Falmouth High School), but I wasn’t any good.”
So, following UK basketball became his passion. Since that time, nearly 66 years ago, Mr. Wiggins has witnessed, in person, more than 1,650 Kentucky basketball games.
“We married in 1949 and he was going to the ballgames then,” Jeane Wiggins, Bob’s wife of nearly 64 years, said about the beginning of her husband’s love affair with UK basketball. “That’s when he was driving and going to the ball games with (the late) Steve Reardon and Manual Thornton. He would drive and they would go wherever the game was played, and when the game was over they would come home.”
This, Mr. Wiggins, did for decades, never missing a Kentucky game, either on the road or in Lexington.
“They would always laugh and say, when they got somewhere (to a road venue), and Bob, Mr. Reardon and Manual would not be there yet, they’d say, ‘You know, we can’t play this ball game until they get here.’ ” Jeane said. “They were always waiting for them, watching for them to come.”
It is that otherworldly passionate consistency which has made Bob Wiggins a living Wildcat legend, and to some an icon, recognized by other legendary Kentucky basketball figures as being the absolute cream of the UK fan crop.
When John Calipari was introduced as Kentucky’s new basketball coach in April 2009, Coach Cal sought out Mr. Wiggins, pointed to him and said, “You’re the guy I wanted to talk to.”
During one unbelievable stretch, Bob Wiggins attended every Wildcat game for 19 consecutive years. His incredible streak ending because of a mild heart attack he suffered in 1997, only hours prior to the team leaving for a trip to Alaska to participate in the Great Alaska Shootout.
Although Mr. Wiggins did not attend road games during the 2012-13 season due to health reasons, he still makes the trek from Falmouth to Rupp Arena for every home game, dutifully taking his seat behind the UK bench in his trademark suit and tie.
“You talk about someone who is driven and passionate about Kentucky basketball, this man embodies the real Kentucky fan,” said Winston Bennett, former UK player and assistant coach. “I can remember him in the ’80s being at those games and being at some of the practices and being on the plane when we flew to different games (in the ’90s). Talk about dedication and longevity … this was a religion. People talk about Kentucky basketball being a religion; it was truly a religion with this man.”
While typical UK basketball fans make watching and following the Cats a priority in their lives, clearly Mr. Wiggins took it to another level – a level unknown to possibly any other fan. Anywhere.
“Anyone who sets a record for attendance, as he did over many years, has to be infected with the Kentucky spirit to have the type of drive which would lead him to attend that many games over the years,” Joe B. Hall, former UK head coach, said about Mr. Wiggins’ long-standing dedication to Wildcat basketball. “You can imagine the hardships he went through, the things he sacrificed, the times that he had serious illnesses, or obligations, but nothing out there stood in his way of following his love affair with Kentucky basketball.”
Nothing indeed. Not even his job as an engineer for the state of Kentucky, a position he held for nearly 40 years, could keep Mr. Wiggins away from the hardwood.
“A lot of times when he got home (from road games), he would go to his office, take his tie off and go to work,” Jeane said. “And he did that many, many times. He would never come home” after some road trips.
Although Mr. Wiggins re-arranged his work schedule and spent countless dollars to attend all of UK’s games, he considers neither the time, nor money spent, to be a sacrifice.
“People have asked him many, many times how much he’s spent going to all these ball games, and he’s always answered, ‘I wouldn’t want to know,’ ” Jeane said with a laugh. “It was the only thing he did, though. He didn’t play golf. He traveled and went to the games, and that was his thing. He said he didn’t think about what he spent because it was the joy he got (from going to UK games) that mattered.”
That joy was multiplied in 2012, as Mr. Wiggins was honored by Kentucky’s latest national title team. It was UK senior Darius Miller who carefully snipped a piece of the championship net at the Super Dome, climbed down the ladder and handed a strand of the twine to Mr. Wiggins, bringing an everlasting smile to the face of UK’s biggest backer. Early in UK’s 2013 SEC slate, Mr. Wiggins was again honored, this time on the floor at Rupp Arena with a portion of the Super Dome floor UK had won its eighth NCAA title on.
The delight Mr. Wiggins receives from attending so many Wildcat games has been bolstered by the hundreds of friendships he has developed over the years, relationships he likely would not have forged if not for his overriding love of Kentucky basketball.
