Mark Story: The reinvention of Harrison County's Joe B. Hall

In 13 years as UK's basketball coach, he was never as beloved as he is now

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 14, 2011 

  • Harrison County

    Ten things to know about Harrison County:

    County's birth: Dec. 21, 1793 (the 17th of Kentucky's 120 counties in order of formation)

    Named for: Benjamin Harrison, a Pennsylvania native who migrated to Kentucky and became a significant political figure before and after the commonwealth split from Virginia.

    Population: 18,604 (2010 U.S. Census Bureau figure)

    Demographics: Whites 18,062; blacks 455; Hispanics 363; other/multirace 176; American Indian/Alaska Native 60; Asians 38; Native Hawaiian/other Pacific Islander 3.

    County seat: Cynthiana (31 miles north of Lexington)

    2008 U.S. presidential election: McCain 4,520; Obama 2,916

    John Hunt Morgan attacks: The famous Confederate raider John Hunt Morgan had a multibattle history with Cynthiana during the Civil War. In July 1862, Morgan's cavalry of some 800 troops attacked some 350 Union soldiers and home guard on a bridge over the Licking River. Morgan took some 40 casualties and the Union forces had about 90 in The Battle of Cynthiana Bridge before the South won the skirmish. In 1864, Morgan and his raiders attacked Cynthiana again, burning down about 25 houses to force out Union troops barricaded inside. The next day, U.S. Gen. Stephen Burbridge drove the Confederates out of Cynthiana.

    A 'Stout' legacy: Louis Stout was a star basketball player at the old Cynthiana High School who was recruited to play at Regis College in Denver by another Harrison County product, Joe B. Hall. In 1971, Stout became the first African-American to serve in an executive position with the Kentucky High School Athletics Association. In 1994, Stout was named KHSAA commissioner, becoming the first black person in U.S. history to head a state high school athletics governing body. Stout retired from that position in 2002.

    Whistle blowers: In 1971, while teaching at Harrison County, Doug Hampton agreed to referee a freshman basketball game. From that start, a family legacy was born. Before he hung up his whistle in 1996, Hampton, now 62, refereed six Kentucky boys' high school basketball state tournaments and became a college official in the Ohio Valley and Metro conferences, among others. His sons, John and Brent, followed their dad's lead and have advanced even higher into college hoops officiating. John, 43, now works in the Southeastern Conference and Big 12, while Brent, 35, calls games in the Big East and Big 12.

    A baseball dynasty: In modern times, the sports calling card of Harrison County High School has been the Thorobreds baseball program. Coach Mac Whitaker has won 933 games (vs. 270 losses) and led Harrison County to four state titles (1993, 1997, 1998 and 2010). Harrison County has produced two Kentucky Mr. Baseball winners, Shon Walker (1992) and Dion Newby (1993).

    Mark Story

  • The final county column

    This column is the last in a series that looked at the sporting life throughout the Herald-Leader's 78-county circulation area. One county was selected at random on a regular basis, and Mark Story sought out the best sports story in that county.

  • 'A Story for Every County': A look back

    The 78 articles that comprise the "Story for Every County" series:

    Publication date County Subject of story

    Sept. 28, 2003 Powell Jarod Baker playing high school hoops after becoming a father

    Oct. 26, 2003 Floyd Bryan Combs' long way home from fighting in Iraq

    Nov. 30, 2003 Lincoln Logan Boyd: A hard life finds way to bloom

    Dec. 28, 2003 Pendleton A school that got football because of the county's moms

    Jan. 25, 2004 Monroe Marci Turner: A champion driven by memory of late father

    Feb. 29, 2004 Bell Kacy Stewart returns to play basketball after giving birth

    March 28, 2004 Menifee Josh Brown is Menifee's "comeback kid"

    April 25, 2004 Bath In Bath, participation in sports outweighs competitiveness

    May 30, 2004 Marion What is lasting legacy of 1993 boys' hoops state title?

    June 27, 2004 Owsley Jeff "Moose" Moore: A player's dream takes flight

    July 25, 2004 Grant High school can always pick from Simpson family tree

    Aug. 29, 2004 Breathitt How a "basketball county" became a football powerhouse

    Sept. 26, 2004 Franklin Jamie Moore: He's got game but cannot play

    Oct. 31, 2004 Robertson In Kentucky's smallest county, little victories matter

    Nov. 28, 2004 Anderson The Kavanaugh connection: Anderson home to hoops shrine

    Dec. 26, 2004 Shelby Mike Casey: Did car crash prevent another UK NCAA title?

