LEXINGTON — When you think about UK basketball, one of the first names to pop up would be Joe B. Hall, a recent inductee of the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
A popular and pleasant gentleman who retired from his UK head coaching post in 1985, Hall is still an avid supporter of the Wildcat program and often observes coach John Calpari’s team practices. During his retirement, Hall has faithfully attended nearly every UK home game at Rupp Arena, sitting on the front row and watching the players up close.
In an interview with this columnist last week, Hall was asked what was his most fun team that he had as far as coaching, which also included stints at Sheperdsville (Ky.) High School, Regis College and Central Missouri State College.
“I had about 30 of them,” smiled Hall, now 84. “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, many teams, not always the championship teams, were the most satisfying. Sometimes it was the team that exceeded your expectations. The crowds, the history and the tradition of Kentucky basketball just made those kids play better. “
A former Adolph Rupp player who returned to Kentucky as an assistant coach for the Baron in 1965 and became the Wildcat boss in 1972, Hall took three UK teams to the NCAA Final Four, including the 1978 national crown, with a 13-year mark of 297-100, a winning percentage of 75.
A four-time SEC Coach of the Year, Hall also captured eight league championships.
And don’t overlook Hall’s one memorable Kentucky team which surprisingly won the 1976 National Invitation Tournament title in defeating North Carolina-Charlotte (now Charlotte) 71-67 when the NIT and NCAA both only had a total of 44 teams in post-season action with 32 appearing in the Big Dance.
The NCAA and NIT tournaments, by comparison, now invite 68 and 32 teams, respectively. That’s whopping total of 100 teams.
While Hall didn’t pick his most “fun” team of his coaching career, he fondly remembers the 1975-76 Wildcats 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.”
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.
Interestingly, one of Charlotte’s assistants (under head coach and Kentuckian Lee Rose) at that time was former UK star Mike Pratt. Even though his team lost, Pratt remembers the NIT championship game in New York very well.
“(It) was a terrific game down to the last minutes,” the current UK radio broadcaster wrote in an e-mail. “I went into UK locker room after the game and congratulated all. As a former player, those guys made me proud the way they handled themselves.”
On that 1975-76 squad, sophomore captain Jack Givens was the team’s leading scorer with a 20.1-point average and junior guard Larry Johnson was the playmaker along with lone senior Reggie Warford.
Hall also pointed out the 1976-77 team (with a 26-4 record and a final No. 3 national ranking) was a very good one.
“That was a team that’s good enough to win it all,” said the former mentor.
As you may know, it was coach Dean Smith’s North Carolina club which ended UK’s national title hopes by utilizing a four-corners offense in the second half to stop the Cats 79-72 in the NCAA East Regional finals in College Park, Maryland.
Senior Larry Johnson guided that talented squad along with junior standouts Jack Givens, Rick Robey, Mike Phillips and James Lee. Freshman Jay Shidler and sophomore Truman Claytor were key contributors as well.
Hall, meanwhile, is listed as one of only three men to have won an NCAA title as a player (in 1949) and as a coach (1978). (The only other individuals to achieve this feat are Bob Knight and Dean Smith.)
But the ex-coach pointed out that’s not completely accurate since he actually didn’t play in the NCAA finals during the 1948-49 season as a sophomore member of the Wildcats during the “Fabulous Five” era.
“I transferred in mid-season (to University of the South in Tennessee),” explained Hall, “but I was on the squad as a freshman and up through half of the sophomore year.”
Hall did come back to UK later as a student to finish his degree requirements.
Asked about his unforgettable moment in UK’s 1978 national title victory against Duke in St. Louis, Hall said, “I think a big thing was Jack Givens’ (41-point) performance in that championship game and (it was) just a flawless effort on his part. But having the comfort to be able to empty the bench and to have every player on my squad to play in that championship game, that meant a lot to me.”
At that time, it was Kentucky’s first national title in 20 years.
Hall, by the way, also got to spend some time with his former players from that 1978 team this past weekend. He, along with his players, received loud ovations from an appreciative Rupp Arena crowd last Saturday, celebrating the 35th anniversary of their NCAA championship.
And my interview with Hall will continue in a future column.