Blue Summer Without My Ole Friend
Ira D. Combs
Tri State Sports Media Service Inc.
It's been about 17 months since we lost the true "Lead Cat" , the point guard for Big Blue Nation . It's also time i share some of the experiences i had with Mr. Wildcat with you , so this column is devoted to my ole buddy who i miss very much now that i've spent my first summer without him in my life . Including coach Joe B. Hall , Bill Keightley was the last and most visible and loved member of the original UK dynasty started years ago by Adolph Rupp . But the last 30 years Bill Keightley was much more than the UK basketball equipment manager , he wore many different hats for UK .
Bill was an eloquent and charming speaker on the banquet circuit with his witty stories about his experiences under the six UK head basketball coaches that he worked for and they always resulted in knee slapping laughter from his audiences . Many times in the past years UK's coach or A.D. would hook Bill up with a perspective high roller donor when the program needed money or a special project constructed . In 1987 when UK had one of it's pre season scrimmages at the high school i was coaching at the team rolled into the parking lot that evening and as they got off the bus i noticed a very successful central ky. banker had rode up with the team and guess who was assigned the seat next to him for the ride up the Mountain Parkway , yep , one Bill Keightley . The following week the university announced a major advertisement deal with his bank for UK's radio broadcast .It doesn't take a mental heavy weight to see who pulled that deal off . Bill's most impressive attribute to me was his down to earth demeanor and humble personality and it was intoxicating immediately when he met UK's players for the first time as they arrived on campus each fall and they all immediately leaned on him as their father or big brother figure for the remainder of their career at UK .
Trust me when i tell you this . Bill Keightley , not an assistant coach , kept many a frustrated freshman from departing the famed program and going home , whether it be for being homesick or upset with the head coach . Keightley had a knack for righting the ship with a player and getting him back on course .
From 1977 to 1996 i spent four to six weeks each summer helping UK and Bill with their annual summer Wildcat basketball camps . As i look back they may have been the most enjoyable times of my life . When i first met Bill it was also the first time i ever met a UK head basketball coach in person and it was without a doubt one of the most embarrassing moments of my life .
My first Bill Keightley story goes like this :
It was the summer of 1977 and i had just started my high school coaching career at M.C. Napier HS in eastern ky. when my brother Oscar who had just launched the Cats Pause magazine a year earlier called to say that coach Hall needed some help with his camp and invited me down .
I accepted immediately and my friendship with UK began .
I was a wet behind the ears 22 years old as i drove down the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway that sunny June day in 1977 and it dawned on me that i was about to meet and work with Joe B. Hall the head basketball coach at the University of Kentucky . As far as this ole mountain boy was concerned i was about to walk thru the Pearly Gates and meet the Saviour himself , at that time and during that era Joe B. was the kingpin of UK hoops . The more i thought of my upcoming arrival at UK and my first meeting with him i became somewhat excited and had to stop at least 3 or 4 times on the trip down to use the bathroom . My last stop around Winchester i forgot to do one very important thing .
Zip my pants up ,
So , as i arrived at the check point for camp which was Memorial Coliseum and began walking thru those hallowed halls and spotted coach Hall at the other end and began walking toward him for that first impression that my mother and father had always told me was the most important . As i approached him i stuck out my hand first and said hello coach , my name is coach Ira D. Combs from M.C. Napier , i'm Oscar's youngest brother and he very politely responded , it's nice to meet you coach , you may want to look down .
I responded with a very puzzled " what do you mean coach " and when his eyes went south mine did too .
There i was standing in front of the head basketball coach of UK and his entire staff for the first time in my life with my fly wide open .
It was the most embarrassing moment of my life then and still is to this day . I froze , then tried to as discreetly as possible recover and zip up when a nice half bald headed guy named Bill Keightley came up to me and put his arm around me and said come on Coach i'll show you the ropes around here .
It gets better !!!!!!
Then to start my life out with Bill Keightley as we walked away from Joe B. Hall , Leonard Hamilton and Joe Dean Jr. who were all three laughing under their breath . Bill Keightley , in his own unique manner turned to coach Hall and his staff and remarked , " that's alright guys , go ahead and laugh but coach Combs just had the most enjoyable ride ever taken down the Mountain Parkway " .
You gotta let your mind drift a little folks concerning that remark , but i knew exactly what he was refering to and that just made the whole experience of meeting everyone at UK totally unforgettable , i never looked back but just kept walking along side Bill until we were out of sight . To this day Coach Hall bribes me every summer to bring home grown tomatoes from the Combs family garden and he won't mention the story when in his presence in public .
My second Bill Keightley story :
By the summer of 1989 i had became pretty good friends with Bill to the point we ocasionally pulled pranks on one another . That's about the time this slick talking italian from New York arrived on the scene to straighten out the mess UK was in from NCAA probation .
Initially that first summer UK had decided their would be no camps because coach Pitino didn't take the job until late May . Then Keightley calls me in mid June and says coach P can't wait he wants to go ahead and get started meeting the high school coaches across the state and have one camp in July . I need you and Harold ( my brother ) to help get us a couple other coaches from eastern ky. and come on down to help with camp .
Bill closed out that phone conversation by saying , " I'll take care of you when we assign players to teams " .
Did he ever !!!!!!!!!!
As i arrived at camp that year coach Pitino and Bill was standing side by side at the coaches registration table to greet us all . Bill introduced coach P to me and then coach P introduced me to his three sons Michael , Chris , and Ricky Jr. , as i walked away talking with Bill i remarked that they seemed like nice kids and Bill just grinned and nodded his head . As we were walking Bill notified me that their was an unusual number of young elementary kids in camp and they needed me to help with that age group instead of my normal high school age group , i said fine it will be interesting to see how that age group responds to my coaching style .
That evening we had our first meeting with Coach P and got our team assignments . Little did i know that Bill had sabotaged the process along with the basketball office secretary Marta McMackin . As coach P gave out the team player rosters Bill stood over in the corner with this sheepish grin on his face that he was guilty of something .
I looked down at my team list and there it was , the worst team in summer camp history but no doubt the most popular and i'm positive from the most lucrative families financially in the commonwealth :
1989 UK Summer Camp "Knicks" & there age
1. Michael Pitino - 12
2. Chris Pitino - 10
3. Ricky Pitino Jr. - 8
4. Saul Smith - 10 ( Tubby's youngest son )
5. Charles Martin Newton 111 - 11 ( C.M. Newton's grandson )
6. Greg Defilippo - 12 ( son of Asst. A.D. at UK )
7. Billy Blevins - 10 ( Twin from Elizabethtown )
8. Bobby Blevins - 10 ( Twin from Elizabethtown )
I had been set up by my ole friend and probably the best one ever pulled on me in my 18 year coaching career .
I had six prime starting candidates but you can't start but five , who's gonna come off the bench .
Bless their hearts , the twins from E-town had a pretty good idea that first game they would be the ultimate substitutes that week . As for the 5 starters for each game , well , that resulted in another Bill Keightley brainstorm that i'll share with you in my final column for this off season in this tribute to my ole buddy , Bill Keightley ,
I'll tell you this much , the decision on who should start each league game that week involved a short separate discussion between me , Keightley and all UK coaches to that date except Adolph Rupp of course .
My third and final Bill Keightley story in Part 2