    Jan. 30, 2005 Lewis Tollesboro seeks identity after its high school was closed

    Feb. 27, 2005 Lee Larry Stamper became star during Lee's 1968 state tourney run

    March 27, 2005 Rowan Matt Ballard: Coach breaks away from father's abuse

    April 24, 2005 Madison Earle Combs: A "major-league" Kentucky legend

    May 29, 2005 Barren Glasgow duo part of WKU's 1971 NCAA blowout of UK

    June 26, 2005 Nicholas 1993 girls' hoops state title was county's shining moment

    July 31, 2005 Mason County hurt by snub of Chris Lofton, but it's still (UK) Blue

    Aug. 28, 2005 Knott The enduring magic of Carr Creek

    Sept. 25, 2005 Martin As history of Inez basketball fades, tradition remains

    Oct. 30, 2005 Boyle Long before Cats-Cards, UK-Centre football was state's heated rivalry

    Nov. 27, 2005 Owen The single best place in Kentucky to be a sports fan

    Dec. 25, 2005 Jackson Football finally comes to Jackson County

    Jan. 29, 2006 Pulaski Dave and Shannon Fraley shared the ultimate Sweet Sixteen dream

    Feb. 26, 2006 Clay Basketball not what it used to be in Clay County

    March 26, 2006 Nelson St. Joe Prep was a 1960s football gold mine

    April 30, 2006 Boone Justin Doellman: A basketball star made in a football county

    May 28, 2006 Metcalfe For J.P. Blevins' family, a dream comes blue

    June 25, 2006 Johnson Johnnie LeMaster: Small-town kid lived big-league dream

    July 30, 2006 Warren Wes Strader: Life after being jilted by WKU

    Aug. 27, 2006 Taylor Scott Webb: The last honest man in sports

    Sept. 24, 2006 Wolfe Courtney Moore: From small town to Division I for runner

    Oct. 29, 2006 Montgomery County is jazzed about its new gym

    Nov. 26, 2006 Elliott Special sophomore gives county sweet (16) dreams

    Dec. 31, 2006 Campbell Frank Jacobs: Being first Mr. Football a lasting memory

    Jan. 28, 2007 Jefferson Wilbur Hackett: "They were our Jackie Robinsons"

    Feb. 25, 2007 Fleming Lake Kelly has a big role in Kentucky basketball history

    April 1, 2007 Boyd Ashland Blazer fights to live up to its rich sports legacy

    April 29, 2007 Whitley James Martin: Corbin grad lives for Converse tennis shoes

    May 27, 2007 Magoffin Girls' basketball rebirth gives county reason to cheer

    June 24, 2007 Mercer High school merger quick, unity takes time

    July 29, 2007 Fayette Why does Lexington no longer produce UK basketball players?

    Aug. 26, 2007 Greenup The night Don Gullett scored 11 touchdowns

    Sept. 30, 2007 Bourbon From state football title to 34-game losing streak in same decade

    Oct. 28, 2007 Letcher Tiphanie Bates: From Sweet Sixteen to Ground Zero

    Nov. 25, 2007 Hardin Robbie Valentine: Role as educator exceeding hoops stardom

    Dec. 30, 2007 Morgan Joe Dan Gold and a history-making handshake

    Jan. 27, 2008 Laurel Ex-Cats Reed, Sheppard enjoy life together

    Feb. 24, 2008 Harlan The wonderful world of Wah Wah (Jones)

    April 13, 2008 Rockcastle After football coach leaves, can "The Rock" keep rolling?