“Bob has said many, many times that he’s met so many wonderful people that he would have never had the opportunity to meet and be in contact with” if not for him attending so many UK basketball games, Jeane said. “And of course the people at the university … everybody knows him. I’m amazed when I go with him now (to games), I can’t believe the people that know Bob.”
One of the “people that know Bob” is former Wildcat coach Rick Pitino, who, shortly after taking over the UK program in the summer of 1989, brought to Mr. Wiggins a surprising proposal.
“He didn’t start flying with (the team) until Coach Rick Pitino arrived,” Jeane said. “Coach Pitino asked him if he would like to fly with the team, and Bob jumped at the chance, and he’s flown with the team ever since. He was very surprised and grateful that they thought enough of him to ask him to travel with the team.”
The man who set himself apart from all others who call themselves fans, was now riding in first class. It was an unexpected reward for, at the time, 42 years of dedication to Wildcat basketball.
The special access to UK’s basketball program that Mr. Wiggins has been granted has enabled him to interact with a plethora of Wildcat coaches, players and managers. As expected, all sing Mr. Wiggins’ praises, both as a fan and as a man.
“Bob Wiggins is probably the biggest super-fan of any super-fan for any program, professional or international,” said Bo Rodriguez, UK’s equipment manager. “Bob is always an ambassador for the university and the program. He is probably the coolest thing I’ve been around, and I’m including the coaches and the players.”
Rodriguez was Mr. Wiggins’ road roommate for two years, carefully looking after UK’s most ardent supporter, all the while being regaled with stories of Wildcat teams past and present. It was during these trips that Rodriguez first took notice of Mr. Wiggins’ devotion to UK’s players, a loyalty which endured through good times and bad.
“The highs and lows the coaches and players go through, (doesn’t matter), he’s along with us,” Rodriguez said. “If a player has a bad game, Bob is still going to love you. If a player does something stupid, inside or outside the arena, Bob’s still going to love you. He’s just one of those great men to be around. People aspire to be like Bob Wiggins.”
Attending more than 1,650 games, traveling with the team, going to practice – all of these things have allowed Mr. Wiggins a unique opportunity to see inside Kentucky basketball. It’s a perspective not often duplicated.
“The average fan sees the coach and the players on the floor and appreciates Kentucky basketball from that standpoint,” Sheppard said. “But Mr. Wiggins, because of his consistency and faithfulness to UK basketball through so many games and so many years of being with the team, was really given a sneak-peak opportunity to have an appreciation for every aspect of Kentucky basketball.”
Beginning with Ralph Beard in the late 1940s and continuing to Anthony Davis, Mr. Wiggins has seen nearly every UK All-American suit up for the Cats. But don’t ask him to name a favorite player. It’s a waste of time.
“He’s been asked many, many times, ‘Who is your choice player?’ And he says ‘I can’t say I have a choice player because there’s been just too many of them,’ ” Jeane said.
Mr. Wiggins, though, feels a special bond with the 2012 Wildcat squad.
“I would say the 2012 team was more emotionally involved with Bob than any other team,” Jeane said. “They all kind of took Bob under their wing. Bob was a part of them. They knew that Bob had a problem with his health, and they watched over him. They really did. So I think Bob felt closer to that team, and the team felt closer to him, than any other team at Kentucky.”
It was during a 2011 team trip to ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., that the special feeling that Mr. Wiggins has for the 2012 team was first fostered, particularly by UK’s 3-point specialist, Doron Lamb.
“Doron really took a special interest in Bob,” Jeane said. “He was always looking out for him, making sure he was alright and didn’t need anything.”
While on the ESPN trip, it was Lamb, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Mr. Wiggins who had a group picture taken with all three displaying Lamb’s patented “3 goggles” pose. A framed portrait captures the moment and is proudly hanging on Mr. Wiggins’ wall in his “Wildcat room” at his home in Falmouth.
As Mr. Wiggins nears his seventh decade as a devout Wildcat follower, he still makes the games, with very rare exceptions. He still, dapper as ever, sits near the UK bench, stoically watching his team vie for victory. He still relishes each player, each coach, each win. He still feels a passion for the program few others are able muster.
Simply put, “Kentucky basketball is Bob’s life,” Jeane said.