Joe B. Hall, who made his mark on Kentucky basketball by successfully following a legend and then becoming one himself, died early Saturday morning. He was 93.
His lifelong connection with UK basketball began as a child keeping score as he listened to games on the radio, continued as a reserve player on the 1948-49 team, then later as an assistant and head coach, until in retirement becoming a fan once more. The Big Blue circle was unbroken.
After seven seasons as an assistant coach, Hall was named the successor to Kentucky basketball’s founding father, Adolph Rupp, in 1972. He remains the only native-born Kentuckian to be UK coach since Basil Hayden in 1926-27.
“It was not just another coaching job to him,” Hall’s son-in-law, Mike Summers, said. “It was the coaching job.”
Joe Beasman Hall was born on Nov. 30, 1928. He grew up in Cynthiana and brought the reverence and protective zeal of a fan to the job of Kentucky coach. This lack of professional detachment intensified the pressure on a mere mortal following the coaching mahatma that was Rupp.
“He’s about as decent a person as I’ve ever dealt with,” longtime friend and Lexington attorney Terry McBrayer said of Hall in 2017. “But he took the program so seriously, and had to defend the program at all times. He was the defender of the program.”
One of the critics Hall had to fend off was Rupp, who made no secret of his desire to remain coach. With Hall having gained a reputation as a good recruiter and likely successor, Rupp felt threatened by his assistant coach.
“I just don’t think he ever wanted anybody to really succeed him …,” Lexington businessman Jim Host said of Rupp. “Joe really connected with the followers and the fans, yet Coach Rupp was never ready to turn it over to him. He saw him as a competitor.”
Kevin Grevey, who was a freshman in Rupp’s last season as coach (1971-72), recalled Rupp openly criticizing Hall during practices. Rupp made no secret that he favored another assistant, the newly hired Gale Catlett, who had little chance of becoming Kentucky coach.
“Gale Catlett could do whatever he wanted to do,” Grevey said. “And Coach Hall had to step aside. It was kind of weird. I got the feeling Coach Rupp was losing any kind of love he had for Coach Hall, for sure.”
With Rupp approaching the mandatory retirement age of 70, something of a Civil War divided loyalties in the Big Blue Nation. Some fans and former UK players supported Rupp’s wish to continue as coach. Others supported UK’s intention to start a new chapter with Hall as coach.
“I think there’s many people hoping (Hall) would fail, thinking of who the next coach would be,” Host said. “People are like that.”
In a forced retirement, Rupp made the already high-pressure job of Kentucky coach even more difficult for his successor. He did not attend the news conference formally introducing Hall as the new coach. He maintained an office in Memorial Coliseum. He continued to do a weekly television show on which he second-guessed Hall.
“Coach Rupp would say things on the show and in the paper, and he’d criticize Coach Hall,” Grevey said. “You know, ‘I’d never have done that.’ ‘I don’t know why he was running the 1-3-1 zone.’
“He was an arm-chair quarterback and not helping Coach Hall through this transition which was already difficult in itself, and made it almost unbearable.”
After losing three of its first four games, and six of the first 14, Hall’s first UK team found its footing. The Wildcats of 1972-73 rode a 10-game winning streak to within one game of the Final Four. A loss to Indiana in the Mideast Region finals completed a 20-8 record. Rupp labeled it “a disappointing season.”
Billy Reed, a longtime columnist for the Courier-Journal in Louisville and later the Herald-Leader, recalled Rupp saying on the television show during another season, “‘I can’t believe it. They got beat by Georgia! Georgia!!’
“That just had to be so hard,” Reed said. “(Hall was) not going to tell you, ‘Yeah, I was hurt. I was crushed.’ But that’s what he was.”
Host said of Hall during this period, “He was under more pressure than anyone I’ve ever seen. A lot of pressure he put on himself.”
Tom Hammond, then the sports anchor for WLEX, the station that aired Rupp’s television show, said Hall handled the situation with grace. But, he added, Hall probably internalized the hurt he felt and became “a bit” defensive.
“I think that rolled-up program he always had in his hand was pretty indicative of how he was feeling,” Hammond said. “I really believe that men of lesser character than Coach Hall would have crumbled under that and would have had a nervous breakdown or something.”
Hall steadfastly refused to criticize Rupp nor complain publicly about how Rupp made the job more difficult. “See, I’d spent seven years with Coach,” he said in 2017. “And I don’t know that he ever gave me credit for anything. So I knew him. And he didn’t do anything after I took over that I didn’t fully expect.”
But Hall did say Rupp made the difficulty of the job “10 times worse.”
