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Ken’s Cats Corner: Joe B. For the Hall – A No Brainer

When Jack “Goose” Givens spoke to the sell-out crowd at Rupp Arena last Saturday night during the halftime ceremony honoring Coach Joe B. Hall, he spoke for all of the BIg Blue Nation when he said, “We love you, we appreciate greatly everything you did to make us not just who are as basketball players but the men we are today and we all hope you get into Hall of Fame, which is exactly where you deserve to be.”

Nominees for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame were announced in November and Hall’s name is on the list. CoachCal.com contributor Ken Howlett makes the compelling case for Coach Hall’s inclusion as a legend who did what few – if any – have ever done in the game.

Setting the Stage

There is a no more difficult job in all of sports than following a coaching legend.  Whether it be the Green Bay Packers’ Vince Lombardi, the New York Yankees’ Casey Stengel, the Chicago Bulls’ Phil Jackson, or Alabama’s Bear Bryant, the coach unlucky enough to follow an icon, based on history, is set-up to either fail or live under a foreboding shadow – or both.

Included on the list of coaching luminaries who loomed larger-than-life over a worshiping fan base is Kentucky basketball coaching giant, Adolph Rupp.  In his 41 seasons as The Baron of the Bluegrass, Rupp captured not only the imagination of an entire state, he also became the most popular figure in a state where basketball is assigned religious status.  The height of Rupp’s stature dwarfed any other Kentucky public figure, and elevated him to the point that Rupp towered over the Commonwealth’s populous as a god-like winner of championships.

Rupp’s many accomplishments while leading the Wildcats are now a part of UK basketball lore, passed down from from father to son, mother to daughter.  And those same achievements became the ubiquitous ghosts his successor had to confront — Four national championships; seven Final Fours; an NIT title when it meant something; 876 victories; an .822 winning percentage; and 28 All-Americans.  Rupp, to the many hundreds-of-thousands of UK fans was Kentucky basketball.  To those same fans, Rupp invented winning.  And Kentucky basketball fans place winning above all else.

Joe B. Hall (of Famer) addressess the crowd during halftime of the MVSU game on December 18. (Photo by Justin Bard)

Forced to retire at age 71 in 1972, Rupp did not go quietly into that good night.  For Rupp knew he still wanted to coach, UK administrators knew Rupp still wanted to coach, and most importantly, Kentucky fans knew Rupp still wanted to coach.  And for the man selected to replace Rupp on the UK bench, assistant coach Joe B. Hall, Rupp still pining to coach made the already difficult transition from Rupp to Hall all the more challenging for everyone involved.

So, not only was Hall picked to replace a living, breathing legend.  Hall was replacing a living, breathing legend who still had designs on roaming the sidelines.  Some might call that an untenable situation for Hall.  But “some” did not include the man elevated to the Big Blue throne.

The Trouble with Greatness

Joe Hall’s seemingly impossible situation, while certainly not commonplace, is not the only time in college basketball history that a coach has been charged with taking over a program which excessively thrived under another’s leadership.  UCLA’s John Wooden, North Carolina’s Dean Smith, Indiana’s Bob Knight, Oklahoma’s Hank Iba, and Kansas’ Phog Allen all built extraordinarily successful basketball programs, and did so over many decades.  All are legendary figures, all won championships, all are the fathers of their programs.

And all were followed by men who either failed to live up to the accomplishments of the past, or failed to embrace the pressure of following a legend.  The trouble with greatness is that it’s almost impossible to replicate.

The great John Wooden retired in 1975 after winning his 10th national title, and appearing in 12 Final Fours.  And it wasn’t until Jim Harrick, in 1995, that a UCLA head coach finally won another national title.  Not surprisingly, the Bruins went through five different coaches between the 1976 and 1985 seasons, all with varying degrees of success.  But no one, for an extended period of time, has succeeded in putting Wooden in the rear view mirror.

After 29 years of winning, Bob Knight, builder of Hoosier Nation, was forced out in 2000 by Indiana president Myles Brand.  Winner of three national titles, 11 Big Ten championships, with five Final Fours appearances, Knight, like Rupp, was adored and revered by Hoosier fans from New Albany to Akron.  Following Knight at IU was Mike Davis, who coached the Hoosiers from 2000-2006, posting an unceremonious 115-79 record (.593).  Finally, after six seasons of discontent, Davis was let go, and Kelvin Sampson brought in to restore the glory to Assembly Hall.  Two seasons, and numerous NCAA violations later, Sampson was shown the door.  Still today, Indiana basketball is struggling to regain its footing, over ten years after Knight’s exit.

North Carolina’s Dean Smith retired in 1997 after leading the Tar Heels for 37 seasons.  The man who broke Rupp’s victory record with 879 wins, was followed in Chapel Hill by long-time Tar Heel assistant coach Bill Guthridge.  In his three seasons, Guthridge won 80 games, but was only 32-16 in the ACC and even after two Final Four appearances, he couldn’t step out of Smith’s shadow.  After Guthridge stepped down in 2000, UNC hired former player Matt Doherty.  The experiment failed miserably, and ended with Doherty winning only 53 of 96 games.  It wasn’t until Roy Williams escaped the shadow of Smith with a national title in 2005, eight years (and three coaches) after Dean Smith’s retirement, did anyone approach making Tar Heel fans put the Smith era comfortably behind them.

Hank Iba, one of the original great basketball coaches, led Oklahoma State (known as Oklahoma A&M until 1957) from 1934 to 1970.  Iba won 751 games in his time in Stillwater, appeared in four Final Fours, and was the first coach to win consecutive national titles in 1945-46.  After his retirement, the next 20 years saw head coaches Sam Aubrey, Guy Strong, Jim Killingsworth, Paul Hansen, and Leonard Hamilton all lead the Cowboys, all with varying degrees of success.  But none came near the accomplishments of Iba, and none won, or even came close to winning a championship.  It wasn’t until 1995, 25 years after Iba’s retirement, that Eddie Sutton took the Cowboys back to a Final Four and helped restore past glory to the OSU program.

