Jimmy Carter was President. The Great Blizzard attacked the Ohio Valley. Somebody stole the remains of Charlie Chaplin from a mausoleum in Switzerland. Weird things happened four decades ago in 1978.
What also happened, right on schedule, was Kentucky winning the NCAA basketball title–the first for the Wildcats in 20 years. It was oh so predictable, according to people who like to anoint pre-season champions.
But what came with those predictions back in the fall of ’77 was the tonnage of pressure, which might have squashed other programs. To the credit of Joe B. Hall, UK stood tall throughout the season and hoisted the trophy at the end of the year. And it was Hall who bore the brunt of the pressure.
Working for Rupp, Hall had helped recruit the “Super Kittens” class of 1975: Kevin Grevey, Jimmy Dan Connor, Steve Lochmueller, Bob Guyette, G.J. Smith and Mike Flynn. Ineligible back then as freshmen, they played their own slate of games and packed Memorial Coliseum, at times outdrawing the varsity. There were whispers that the freshman team had actually beaten the upperclassmen in practice scrimmages. So when it came time for them to move up to varsity status, everyone figured that surely national championships would follow.
As sophomores (in Hall’s first season as head coach), they won the SEC, but lost to Florida State, one game shy of the Final Four. As juniors–lacking a true post player (vital to Hall’s style of play)–they stumbled to a 13-13 record, triggering a tidal wave of grumbling about Hall’s inability to match Rupp on the bench.
But in 1975, supplemented with another all-star recruiting class, they rolled through the NCAA tournament, upsetting undefeated Indiana in the Mideast Regional final, losing only to UCLA in the championship game. The freshmen on that team included Jack Givens, James Lee, Mike Phillips and Rick Robey.
The 1978 season was their last chance, which was what Joe Hall was hearing from the “win or be gone” faction. “That’s just fine with me. If I don’t win it, fire me,” he said with a smile to a then-student journalist by the name of Dick Gabriel. “That’s a tough thing to put on a team or a guy. There are a lot of great coaches today who haven’t won the first one, or been to the Final Four.”
He was right back then–and those words would ring true even today for any other program. But he was the head coach at Kentucky, where standards are different. And he knew it, having played at UK after growing up in Cynthiana.
“I’m an alumnus,” he said. “There’s nothing an alumnus can say to me that I can’t say to myself. I understand the program and I care about it in a different way. I’m in a different position where I can do something about it.”
His defiance served him well back then. After a brief stint selling for the Heinz 57 company (that’s right... he was Joe B. Hall, ketchup salesman), he pursued coaching, landing a job at Shepherdsville High School. “My first year in high school coaching,” he said, “on the other side of the stacked groceries at the store, I heard a lot of comments–usually from people not knowledgeable about the game and who never coached.”
He also insisted on reading the hate mail that arrived at his office, something Rupp’s secretary had always kept hidden. Hall said reading it helped him develop toughness, which is why prior to the ’78 season, he greeted the suggestion–that it’s NCAA title or the unemployment line–with a smile.
That smile was as bright as the sun on a drizzly night in St. Louis on March 27, 1978. His Wildcats had won the school’s fifth NCAA title. The pressure had vanished. Hall was off the hook. There would be more criticism in the next few years–an inevitability for the head coach at Kentucky–but that night in March was his to celebrate.
Even in victory, he had his critics. So focused were Hall and his players, they called it “The Season Without Joy”. Hall mocked the notion that the Wildcats failed to have fun on their tournament trip, which ended with Final Four wins over first Arkansas, then Duke. The Blue Devils had eliminated Notre Dame in the semi-finals; Arkansas then beat the Fighting Irish in the now-defunct consolation game.
At a campus pep rally the day after the title game, Hall addressed a roaring crowd. “Fun?” he said to the fans. “Notre Dame had fun!”
The crowd roared. Joe Hall just smiled.