    April 27, 2008 Scott Georgetown coaches Osborne, Cronin are big fish in small pond

    June 1, 2008 Washington Kevin Ellery: A world traveler comes home

    July 6, 2008 Bracken Karlie Smith: Out of grief comes inspiration

    Sept. 14, 2008 Green Mike Deaton: From Jim Thorpe comparisons to turmoil at UK

    Oct. 12, 2008 Pike Todd May: Recalling what might have been

    Nov. 30, 2008 Knox Terry Mills: This Dad had his day, too

    Feb. 15, 2009 Russell Feldhaus coaching tree returns to Russell County

    May 3, 2009 Clark Team meals at South Main Grocery a Clark tradition

    May 31, 2009 Casey Cobee Goode: His heart beats for football

    Aug. 2, 2009 Clinton Clinton County can see Tennessee but won't go near the Vols

    Sept. 20, 2009 Adair Alec Beard: Football player overcomes hearing impairment

    Nov. 29, 2009 Kenton Most dream it, Troy McKinley lived it

    Jan. 31, 2010 Perry Tina Napier: A ref who made the right call

    Feb. 28, 2010 Garrard Cody Woolums: Nothing stops a team player

    May 2, 2010 Estill Ex-Card Brian Kiser counts his blessings after mission work in Africa

    May 30, 2010 McCreary Aaron Watts lives The Blind Side, Kentucky style

    Sept. 12, 2010 Leslie In Leslie County, they hear Rocky Top differently

    Nov. 21, 2010 Jessamine Vince Bingham: From big scorer to big screen

    Feb. 6, 2011 Lawrence A county branching out into football coaching's big time

    March 13, 2011 Woodford Butch Murrell is at home with Thoroughbred horses

    June 5, 2011 Carter Dane Damron lives football life on the offensive

    July 17, 2011 Wayne William Shearer: "Mr. Wayne County" left a feisty legacy

    Aug. 14, 2011 Harrison Joe B. Hall at last hears Kentucky's cheers

Joe B. Hall explains the key to successful living in one's golden years with a two-part mantra.

The first component is the need for joy. "And I'm having fun," Hall says.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, who famously said there are no second acts in American life, would be amazed to see the 82-year-old former University of Kentucky men's basketball coach.

In retirement, Joe B.'s "second act" has been a humdinger, filled with one surprise after another.

The coach who used to be second-guessed regularly, even savaged, on Kentucky radio sports talk shows has reinvented himself in "retirement" as a host of a show that is syndicated around the commonwealth.

Back in the day, Hall and then-Louisville coach Denny Crum were antagonists during the most bitter period of the great UK-U of L divide, when Kentucky refused to schedule Louisville.

Now, Hall co-hosts his radio talk show with Crum. Even more amazing, the two are genuinely close. "I don't see how anyone could not like Joe B," Crum says now.

In his days as Adolph Rupp's successor, Hall's public coaching persona was rugged, with players emphatically chastised, game programs flipped in the air in disgust, prominent sportswriters berated.

In his second act, the face Hall shows the world is warm and funny. Joe B. 2.0 has become a figure of genuine public affection in the commonwealth, finally beloved by UK fans and liked even by many Louisville backers.

After the recent controversy when it briefly appeared the NCAA was barring Hall from coaching in Monday's exhibition in Rupp Arena between the John Calipari-coached Dominican National Team and a group of former UK players, there was a "Free Joe B." movement in the social media.

"If you had one of those noise meters that pop out at the top, Joe is popping out with pride right now," says Oscar Combs, who launched The Cats Pause and is a friend of Hall. "He's really enjoying this."

In the public realm, there has never been a better time to be Joe B. Hall than now.

He's everywhere

It's not hard to run into Hall. Just go to a sporting event somewhere in Kentucky.

Two winters ago, I ventured up Interstate 64 to see Morehead State and Kenneth Faried face Eastern Kentucky. In the stands was Hall, who wanted to see Faried play in person.

Another time, I went to Georgetown to see Dakotah Euton play at a time when the then-Scott County forward was committed to UK.

Want to guess who was also there watching? Hint: He coached the 1978 NCAA championship team.

At Kentucky Speedway last month, I was in the concourse several hours before the Quaker State 400 when a cheer went up. It was prompted by fans saluting Joe B., who was walking up the steps toward a luxury suite.

"What he does is almost amazing," says Mike Summers, the UK football assistant who is married to Hall's daughter, Kathy. "He'll come home at night and tell me how tired he is, yet if anyone of us 30 years younger would do his schedule, we'd probably be falling on the floor. He is constantly on the go."

Since 2007, one reason Hall attends so many night events could be because of who isn't waiting at home.

