Joe B. Hall, RIP

Sports & RecreationsSports

  • Author Larry Farmer
  • Published April 5, 2022
  • Word count 2,090

Joe B. Hall (RIP)

In many ways Joe B. Hall was the Rodney Dangerfield of college basketball. During his reign at Kentucky, there was an often repeated joke: “What do you get when you cross a groundhog with Joe B. Hall?--Six more weeks of bad basketball.” Joking aside, Hall’s record speaks for itself: one NIT title (1976) and three final four NCAA appearances of which one was a championship (1978) and another was a runner-up finish (1975). Yet, he was constantly in hot water with the media and fans. Much of it had to do with his personality. He was to put it bluntly a boring nerd like figure who was consistently upstaged by other coaches. He suffered greatly in comparisons with Bobby Knight, Dean Smith, Denny Crum, Digger Phelps, and Dale Brown who were more media savvy.

Under Hall, Kentucky went from being an all White team to basically 60-75% Black. The type of Black players he recruited didn’t really help his image, especially with the national sports writers. They were what some commentators refer to as Black/White. Their skin was dark, but they played and acted like Whites. They did not play the in-your-face ghetto style but rather a disciplined and conservative brand. A coat and tie was their fashion of dress as opposed to the sneaker and t-shirt. When being interviewed, they were careful to be respectful and not say anything controversial. Socially and politically they could be called ‘Uncle Toms.’

Louisville Coach Denny Crum was an ever present thorn in Hall’s side. Crum recruited inner-city Blacks and gave them the freedom to operate as they pleased both on and off the court. The contrast with Kentucky was obvious. He also openly expressed a disdain for Kentucky and its players. When Crum was hired by Louisville, Kentucky had landed the number one ranked player in Kentucky (Jimmy Dan Connor), Indiana (Mike Flynn), and Ohio (Kevin Grevey). When asked by a reporter to compare the Kentucky recruits to those Crum had signed to UCLA during the Johnny Wooden era, he said there is no comparison. He went on to point out that the UCLA group had won three national championships whereas the Kentucky players were yet to prove themselves.

To add insult to injury, Crum often implied Kentucky was afraid to play Louisville in the regular season. There was a continual drumbeat in the media to make such a game happen. During the 70’s and early 80’s, Louisville had more final four appearances than Kentucky which Crum and the media regularly brought to everyone’s attention. The two teams finally met in a 1983 elite eight game with the Cardinals winning by 12 in overtime. Kentucky played well but just ran out of gas at the end. Afterwards the UK Athletic Board voted to allow an annual contest between the two rivals. The only ‘no’ vote was cast by former two term Kentucky Governor A. B. “Happy” Chandler who was serving as Board Chairman.

Another coach who was a thorn in Hall’s side was Dale Brown of LSU. Like Crum, Brown recruited inner city Blacks and directed a smash mouth style of basketball. In 1974 it looked like Kenny Higgs of Owensboro was headed to Kentucky. Owensboro had always been solid UK country; it is after all the home of two all time Kentucky greats, Cliff Hagan and Bobby Watson. With Watson being Higgs high school coach, it seemed only natural for the youngster to cast his lot with the Wildcats. However, Higgs did not fit the role as to the type of player Hall wanted. He was looked upon as a rebel and possible trouble maker. While Kentucky hesitated, Brown stepped in and quickly nabbed the all-stater.

There was a game in 1976 which typified the type of relationship between the two schools and coaches. It was played in Lexington, and LSU was coasting to a win with about ten minutes to go. At that point Hall went to mid-court and had a conference with the officials which lasted close to five minutes. After the meeting of the minds, call after call started going Kentucky’s way. With about three minutes to go, it was clear that the game was going to end in a Kentucky victory. Brown then went to mid-court, argued with the officials, took off his coat, and threw it onto the court. Kentucky won by fourteen, but Higgs did have 32 points. Brown and Higgs gained a measure of revenge in 1978 when they handed Kentucky one of only two losses the Wildcats suffered in their championship season.

Bobby Knight of Indiana and Joe Hall were supposedly good friends who occasionally fished together. Knight, however, made no bones about his dislike of Kentucky. He accused Kentucky of cheating in the recruitment game and mistreating its players academically. He also liked to make disparaging remarks about Kentucky’s legendary coach Adolph Rupp. The media ate it up. Everything came to a head in a 1974 game in Bloomington. Indiana was running Kentucky off the court when Hall pulled his starters. Knight did not reciprocate. After the two coaches exchanged words, Knight hit Hall on the back of the head. Hall had to be restrained by Jimmy Dan Connor, one of his players. The friendship, if it ever existed, was gone forever. Kentucky and Hall got even in an elite game of 1975 when it handed Indiana its only defeat of the season.

Early in Hall’s career as head coach, he employed a physical defense and made frequent use of his bench players. This strategy was a departure from how Rupp coached. To Rupp, defense was something to be endured until you got the ball back, and it was not uncommon for him to use only five players for most of the game. Kentucky’s defense under Hall was so fierce that Coach Digger Phelps of Notre Dame accused Kentucky of playing karate defense. The use of bench players was something Hall may have copied from Dean Smith of North Carolina. Smith would often go ten deep, and Hall did likewise.