And finally, Phog Allen.  Teacher of Rupp and Dean Smith, and perhaps the original great hardwood coach.  Allen coached Kansas from 1920 to 1956.  He won 608 games at KU, 746 overall, and three national championships: 1922, 1923, and 1952.  He played for James Naismith, inventor of the game, and tutored countless future coaches.  Upon Allen’s departure from Kansas, Dick Harp was handed the unenviable task of following the legend.  Harp coached nine seasons, from 1956-64, winning a respectable 121 games, but was unable to capture the magic Allen took with him into retirement.  Ted Owens coached the Jayhawks from ’64 to ’83, and took KU to two Final Fours, but the luster of Kansas basketball wasn’t fully restored until Larry Brown won a national title with Danny & the Miracles in 1988, 32 years after the retirement of Allen.

Joe B’s Time to (Out) Shine

When taking into account a coach’s accomplishments, and attempting to determine the worthiness of those accomplishments, it’s important to put the achievements and the circumstances surrounding the achievements, in the proper context.  For Joe B. Hall didn’t merely coach at the University of Kentucky.  He coached at the University of Kentucky after the most beloved coach, possibly in the history of the sport.  As the coaches who followed all of the greats I have listed above, Hall was given an unimaginable task – Sustain the greatness. A feat no one has successfully executed in the history of college basketball.

No one, that is, with the exception of Joe Hall.

In his 13 years as head coach at Kentucky, Hall won 297 games and lost 100, a .748 winning percentage.  (Although Rupp won over 82% of his games overall, from the 1960 season, until his retirement in 1972, he won at a .760 clip).  Hall won eight SEC championships, and finished in the top ten in the country seven times.  In six of Hall’s 13 years, he won at least 78.5% of his games.  It took Hall exactly three seasons to reach the NCAA championship game, and six years to win UK’s fifth national title: A dominating 30-2 1978 season.  In 1976, Hall took a group of freshmen and sophomores and won the NIT, at that time, a championship Kentuckians could be proud of.  Hall posted a 33-16 post season record, coached in three Final Fours, and five Elite Eights.  Hall was 32-18 against UK’s primary rivals: Indiana, Louisville, North Carolina, Kansas, and Notre Dame.  And against Hall of Fame members Denny Crum and Bob Knight, Hall posted a 10-10 mark.

Those are the numbers.  These are the players:

The players Hall recruited to, and coached at UK reads like a Who’s Who of Wildcat luminaries and college basketball greats – Jim Andrews, 2-time 1st Team All-SEC; Kevin Grevey, 2-time All-America; Rick Robey, 2-time All-America; Kyle Macy, 3-time All-America; Sam Bowie, 2-time All-America; Melvin Turpin, 2-time All-America; and Kenny Walker, 2-time All-America.

In total, Hall coached seven All-American players (chosen 16 times), 11 All-SEC performers (chosen 20 times), and three SEC Players of the Year (Grevey, Macy, Walker).

Joe B’s Footprint

Hall’s legacy, standing tall and proud on its own, perhaps is better appreciated when the circumstances surrounding his tenure are understood.  Never before, and never since, has a coach inherited a basketball program from a founding father, and for varying reasons, succeeded in the long term.  The pressure, already considerable, is multiplied and magnified because the expectations are many times outrageous.  Most coaches have begged off the battle after a few years, or succumbed to unfulfilled fan base expectations.

Not Hall, though.  In the most demanding sports environment known to man, Hall sustained the tradition, even managing to add to the aura of excellence.  Furthermore, Hall did it not only as a head coach, but also as UK’s primary recruiting assistant from 1965, until he took over the reigns from Rupp in ’72.  During that time, Hall brought to UK players such as Tom Parker, Mike Casey, Mike Pratt, Dan Issel, Jim Andrews, and Larry Steele, among others.

Hall did it as an innovator, bringing with him to UK a conditioning plan never before implemented at the major college level.  A plan which enabled the fabled Rupp’s Runts to run roughshod over their competition in 1966.

Hall did it all, and then some.  And when he decided to hang up his clipboard after 13 seasons, Hall left the program filled with talent, and with a bright future.

“Coach Hall has been a special friend since I arrived here,” said Coach Cal. “He’s been like a mentor. He comes to practice two-three days a week. He gets on there, starts diagramming stuff for me. A great day for me was last year when we introduced him, I think it was for the Blue-White scrimmage, I sat him on the bench and the response from our fans was like, wow. And sometimes when you coach and you’ve been away, I don’t know if he realized how people feel about him here. They truly love him.

“So, for 40 players to come back (for the MVSU game), for us to be a part of that and be around, for me to be around him and him to be able to help us today, it’s great. Here’s a guy who coached in the 70s, won a national title and has nothing but good things for me. There’s no jealousy. It’s not, ‘Well Cal got this and I never had this and I had to do without this and my office’ all he is, is happy Kentucky is doing well. And he wants to be a part of it and wants to come to practice. And he’s become a dear friend because of that.”

So really, is there anything more one can ask of a coach?  Hall won, and won repeatedly at the highest level, against some of the brightest basketball minds.  And he did it with the weight of a legend, and the entire Commonwealth on his back, bouncing, reminding him of the importance of the job at hand.  A job well done, Joe B., well done, indeed. Now for the other Hall – the one in Springfield, Mass. – do the right thing and welcome our Hall to their Hall.

-RTL-