Joe B. and the former Katharine Dennis knew each other growing up in their native Harrison County and used to walk to classes together as students at UK. Yet the two never dated until the day Hall, working as a ketchup salesman for H.J. Heinz Co., made a call on the school in Pendleton County where Katharine teaching.

That very night, the two at last went on a "real date," to Cincinnati for dinner and a movie. Five weeks later, they were married.

The union lasted 55 years, until Katharine died in 2007.

"Oh, Lord, yes, I miss her," Hall says. "... I miss her in so many ways. She was as good a 'coach's wife' as there has ever been."

Harrison County roots

When Joe was a teenager, he became a two-sport star athlete, football and basketball, at the old Cynthiana High School. He noticed then that the summers he spent working tobacco on his Uncle Ofal Harney's farm tended to have him in the best physical condition of anyone on his teams.

"That's why I was later such a big supporter of weight training," he says. "I knew what an advantage being in the best shape could be."

Hall's father, Charles, worked for the post office and would one day be elected to a couple of terms as Harrison County sheriff as a Democrat. Joe B.'s mom, Ruth, was a longtime florist in Cynthiana. (Later in life, Hall's younger sister, Laura Jane, also became a Harrison County florist).

Growing up in Cynthiana, "it was a great place for a boy," Hall says. "It just seemed so easy to get a bunch of kids together and play a game, football, basketball, baseball. And it wasn't organized or anything, it just seemed like people knew to show up."

It wasn't always easy. In the throes of the Depression when Joe B. was around 6, Hall says his dad could not find work. The family had to leave Kentucky temporarily.

The Halls went to Florida looking for opportunity. Charles Hall talked his way into a job at a laundry in Miami; Ruth then found work with a florist in Coral Gables.

With their parents occupied, Joe B. says that when school started, he and his older brother, Bill, had an ingenious idea. They would get up each day and put their swim trunks on underneath their school clothes. Then, instead of going to classes, they'd spend each day at the beach.

"That was going pretty good until the school sent a letter about where were we," Hall says. "We got spanked every way you can be spanked (by their parents). That put an end to the beach. We went to school from then on."

Connection to UK past

Dick Robinson, who until his recent death was the producer of The Joe B. and Denny Show, explained Hall's current popularity like this.

"Other than Coach Rupp, who has been gone such a long time now, the three icons of Kentucky basketball were Cawood Ledford, Bill Keightley and Joe B. Hall," Robinson said.

Since Ledford and Keightley have both passed, "Joe B. is sort of the last connection to a whole lot of Kentucky's (basketball) past," Robinson said.

Joe B. can tell you firsthand what it was like to try out as a teen before Rupp for a UK scholarship and how it was to practice against the Fabulous Five.

He can relate what it felt like succeeding the iconic Rupp, how he was able to bring full racial integration to UK basketball and how he resisted the urge to punch Bobby Knight after the latter cuffed him upside the back of the head in the famous 1974 incident.

Hall says he has no regrets about his 13 years (1972-85) as UK head coach — which yielded a national title, three Final Fours and six trips to the Elite Eight — though he does have some laments.

"If Sam Bowie hadn't gotten hurt," Hall says of the leg injuries that cost the 7-foot-1 center two full seasons of his UK career, "I believe we'd have won another NCAA title, maybe two."

Moving forward

For people who remember Joe B. the stern coach, it's still a little surreal to reconcile the glib guy of today.

Summers says Hall "was so misunderstood when he coached because of the pressure of the job and because of the way he felt like he had to run the program to get the success he was able to get."

Oscar Combs says former Kentucky Gov. Happy Chandler used to joke that the key to popularity "is outliving your enemies. Joe may have done that, but I think we all mellow as we get older. "

With Katharine gone, Joe B. has three children, three grandchildren and a statewide radio audience that keep him company.

Even with Robinson's death, Hall says the plan is to find a replacement to produce The Joe B. and Denny Show so it can go forward. "The radio show with Denny has been such a blessing," he says.

Keeping the show going fits the second component of Joe B.'s mantra for successful living in one's golden years: You need a goal to work toward.

Going strong with a second act at 82, Hall says "I'm having fun and I'm not done."

Here are some of Mark Story's favorite columns from his "A Story for Every County" series, beginning with the first one published in September 2003

Powell County
Bell County
Casey County
Garrard County
Harlan County
Jefferson County
Knott County

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service