Joe B. Hall is a former head coach of the University of Kentucky basketball team and was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012. Coach Hall won the National Championship in 1978 against Duke and was the runner-up in 1975 after falling to UCLA in the final. Hall has led Kentucky to three final four appearances and has eight SEC regular season titles.
In this interview Coach Hall and I discuss his relationship with legendary coach Adolph Rupp, coaching in the famous 1966 national title game, Larry Bird’s criticism of him and much more.
SHAFIN KHAN: What are some of the most memorable games you were apart of at Kentucky?
JOE B. HALL: Well, there were so many. Course, the 1966 finals against Texas Western was certainly a big game. We had two players who were virtually not up to par. Larry Conley was dealing with a high fever. 103 degrees all night before the game. Pat Riley had an infected foot from a foot sore which affected his play so we were not up to par but I’m not going to blame that on the loss but it was a struggle trying to keep us in the game with those two key players injured. With coaching the peaks are never high enough to keep you from going into the valley if you know what I mean. The valleys are a lot deeper than the peaks are high. In 1975 my team lost to Wooden and UCLA in the NCAA championship and I think we would have been better off if we had not been the team to play them in that game. It seemed like every break went his way but that was a big opportunity for me to lead my team to the final game. We had a great year in 1976, we won the NIT and that was a big year. It was important to me winning the NIT because it had been the biggest tournament up until the NCAA tournament came. So, the NIT was a big win, I had a young squad. In 1977 we lost in the regional finals to North Carolina, that was a tough loss too because I thought that team was as good as the one that won the next year and we could have won back-to-back titles. So, those missed opportunities stick out in your head a little bit above the victories if you can believe it. What could have been had just slipped away slightly and those things hurt and hurt deep. Winning the championship in 1978 was a big one for us. The win over in Indiana in 1975 was big, we came back when Indiana was undefeated, ranked No. 1 in the nation and we beat them in the region to go to San Diego for the Final Four. That was a huge win. It meant more to me than the game we lost to UCLA in the 1975 finals. Beating Indiana and spoiling their undefeated year was a real pleasure. The next year in 1976 they beat us in overtime early in the season, we had graduated four our starters and they had four of theirs back and we almost beat them. We missed a shot when we had a two point lead that would have sewed it up. They got the ball, went down and tied it up and beat us in overtime. They went undefeated and won the NCAA that year. That is another loss that sticks out. Winning the national championship in 1978 with that 41 point game by Jack Givens and Kyle Macy and Rick Robey and Truman Claytor and Mike Phillips was a great bunch of kids that really got it together as a team and were completely unselfish. They played good defense, got the boards and withstood intimidation all year and had a 30-3 record. So, that was a very satisfying and good year.
KHAN: Who were your basketball mentors?
HALL: Well, a mentor of course was Coach Rupp. He taught me how to organize my practice, how to cover every end of the game, how to do my drills, how to prepare my work, taught me competitive spirit, the running game and the excellent aggressive play, defensively. Another mentor was Hank Iba at Oklahoma A&M. At that time he was the winningest coach in the nation in the mid 1950’s. I used to go to his clinic and studied his defensive principles. He played real good man-to-man defense. He had the best principles for guarding the pick-and-roll and weak side support. How to play the low post, how to guard a guy whether he was right handed or left handed, which side to approach him on. Iba was a great teacher on all those things and the only difference was that his defense was more passive and was kind of timing your offense and would not put pressure on the ball. I used his defensive philosophy but I wanted to speed up the game more like Coach Rupp so I pressured the ball. We were very successful with that type of defense. We played a real good Duke team, a well coached Duke team in 1978 when we won the national championship. We found a weakness in their zone defense. They were very concerned about our outside shooting from our guards. We had three guards that were great shots from the top of the key. Kyle Macy, Truman Claytor and Jay Shidler. On the inside we had a great low post game with Rick Robey and Mike Phillips and then a great mid range game with Jack Givens. So, Duke being concerned about our outside shooting had their guards come out and play tight on our guards. The big men stayed back under with Robey and Phillips in the low post and did not let them score so it separated their two lines of defense with a big gap in the middle. Their guards played exceptionally high and their big men exceptionally low. We had an offense that took advantage of that, we called it six-zone. It was our number six play adjusted to zone defense. We would run that and place Givens in the middle against the zone. Hank Iba had always told me if your bring your guards out you have got to bring your baseline men out the same distance so you don’t leave that gap in your zone defensively. So, they didn’t make that adjustment and we placed Givens in the middle. He was the best man in college basketball with that short jumper and he kept wearing Duke out and had 41 points. Robey had 20. We had a pretty good showing and we won. We were about twelve ahead going into the last six or seven minutes. I had wanted to make sure all our players got in the score book during a big game so I put all my subs in so they could say they played in the national championship game. Duke cut the lead to about five and I put our starters back in. [laughing]
KHAN: You were on the staff for the famous 1966 Kentucky vs. Texas Western national championship game. In what ways was that game significant following the Texas Western win?
HALL: Well, they made it out to be black vs. white in the game which it really wasn’t even though we played all white players and Texas Western played entirely black players. That brought up the big question of when was Kentucky going to be able to recruit black players. Coach Rupp had tried for years but players didn’t want to travel through the south.