In his 13 seasons as Kentucky coach, Hall had a won-lost record of 297-100. Earlier in his coaching career, he had a 57-50 record in five seasons at Regis and 19-6 in one season at Central Missouri State.
Hall coached seven All-Americans at Kentucky: Jack Givens, Rick Robey, Kyle Macy, Sam Bowie, Melvin Turpin, Kenny Walker and Grevey. All but Turpin have commemorative jerseys in the Rupp Arena rafters.
Hall led Kentucky to eight Southeastern Conference championships, the second-most by any coach in league history (Rupp won 27). His fellow coaches voted him SEC Coach of the Year four times, again the second-most ever (Rupp won the award seven times).
Former Georgia coach (and native Kentuckian) Hugh Durham pointed out that Hall guided three Kentucky teams to the Final Four: 1975, 1978 and 1984. In Rupp’s final 21 seasons, UK advanced to two Final Fours: 1958 and 1966.
“I thought he wasn’t appreciated at the time,” Durham said.
In addition to winning games, Hall presided over UK basketball when it fully integrated. This came only a few years after Rupp was perceived to be, at best, reluctant to welcome Black players.
“I think Coach (Hall) doesn’t get enough credit for the ease of the transition and the contribution he made to integration,” said Leonard Hamilton, the assistant coach Hall hired to lead the effort.
Hall refused to take a bow for fully integrating UK basketball. “I never coached a team until I came to Kentucky that I didn’t have an African-American player,” he said in 2017.
Detroit Pistons Coach Dwane Casey, who came to UK in 1975, said he never heard Hall explain why he moved the program toward fully welcoming Black players nor why earlier in his career he integrated the Regis College team.
“I think Coach Hall has a great heart,” Casey said in 2017. “I don’t think he sees colors. Coach Hall should be thanked for the huge step he took on integration.”
Despite the successes, Hall never attained the exalted status that Rupp enjoyed. In some circles, he was an object of ridicule. A widely circulated joke at the time involved Lexington banks not wanting to hire UK players for security because Hall wouldn’t let the guards shoot.
“Almost a tragic figure,” Reed said of Hall.
Sensitive to any perceived slight, Hall had, at times, a contentious relationship with the media. Host said this contributed to Hall’s coaching accomplishments not being fully appreciated.
“I used to bring him off the cliff when he was about to kill a sportswriter, (saying) ‘Joe, you can’t do that!’” Host said. “He and I would go to lunch about two or three times during a season, and I’d say, ‘Joe, you can’t tell that guy to go to hell. You can’t treat them like that. They’re human beings. They’ve got their job to do.’ And he’d say, ‘By God, I’ve got my job to do.’”
When John Wooden retired as UCLA coach in 1975, Hall said something about following an exalted coach that The Huffington Post included in a listing of “25 idiosyncratic sports quotes.”
Hall jokingly suggested that UCLA hire him to follow Wooden. “Why ruin two lives?” he quipped.
His most satisfying game
Several moments are cited as important in assessing Hall’s time as Kentucky coach.
Reed saw 1974-75 as the season that “really kind of turned things around for him,” A 13-13 record the previous season emboldened critics. A senior-laden team gave 1974-75 a now-or-never feel.
A 98-74 loss at Indiana in early December featured IU Coach Bobby Knight contemptuously cuffing Hall across the back of the head, an action that captured the feeling of disrespect in one gesture.
It ended the Hall-Knight friendship. In his book titled “Basketball: The Dream Game in Kentucky,” author Dave Kindred quoted Hall saying, “Knight personally humiliated me. I’ll never forget it.”
Three months later, Kentucky upset undefeated Indiana 92-90 in the Mideast Region finals.
“A pivotal game in my career,” Hall said in 2017. “That was everything. That was kind of the break over with the fans and everybody, I think. That game with Indiana was the most satisfying game, and I think the most important game in my career.”
Durham recalled a first-round NCAA Tournament game against his Florida State team in 1978. Another senior-laden Kentucky team, this time ranked No. 1, was saddled with championship-or-bust expectations.
Trailing by seven at halftime, Hall benched three starters to begin the second half. UK rallied to win 85-76.
“I told him, ‘Joe, you know what? If we’d beaten you guys, you probably would have gotten fired,’” Durham said. “That was a bold move on his part.”
Casey, one of the reserves to start that second half, said he spoke to Hall before the 2017-18 season about the mass benching.
“I told Coach, ‘Being a coach now, I understand you had to have big cajones to pull that move,’” Casey said.
