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The circumstances and pressure to win a national championship in 1978 would have engulfed most coaches.
The Cats had gone an unheard of 20 years since claiming a title, but spent nearly the entire season atop the polls with an experienced, talented, senior-laden squad.
Head coach Joe B. Hall was in his sixth year following the legendary Adolph Rupp, who had led the Cats to four championships in an 11-season span between 1948 and 1958.
If Hall was to ever win a title, ’78 was to be the year.
Hall risks it all in NCAA first round
All looked lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, as the Cats faced Florida State in Knoxville, Tenn. The teams had met the previous year, and the Cats pounded the Seminoles by 40 points (97-57).
A stunned crowd watched the tournament favorite sleepwalk through the first half and went into halftime down 39-32.
As the commonwealth held its collective breath, Hall sprung in to action.
“Coach Hall was very animated and upset at halftime,” said Jack Givens, senior forward for the Cats in 1978. “That is kind of his style.”
In addition to verbally peeling the paint off the walls in locker room, Hall made an even more daring move.
As the Cats took the floor for the second half, three of its All-American starters were benched, leaving the fate of the team in the hands of little-used reserves Fred Cowan, Dwane Casey and Lavon Williams.
“They (Florida State) had a quick ball club and was beating us back on offense,” Hall said. “I benched three starters and put in three subs that would get back on defense.”
The strategy worked.
“Coach really went off at the half. Kind of like a shock treatment. It kind of got those guys that were really struggling a chance to catch their breath and take a look at the speed of the game,” said ’78 point guard Kyle Macy. “It was really a gutsy move to pull your starters at the half. His job was essentially on the line. There were a lot of people at that time still weren’t sold that he should be the coach.”
The reserves made an impact, and the starters returned focused. Once the five starters returned to the lineup, they went on a 14-0 run, leading the Cats to a 85-76 win — surviving a first-round scare in Knoxville.
“It was a situation where players needed to be woke up and get in to the game mentally,” Hall said. “The starters we put on the bench woke up and the ones I put in the game felt the urgency.”
Givens said that Hall is remembered more for that risky move than any other coaching adjustment he made during his career.
“I really believe that if that had not worked, I am not sure he would have been back as coach in 1980,” said Oscar Combs, founder of The Cats’ Pause and member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. “He would have been back the next year, but ‘79 was the rebuilding year where they made just the NIT.”
The Cats dispatched Miami (Ohio), Michigan State and Arkansas to earn a trip to the national championship game against Duke in the Checkerdome in St. Louis.
Givens dominated that game, scoring 41 points to lead Hall’s Cats to a national championship.
Duke had wanted to pressure UK’s shooters but also keep the post bottled up, so it played a very spread-out zone defense.
“Our whole offense completely changed from a typical zone offense to just finding Jack on the floor,” Macy said.
The Cats found an opening in the zone at the free-throw line extended, and Givens connected from mid-range early and often, hitting 18-of-27 from the field.
“Jack was an excellent mid-range jump shooter,” Hall said. “When he got rolling, he was impossible to stop.”
Givens knew he was having a special night by the end of the first half.
“I think I scored the last 15 points for us going into the half,” Givens said. “So most of the discussion at halftime was figuring out way to get me shots.”
The win ended the 20-year championship drought for the Cats and earned Hall the national title he desired.
“We made it to the Great Eight the year before, but lost in our chance to make the Final Four,” Givens said. “After we lost that game, we players put it on ourselves to not come up short the following year. The pressure wasn’t induced by Coach Hall. The pressure wasn’t created by the media, the pressure was created by ourselves.”
Following a legend
Hall’s 13-year coaching career (297-100) features three Elite Eight finishes, a Final Four and the National Championship in 1978. He is the only coach in college basketball history to successfully follow directly in the footsteps of a coaching legend.
Not only did he follow a legend, but he followed a legend who left the game reluctantly. Rupp was forced to retire because of hitting the university policy mandating retirement at the age of 70 for administrative positions.
“Adolph went out kicking and screaming,” Combs said. “There were people that were going to resent whoever replaced him.”
Other programs have struggled replacing coaching legends, even without such extenuating circumstances.
Former UCLA head coach John Wooden (620-147) won 10 national titles in 12 seasons, including seven in a row, retiring after winning it all in 1975.
The Bruins subsequently went through five new coaches over the following 10 years and have one national title (1995) since Wooden departed.
Bob Knight led the Indiana Hoosiers for 29 years (662-239), winning the national title three times (1976, 1981 and 1987). The Hoosiers went a perfect 32-0 in 1976.