KHAN: Would you say the Texas Western game had anything to do with race?
HALL: No, it wasn’t. We had played against black players before and it was not racial. The news made a big thing out of it but Duke was an all white team in the 1978 game and they didn’t mention that.
KHAN: What was the atmosphere in the building like that night?
HALL: It was no different than any other final game. It was played beautifully. Texas Western deserved to win and I don’t want to comment more about it.
KHAN: Who was the best basketball player you ever coached?
HALL: You know the All-Americans. Rick Robey, Kyle Macy, Jack Givens, Kenny Walker. Everyone knows them. When people ask me that question I tell them Larry Johnson, Merion Haskins, Jerry Hale, Reggie Warford, and Ray Edelman. These were lesser known players, these were just great kids. They gave everything they had in practice, they were great teammates. They were encouraging in the locker room and they clicked with the whole team. Those guys kept their attitude great and made great contributions in practice in everyday and they deserve recognition.
KHAN: Who was the toughest coach to go up against?
HALL: In the conference Ray Meyer, C.M. Newton and Roy Skinner. Outside of the conference, Jack Hartman. Bobby Knight was a great coach. John Wooden was a great coach.
KHAN: What coaches would you say you had a special relationship with?
HALL: The SEC coaches were a great group. Sonny Smith. Bill Lynn. I used to copy his offense against zones. He was a greater innovator of offense against the zone defense. I would look at his film and learn from him. Gene Bartow was a real close friend of mine.
KHAN: What type of basketball did you preach?
HALL: I liked to play up-tempo. Early offense. I like to push the ball and look for a shot before the defense of the opponent got set. I tried to work hard for the offensive rebound. I believed in man-to-man defense with pressure on the ball with good weak side support. It was a pressing half court man-to-man defense with weak side help. Blocking out and initiating our offense with a quick outlet and a three man fast break, usually in the middle but occasionally we would have a sideline break.
KHAN: What does being in the Hall of Fame mean to you?
HALL: Well, it means you are really getting recognition for what your kids did and what the program did. It is an achievement that you are proud of but I would have been the same coach if I had not been named.
KHAN: Did you have any idols growing up?
HALL: Ralph Beard and Wallace “Wah Wah” Jones were probably two of my greatest idols. They were both All-Americans at Kentucky and they were apart of the Fabulous Five. I later played with them my freshman and sophomore year at Kentucky. They were my idols and they were both great high school and college players. They were both from Kentucky.
KHAN: In Larry Birds book “When The Game Was Ours” he talks about being on the World Invitational Team with Magic Johnson in 1979. Larry is quoted saying “There were the Kentucky players and the rest of us were fillers. Hall wanted to go around the country and show off his guys.” Looking back now, do you believe this to be true?
HALL: Oh no. That’s horrible. I can’t believe Larry said that. That definitely was not true. I didn’t show off my players or play them more than Magic Johnson or Larry Bird. I would’ve been the dumbest coach that ever came down the road. I had a team of such great players and I used them all. It wasn’t my place to determine who was the best, they were all good. I substituted fairly and we won every game we played. Everybody on that squad deserved playing time. I had some of the greatest players that ever played the game and I played them all. I can’t believe that. Maybe, he didn’t get to score as much as he felt like it but we beat the Russians, Yugoslavia and China.
KHAN: What was your relationship with Coach Rupp like?
HALL: He ruled with an aggressive nature. He was critical and demanding. He would get on you about the little things so you wouldn’t have any big problems. He liked me very much. Coach Rupp invited me to join him several years before I agreed. He wanted to hire me as a recruiter but he finally hired me as an assistant. In his last three years he had recommended me to be his successor and made that announcement publicly. So, he did me a lot of favors, he was good to me. He was very rough about everything you did but that was him mentoring. We had a lot of good recruiting trips, did clinics all over the world, we fished in Alaska. He was a great public speaker, there was not better.
KHAN: Were you ever aware of any other programs or coaches paying players?
HALL: Well, if I did I couldn’t have proved it. I don’t know anyone that actually paid players. There were some rumors but I wouldn’t repeat them and I didn’t know for sure and I wouldn’t say rumors about other coaches.
KHAN: Did Kentucky ever pay players?
HALL: No, absolutely not. A doctor one time gave one my players a bill in the locker room before Christmas and it was unsolicited and the kid told the NCAA that he had been given it and the doctor who gave it to him knew he had no money to buy gifts for his parents or his girlfriend or anyone. The kid had divorced parents and his father had taken bankruptcy. This doctor thinking he would help the kid out shook hands with him and gave him a fifty dollar bill the last game before Christmas. He did it very quietly in the locker room and eventually the kid admitted that to the NCAA. That is the only thing I know of.
KHAN: What advice would you give to a young coach?
HALL: I would like a young coach to serve two years as an assistant under a well organized head coach. He may know basketball well but he has never put a team together. So, if he can get on a staff under an excellent high school or college coach then spend two years as an assistant and then look for an entry position as a head coach probably at a Division II school or some place where he can develop some type of track record.