Hall told Casey that coming out of the locker room at halftime, he confided to assistant coach Dick Parsons, “If we lose this game, I’m not even going back to Lexington. I’m going straight fishing. No use going back to Lexington.”
Casey said he considered the mass benching “the turning point of Coach’s career.”
Winning the 1978 national championship proved that Kentucky could continue to be Kentucky with someone other than Rupp as coach.
When Hall’s successor, Eddie Sutton, was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2020, current UK coach John Calipari wondered why Hall had not received similar recognition.
“No disrespect to Eddie; I’m happy he got in,” Calipari said. “Matter of fact, I thought he deserved it. But what Coach Hall did here – you have to look back to that time and that era and he walked in after Coach Rupp. Who ever followed a Coach Wooden, a Bobby Knight, a Dean Smith and had that kind of success?
“Who ever followed a living legend and survived it? And not only survived it, thrived?”
Hall was born on Nov. 30, 1928. His father, Charles Curtis “Bill” Hall, ran a dry-cleaning plant and was a sheriff in Harrison County. His mother, Ruth, ran a flower shop in Cynthiana.
Hall lettered three seasons in football and basketball in high school. He was captain of both teams as a senior, and voted class president in each of his four years of high school.
How passionately did Hall want to play for UK? He once had a tonsillectomy on a Friday and returned to practice the following Wednesday.
As a freshman, he scrimmaged against the Fabulous Five. But with little playing time likely at UK, Hall transferred to the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., after the fall semester of 1949.
“I was definitely in over my head with the Fabulous Five there,” Hall said of his time as a UK player. “But it was a great experience, and one that kind of ingrained me in sports and allowed me to follow it later in life. I was really bitten by the bug, so to speak.”
Hall began post-college life in business. His jobs included a stint as a ketchup salesman before he turned to coaching at Shepherdsville High School. In his second season, he was named conference Coach of the Year.
Hall later became head coach at Regis College in Denver for five seasons before moving for one season to Central Missouri State, where he succeeded Gene Bartow. He came to UK as an assistant for Rupp in 1965.
“Hall’s contributions were immediate and significant,” Kindred wrote.
When asked in 2017 how he’d describe his UK basketball legacy, Hall said, “I think I was an innovator.”
As an assistant coach, Hall started a conditioning program which became the standard at the time in college basketball. As UK’s head coach, he began the tradition of a Midnight Madness celebration each October. To combat fears that fans would not fill the new Rupp Arena, he tried to heighten interest by playing preseason scrimmages throughout the state.
As a recruiter, Hall brought to UK such players as Mike Casey, Dan Issel, Mike Pratt, Tom Parker, Turpin, Givens, Robey, Walker and Grevey.
After retiring as UK coach in 1985, Hall worked for Lexington’s Central Bank. He also did television commentary.
Later, he teamed with former Louisville Coach Denny Crum as hosts of a sports radio call-in show. The rolled-up program of a person disappeared, replaced by a light-hearted man who was quick with a joke.
“After he retired, it’s like he reverted to the real Joe Hall,” Reed said. “All of a sudden, he was the guy I had known before he had got the (UK) job, and I was really glad to see that.”
The perception of Hall also underwent a remarkable transformation once he retired from coaching. The person second-guessed and ridiculed became one of Kentucky basketball’s beloved icons. He regularly attended home games. Each time he appeared on the Rupp Arena video screens fans responded with a full-throated ovation.
“What he’s done for this university, for this state (and) Cynthiana, he deserves our adulation,” Calipari said upon Hall’s 89th birthday in 2017. “And that’s what we do … I love it when he does the ‘Y’ and people go crazy on his birthday. They’re singing ‘Happy Birthday.’ He deserves all of that. He earned it.”
Walker, the last All-American Hall coached for Kentucky, said Hall in later life “kind of filled the Bill Keightley role.” Keightley, a longtime equipment manager, was affectionately known as Mr. Wildcat.
Before the 2017-18 season, Givens, the hero of the 1978 national championship game victory over Duke, said Hall had become “everybody’s granddad.”
Summers’ voice softened as he responded to a question about his father-in-law becoming a beloved figure in UK basketball.
“Personally, I’m so happy,” Summers said this year. “People now realize what we in the family have always known about him. That he is a person with impeccable character, and genuinely a great person.”
Hall was preceded in death by his wife of 55 years, Katharine. They are survived by three children: daughters Judy Derrickson and Kathy Summers, and a son, Steven Hall. He is also survived by three grandchildren (Jeffrey Derrickson, Laura Derrickson and Katharine Amy Summers) and three great grandchildren (Joe Brack and Tyson Lawyer, and Malory Kate Derrickson).