To honor Keightley, preserve spirit of loyalty to the Cats

From his position on the bench, Bill Keightley had a front-row view of the UK basketball program. He occupied the seat through the highs of national championships and the lows of rebuilding years.

As he watched the program develop, he became, inadvertently, a central part of the university’s basketball tradition. His 48-year presence was a constancy no coach or player could match.

And they didn’t — Keightley served under six head coaches in his career and worked with hundreds of players.

Keightley’s death a week ago today caught family, friends and fans by surprise. Even at 81, the long-time equipment manager still worked hard at his job, refusing to cede even common tasks such as pushing the laundry cart to younger managers, the Kernel reported last week.

The fact that nearly 3,000 people attended a memorial service for Keightley at Rupp Arena should not come as a surprise. Nor should the scale of the ceremony, which some have compared to former governors lying in state.

Keightley’s unfaltering dedication to UK basketball represented a trait that all too often seems to be lacking in college sports.

Coaches are almost always available on the open market — a winning season or two often leads to a sudden departure for a larger paycheck. Athletes unhappy with playing time start examining their transfer options, while athletes who succeed early are lured into turning pro.

Granted, equipment managers are not recruited, analyzed and critiqued in the same way coaches and players are. With the exception of Keightley, most are low profile and unlikely to show up in any news report.

But Keightley’s loyalty should be commended nonetheless. His overall commitment was clearly to the tradition of the UK basketball program, not to any individual — including himself.

That’s the reason he was affectionately known as “Mr. Wildcat.” And it’s the type of attitude that could serve many of the coaches and players in college basketball well.

Shortly after Keightley’s death, suggestions for how to honor his memory and contributions started circulating. Some people think his seat on the UK bench should always remain empty; others want to see his name attached to a prominent building, such as Memorial Coliseum. Plenty of the ideas have merit and would be appropriate.

But perhaps the greatest tribute to Keightley would be imitation. His devotion to the tradition of Kentucky basketball should serve as a model for anyone involved in college sports programs.