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AP photo by James Crisp / Actress Ashley Judd leads the crowd in singing "Happy Birthday" to former Kentucky men's basketball coach Joe B. Hall during the Wildcats' home game against Eastern Michigan on Nov. 27, 2013, three days before his 85th birthday. Hall died Saturday at the age of 93.

It was the fall of 1977. A young artist hoping to do a University of Kentucky men's basketball print, I had been asked to meet with the team's coach, Joe B. Hall, before beginning the work.

Shown to his office that afternoon in the school's Memorial Coliseum, Hall shook my hand, listened to my plan, then smiled and said in his classic central Kentucky drawl: "I have just one request. Try to make me look good, if that's possible."

That's the Joe Beasman Hall the Big Blue Nation came to know and love in the years and decades after he retired in 1985, concluding 13 seasons at the helm of college basketball's most pressurized, scrutinized program.

That's the man who was quite rightly celebrated throughout the Wildcats' 107-79 victory over Tennessee at Rupp Arena on Saturday after Hall died earlier in the day at the age of 93. Because in his later years, freed from the pressure of following the legendary Adolph Rupp, Hall became universally viewed throughout the Commonwealth as a warm and gentle grandfather figure, always wearing a smile, always delivering a sweet, kind word, and often a joke.

But for proof that the pressure he lived under for those 13 seasons was enormous and suffocating, I return to that meeting, to the red splotches that dotted much of Hall's face that day. They were hives, proof of the pressure he was feeling to deliver the school its first NCAA title in 20 years in his sixth season on the job, a task made tougher by the retired Rupp's constant public criticism of him, even though he'd been a loyal Rupp assistant for seven years.

In some ways, whether fair or not, it was seen as a do-or-die season. Hall had guided the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight before it was known as the Elite Eight during his first season in 1973. A wretched 13-13 campaign followed, then a trip to the NCAA title game in the spring of 1975, where Big Blue fell to UCLA in Bruins coach John Wooden's final game.

Quipped Hall when asked who he thought might replace Wooden, given that Hall had replaced the similarly irreplaceable Rupp: "Why not me? Why ruin two lives?"

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AP photo by Michael Chubb / Fans watch a tribute to former Kentucky men's basketball coach Joe B. Hall before Saturday afternoon's home matchup against SEC rival Tennessee.

A year later, in what was surely one of his best coaching efforts, Hall not only closed out UK's time at Memorial Coliseum — the House that Rupp built — by coming from eight down with a little more than a minute to play against Mississippi State before winning in overtime, he guided the Cats to the NIT title when that tourney still meant something.

Then, moving to 23,500-seat Rupp Arena the following season, UK lost to Tennessee and the Ernie (Grunfeld) and Bernie (King) Show at home and on the road before falling to North Carolina in a tense East Regional final.

Not only because the Chinese calendar said so, or because pop star Al Stewart had a hit song by the same name, that season had begun with most of the Big Blue Nation believing it would be "The Year of the Cat." When it wasn't, Hall and his rising senior-laden team felt overwhelming pressure to win it all in March 1978, so much so that Hall later called it "a season without celebration."

And that pressure was never more evident than when the Wildcats trailed Hugh Durham's Florida State Seminoles by seven points at halftime in the opening round of the NCAA tournament in Knoxville's Stokely Coliseum, where Hall was 1-12 against Tennessee for his career.

Frustrated with his team, Hall benched three starters to begin the final half. The Cats rallied for an 85-76 win. Said Durham years later: "I told him, 'Joe, you know what? If we'd beaten you guys, you probably would have gotten fired.' That was a bold move on his part."

Detroit Pistons coach Dwane Casey, one of the reserves who started that second half against Durham's Seminoles, recalled a conversation he had with Hall years later about that coaching move in a Lexington Herald-Leader article.

Casey said Hall told Wildcats assistant Dick Parsons at halftime: "If we lose this game, I'm not even going back to Lexington. I'm going straight fishing. No use going back to Lexington."

They ultimately went back to Lexington three times during that tournament, the last time as NCAA champs after beating Duke in the title game inside the Checkerdome in St. Louis. Hall would win 297 games in all, lose 100 and reach the Final Fours three times, producing that single title.

Yet as we honor the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the third Monday of January, it is what Hall permanently and courageously changed about UK basketball that is most significant and honorable. After Rupp signed exactly one Black player to a scholarship in 42 seasons at the helm — Louisville's Tom Payne in 1969 — Hall signed multiple Black players every year he coached, and he also hired the first Black assistant in school history in the person of current Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton.

"I think Coach Hall has a great heart," Casey told the Herald-Leader in 2018. "I don't think he sees colors. Coach Hall should be thanked for the huge step he took on integration."

To underscore the importance of that point, the last three of UK's eight total NCAA championship teams have started predominantly Black lineups, including all-Black lineups in 1996 and 2012.

Said Jack Givens, a Black native of Lexington who scored 41 points in that 1978 win over Duke: "Before Coach Hall, Kentucky didn't have players who looked like me."

On this day above all days, it's impossible for a man not to look good with praise such as that.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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