After Knight’s dismissal in 2000, the Hoosiers were led by Mike Davis for six years. Davis led the team to the finals in his second year, but failed to advance beyond the second round the rest of his tenure.
Davis was eventually replaced by Kelvin Sampson, who took the Hoosiers from losing in the early rounds to not even competing in the postseason due to probation.
Some 13 years later, IU appears to be back on the right track under the direction of Tom Crean, who has the Hoosiers on top of the polls this season.
Dean Smith coached North Carolina for 36 seasons (879-254), taking the Tar Heels to 11 Final Fours and winning two national titles.
When Smith retired in 1997, he had the most wins in Division I history.
Smith was succeeded by 30-year assistant Bill Guthridge, who also retired after a 80-28 three-year record during which the Heels made two Final Fours.
The Heels then turned the reigns over to former player Matt Doherty, who led UNC three years, including an eight-win season in 2001-02.
Adolph Rupp, Dean Smith, Bobby Knight and John Wooden — all coaching legends.
Only one of those men had someone follow him directly and achieve success in the form of a lengthy tenure and a national championship — that is Rupp with Joe B. Hall.
“He (Hall) was able to follow a legend,” Macy said. “There are really no other cases where a coach has come in after a legend has coached and continued that success.”
Ironically, Hall joins Smith and Knight as the only three men to ever win a national title as both a player and head coach.
Hall was an innovator in the game, and understood what the UK basketball game meant to the commonwealth of Kentucky.
“It goes unnoticed at times, how much of an innovator he was in the game. He was really the first coach to bring in lifting weights and the hard preseason conditioning,” Macy said. “He played two big men together. When he was coaching he was very serious and his teams were very disciplined.”
He was the first coach to make the team more of statewide attraction, sending the team out to various sites to compete in Blue-White preseason scrimmages to give fans in the outer reaches of the state a chance to see the Cats.
“It was good from a player perspective,” Macy said. “You realize the importance of Kentucky basketball to those fans out in the state, not just the ones around campus.”
Combs saw the impact the move had for the program.
“When he started taking the team out in the state for the scrimmages, that is when the state really started to embrace the team and brought it to where it is today,” Combs said.
Hall also started the tradition of Midnight Madness (now Big Blue Madness) at UK, and helped establish the Wildcat Lodge as a special housing area for players.
“Hall was at times difficult to play for. He really knew the game, and was knowledgeable about how to coach and get the best out of his players,” Givens said. “There were times he wasn’t all that much fun to play for, but I think that is the way he wanted it. He used that style, that he learned from Adolph Rupp, to motivate players and get the best out of each guy he had on the team.”
Hall has worked with former U of L head coach Denny Crum on the “Joe B. and Denny” sports talk show on WKRD 790-AM in Louisville.
Crum and Hall had many common interests, including hunting and fishing, and had a friendly social relationship even during their years of being rival coaches in Kentucky.
“We have a lot of fun with it, and has been great for both us to look forward to it every day,” Hall said.
Hall is seemingly more popular and more respected now more than ever before. Hall is a constant fixture at UK practices, and current UK head coach John Calipari seems intent on including Hall in as many events as possible.
Former coaches Tubby Smith and Billy Gillispie embraced Hall’s presence to a degree, according to Combs, but Calipari has taken it to another level.
From appearances in ESPN’s All-Access Kentucky show, to helping to ceremonially re-raise all the championship banners during Big Blue Madness, Hall is around the program more now than at anytime since his tenure as coach ended.
“Coach Cal has really opened up everything to me in regards to the program. I go to many of the practices. Coach Crum and I both participated in the Dominican Republic game,” Hall said. “He has given me a lot of attention and consideration. He is just a very outgoing and nice person.”
In September a bronze statue of Hall in front of the new Wildcat Coal Lodge was unveiled.
“There are coaches in this profession that have to follow legends in their time,” Calipari said at the statue dedication. “No one that followed those other coaches won championships — no one. There is one guy, and we are with him today — Coach Hall. What he did here to get this thing right is phenomenal.”
Hall is also being recognized for his coaching record and will be inducted Sunday in the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City, Mo.
“It means a lot,” Hall said about the inductions. “It is recognition by your peers, and is very meaningful.”
He will enter the Hall of Fame to join previously inducted legends such as Knight, Rupp, Smith and Wooden.
“It is unfortunate that it took this long to happen,” Givens said. “I am proud of his accomplishments and glad that I had an opportunity to play for him and to be on a team coached by a Hall of Fame coach.”