Tom Eblen: Joe Hall says UK coach's job is about more than basketball

Herald-Leader columnistMarch 27, 2009 

In any high-profile leadership role, some responsibilities are obvious. Others, while less obvious, are every bit as important.

It's true for a corporate executive, for a mayor, a governor, a president or a coach — especially if that coach wants to succeed as the head basketball coach at the University of Kentucky.

If the Big Blue Nation's romance with Billy Clyde Gillispie ends in divorce, it won't be because of his teams' uninspiring performance on the basketball court these past two years, although that certainly hasn't helped.

It will be because Gillispie has refused to embrace the less obvious — at least to him — responsibilities that come with being the spiritual leader of Kentucky's secular religion.

Kentucky fans will never accept the notion that the Wildcat dynasty is just another basketball program, or that coaching Big Blue is just another job. And they won't long tolerate a coach who thinks otherwise.

Here is the point in this column where you can insert your own thoughts about whether Kentucky's basketball obsession is healthy. You might say Kentucky would be better off if the average citizen cared as much about education, good health and a cleaner environment as he does about Wildcat basketball.

But, you know, it is what it is.

So, given reality, let's hear from the man who knows more than any other about UK fans' expectations of their basketball coach. In 1973, Joe B. Hall succeeded the dynasty's founder, the sport's winningest coach. Adolph Rupp led UK for 41 years — three years longer than all five of his successors combined.

When I called Hall's cell phone Thursday, he was having a late lunch with friends and talking about, what else, the state of Kentucky basketball.

Hall came to the hottest seat in coaching well-prepared. He grew up in Cynthiana as a UK fan, played for Rupp and spent seven years as his assistant. He understood how important UK basketball was to Kentuckians, and how important Kentuckians were to UK basketball.

"My behavior was dictated by what was good for the program," said Hall, who turned 80 last November.

"If it meant standing at the state tournament and signing autographs for an hour, then you had to do that," he said. "If it meant not going to bars and getting in fights with irate fans, then that was something that you had to do. If it meant being seen in communities throughout the state, looking at the local talent as much as possible, to let people feel like you were aware of your in-state talents ... There's no end to what responsibilities you have to the public."

Hall declined to comment on how Gillispie has handled his public responsibilities.

"I haven't been all that close to what he does to know firsthand," he said. "I don't care to repeat rumors; I think that's very unfair. Personally, every contact I've had with him has been a pleasant one."

Kentucky fans may demand more of their coach off-court than fans at other schools, but that's not unfair, Hall said. Any good college or high school coach understands that his athletic program isn't an end unto itself, but a part of an larger educational mission. And for that mission to succeed, it must have the support of its community.

"I worked at it to make the team a part of the community," Hall said. "You wouldn't believe the things that we did. We went around during Christmas and sang Christmas carols to the president. We had special events for the students. That's how we started Midnight Madness, was to invite the students to a practice. Our sole aim was to make the students feel that we were doing things for them."

Hall's teams had Halloween parties for UK faculty children at Wildcat Lodge and played scrimmages out in the state for fans who might not otherwise see a UK game. "I could go on and on to tell you the things we did to try to show the fans that we were human and we were involved in activities that included them," he said.

If there is a new coach, Hall said, his first question is sure to be this: "What's expected?"

The coach's success will depend on how that question is answered — and how well he understands that the job is about a lot more than basketball.

Reach Tom Eblen at (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415, or at teblen@herald-leader.com. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.

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