‘Greatest Wildcat of them all’ dies

By Travis Waldron and Eric Lindsey

Longtime basketball equipment manager Bill Keightley died last night at the University of Cincinnati Hospital from internal bleeding caused by a previously undiagnosed tumor on his spine.

He was 81.

Doctors believe the internal bleeding began yesterday afternoon in Cincinnati where Keightley and his longtime friend Van Florence were attending the Reds’ season opener, according to a UK press release. Keightley was taken to the university hospital, where doctors were unable to stop the bleeding, according to Dr. Pete Muskat, Clinical Director of Trauma Services.

“This is one of the saddest days of my life,” UK head coach Billy Gillispie said last night from Cincinnati through a press release. “I commented earlier today that at the age of 81, he’s become one of my very best friends, and the person I was talking to said, ‘That’s what makes him so great, because everyone feels he’s their best friend.’ And that’s because he was so genuine and so caring about others.”

Affectionately known as “Mr. Wildcat,” Keightley had been a fixture with the UK basketball program since 1962 where he worked in the equipment room.

In 1997, UK honored Keightley by raising a retired jersey bearing his name to the Rupp Arena rafters. Along with legendary radio broadcaster Cawood Ledford, Keightley is one of only two non-players and non-coaches to receive such an honor.

“For many Kentuckians, and, indeed, for much of the country, Bill Keightley was not only the face of UK Wildcat basketball, but the University of Kentucky itself,” UK President Lee Todd said in a statement. “In his five decades with the university, Mr. Keightley represented UK and the Big Blue Nation with class, with devotion and with an abiding love for our players and fans. He was as much a part of the basketball program as any player or coach. He was ‘Mr. Wildcat.’ ”

“It’s my belief,” Todd said, “that in heaven he’s already helping organize a game or two and telling stories of Wildcat lore to anyone who will listen.”

Keightley fell off a bus yesterday before entering Great American Ballpark with Van Florence, said Lois Florence, Van’s wife. Van Florence told his wife that he did not believe the injuries were serious at first.

Former UK head coach Joe B. Hall said that he received a call from Van Florence at the hospital shortly after Keightley arrived. Hall, who worked with Keightley for 20 years as an assistant and head coach at UK, said Keightley had a “50-50” chance of surviving the fall.

Hall received another call a couple hours later saying that Keightley had passed away. Keightley died at 7:45 p.m., with his family and friends with him at the hospital.

“I was totally shocked because the news came so sudden,” Hall said. “I couldn’t talk to anyone at first because I couldn’t believe it.”

Keightley served as the equipment manager at UK under the last six UK head coaches — Adolph Rupp, Hall, Eddie Sutton, Rick Pitino, Orlando “Tubby” Smith and Gillispie. He was on the bench for UK’s 1976 National Invitation Tournament title, three national championships (1978, ’96 and ’98) and eight of UK’s 13 Final Four appearances.

During those 48 seasons, UK compiled a 2,013-351 record with Keightley on the sideline.

Todd and his wife, Patsy, honored Keightley at the 2005 CATSPY awards, presenting him with the Lifetime Achievement Award.

After receiving the award, Keightley told a crowd of UK athletes and students what his time at UK meant to his life.

“Years ago I thought I was here to mold young people,” Keightley said. “But now you have molded me.”

But few people molded lives like Keightley, Hall said.

“He always had a smile on his face and he was always upbeat,” Hall said. “He always made everyone feel like they were his best friend.”

Kenny “Sky” Walker, who played at UK from 1983-86, said Keightley always took a great interest in people no matter who they were.

“It was no secret why he was so well liked, because he liked everyone,” Walker said. “He wasn’t just like that with me. He was like that for everyone at the University of Kentucky.”

Integrated strategic communications senior Logan Mayer, public service and leadership senior Matt Gandolfo and finance senior Pat McMahon organized a candlelight vigil at about 10 p.m. yesterday to honor Keightley. Mayer, who had a chance meeting with Keightley on Sunday during the UK women’s basketball game, echoed Walker’s sentiments about Keightley’s friendliness.

All three students said UK needs to honor Keightley next season by leaving his trademark chair on UK’s bench empty for the year.

“It’s just going to be very hard to see that seat at the end of the bench filled by somebody else,” Mayer said. “We were actually just talking about how there should be a petition going around to have that one seat empty from here on out as a token to him.”

No matter how UK chooses to honor Keightley, the UK bench will always be without a man Walker said “brought together generations” of UK fans and players.

“He was probably, in my mind, the greatest Wildcat of them all,” Walker said.

Before his time at UK, Keightley served as a Marine in World War II and worked for the U.S. Postal Service.

Keightley is survived by his wife, the former Hazel Robinson of Lawrenceburg, Ky.; his daughter, Karen, a UK employee in the veterinary sciences department; and son-in-law Alden Marlowe.

Information about memorial services for Keightley were not available at press time.