It’s official! Big Blue Madness has begun in earnest! Here in Lexington, Cats fans have started camping out for free tickets to watch the UK Men’s Basketball Team’s first open practice in the next few weeks. The tradition is unreal, spurred on year after year by a, as Coach Cal would say, “crazy” fan-base, but where did it all begin?
It all started in the 1982-1983 season with Joe B Hall at the helm and greats like Melvin Turpin, Jim Master, and Derrick Hord on the court. The team would go on to win the SEC, but ultimately fell to Louisville in the Elite Eight in the meeting between rivals since 1959.
Check out this extended quote about the UK fanbase from Joe B Hall, published in Wildcat Memories:
I gained a good understanding of the UK fan base when I was Coach Rupp’s assistant. As I recruited all over the state and as I traveled for various speaking engagements, the buzz was all about UK basketball. Of course, the University of Louisville Cardinals had a big following but mostly it was confined to Jefferson County and not too much in other parts of the state. Each smaller state school had its own following, but their fans also followed UK. The early success of Coach Rupp and his four NCAA National Championship wins that spanned over two decades really built the tradition at UK.
When he retired, Coach Rupp said that he left a program that was built on a solid foundation, one that would carry itself for years to come. He was right. The fan support in this state is unequaled anywhere. I say that knowing the following that Duke University, the University of North Carolina, UCLA, and the University of Notre Dame have. They have other pretenders in their back door that Kentucky doesn’t have. Kentucky is the Commonwealth’s team, and the support goes border to border.
The fan devotion of Big Blue Nation was a stimulus to my hard work. I knew what was expected from the fans and knew that if I didn’t do my job, I wasn’t going to be here for very long. I recruited hard and did what I had to do to coach up my teams. I was very serious about what it meant to so many people. I tried not to let those fans down. The pressure was there, but there was also opportunity. When you have tradition like UK’s you don’t have any trouble talking to a recruit.
Five coaches – Coach Rupp, me, Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith, and John Calipari – have won national championships in this atmosphere. There is no other college or university that has more than three coaches who have won national championships for their institution. What does that tell you? It tells you a lot about tradition. It tells you about fans and expectations that stimulate the administration to give you the support to hire the right people who can win.
The fan devotion is incredible, from people who go to all kinds of extremes to come to games to people who line out outside of the arena days before a scrimmage to get tickets. When your players witness that kind of interest, they become serious and focused. When they know it’s so important to so many people they start grasping what their responsibility is. You don’t have to tell them. They can feel it. When you put demands on them in terms of preseason conditioning, hitting the weight room, and giving them instructions, they’re ready to listen to you. They take coaching seriously and they know the importance of what they’re doing. That’s a great tool for a coach to have. Expectation of the fans is an enormous stimulus to their focus.
UK fans place their head basketball coach on a pedestal because that person is the leader of what they love so much. It’s a rock star effect for the players and everybody associated with the program. In my case, I never dreamed of having an opportunity to play basketball at UK, let alone becoming the head coach. Growing up, I had so much respect for the players and what they accomplished; I never even pictured myself in that role. When I did earn a basketball scholarship and walked out on to the court to represent the university, I was still in awe.
When I became the head coach, it wasn’t a dream come true, because I had never dreamed that the opportunity would present itself to me. I always held the head coaching job at UK in such high regard because I had so much respect for Coach Rupp. Even to be criticized in comparison to him was an honor. I never tried to remove his shadow from the program. I didn’t try to fill his shoes. I just tried to do the best I could. I didn’t expect anything more. It was a humbling experience for me to have the honor of being associated with the program that I loved for so long.
I’m the only native Kentuckian to ever coach at UK, at least since the tenure of Coach Rupp, who was from Kansas. I’m a native son who had the opportunity to do something that I dearly believed in and loved.