Any respect between the two coaches had for each other ended an elite eight game of 1977. It was an intense game with North Carolina opening up a slight lead toward the end. When the game was pretty much over, Kentucky center Rick Robey fouled out. As Robey headed to the bench, Dean Smith confronted him and lashed out, “You SOB!! All you know how to do is throw elbows!!” Did this incident in any way mar Smith’s image with the media? You better believe it did not! Later, when Smith broke Rupp’s record for most wins, he was portrayed as a saint with a halo over his head while Rupp was characterized as an evil racist!

Another strategy Hall got from Dean Smith was the “Twin Towers” concept. Early in Smith’s career at North Carolina, he was known for having at least two exceptionally tall players on the front line. Hall first employed this concept with Rick Robey (6-10) and Mike Phillips (6-10), and it led to the 1978 NCAA Championship. A few years later, he tried it again with Sam Bowie (7-1) and Melvin Turpin (6-11). Bowie and Turpin almost brought home another championship until disaster hit.

The 1983-84 season, featuring Bowie and Turpin, was one where Kentucky soared to great heights only to crash to an inglorious ending. For most of the season, Kentucky was ranked anywhere from number one or number three in the nation. There were several close calls that ended well. The most titillating one was a victory over Auburn in the finals of the SEC tournament. Auburn was led by Charles Barkley who had made a career out of making Turpin look like a monkey despite being five inches shorter. To say that the game was a grudge match would be putting it mildly. With the score tied at 49, Kenny “Sky” Walker of Kentucky took a last second 15 foot jump shot which hit the front edge of the rim and bounced in. After the game, Barkley sat under the basket and sobbed unabashedly.

During that turbulent season, Hall guided the Cats to their last final four appearance of his tenure. Their opponent was big, bad Georgetown led by Patrick Ewing. Georgetown loved to slug it out on the court, and as former coach and commentator Al McGuire put it, “They’ll beat you as bad as they can.” They did both in the game against Kentucky. After leading throughout the first half, Kentucky hit a dry spell toward the end of the half. Even though they were unable to capitalize, the Hoyas stole the ball several times and forced numerous turnovers. One of the Hoya players blurted loudly, “We’re going to win this game.”

A nightmare deluxe is the only way to describe the second half. Kentucky did not score for the first 10 minutes and had only 11 points overall. They shot 3-33, and no starter had a field goal. When they weren’t turning the ball over, they were taking wild and crazy shots with no chance of going in. To put it in simple terms, the Wildcats were intimidated in a devastating fashion. You could actually see fear on the faces of Kentucky’s players. I have never seen a team so dominated and scared of an opponent at that level of play.

Hall coached another season after the Georgetown debacle, but that was it; he was done. So, how does one evaluate Hall as a coach? If you don’t count the Georgetown game, he comes across pretty well. Perhaps his biggest mistake was to over inflate the ability of his players. When they didn’t produce as expected, it made Hall look bad. When Derek Hord signed to play for Kentucky, Hall described him as another Bernard King (the superstar from Tennessee who sent on to fame in the NBA). Hord was a quality player, but he was no Bernard King. After Kentucky won the 1978 championship, Hall signed three players he touted as sensational. They were Dwight Anderson, Clarence Tillman, and Chuck Verderber. I saw all three compete in a high school all star game prior to attending Kentucky and was not impressed. Tillman was exceedingly slow and could not handle the ball, Anderson had to have the ball to be effective, and Verderber was essentially a mediocre player. Tillman and Anderson eventually transferred to other schools after a short stint at Kentucky. Verderber stayed around for four years and was a decent role player, but he was never sensational.

A couple of other things that irked me about Coach Hall were some outright silly remarks after tough losses and complaints about other teams bending the rules. When Kentucky lost in the NCAA Tournament to Middle Tennessee, of all teams, he blamed the loss on a lack of electrolytes. After a couple of losses to Tennessee, Hall complained about Volunteer star Ernie Grunfeld shooting free throws that should have been awarded to lesser players. He was right and had the tape to prove it, but it was already water over the dam. Where was Coach Hall in real time?

I’ve already mentioned the hard nosed man-to-man defense Hall employed. He coupled it with an occasional 1-3-1 zone. The zone was used at key points in the game to throw the opponent off stride. It usually resulted in a good share of steals. The type of zone and the way it was used, Hall inherited from Coach Rupp. Until 1964 Rupp had vowed never to use a zone defense at Kentucky. However, with other teams using a slow down style of play to take advantage of weak spots in Kentucky’s man-to-man, Rupp decided to change with the times. On January 18, 1964 Kentucky sprang the trap on arch rival Tennessee. It earned them a nine point win. However, Rupp still refused to call it a zone. Using his normal colorful language, he labeled it a “stratified, transitional, hyperbolic, paraboloid defense.”

I hope I’m haven’t been too hard on Coach Hall. We all have our Georgetown games. Rupp, after all, experienced great failure against Texas Western (1966) and Western Kentucky University (1971). He provided tons of excitement and many victories, he had a solid game strategy, he took his teams to the height of glory against a host of villains (players, coaches, and the media), and he guided Kentucky through a difficult transition. He did it in a way that established a legacy of grace, respect, and pride.

I received a bachelors degree in 1967 and a masters degree in 1971 from Western Kentucky University. I taught school for 44 years. One year was spent at Fordsville High School, 17 at Ohio County High School, and 26 at Trinity High School in Whitesville. The subjects I taught were government, history, and English. At Trinity I also served as coach, athletic director, and dean of students. I fancy myself a fairly good writer, and my main interests are sports and politics.

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