Bill Keightley, 1926-2008

I last spoke with Bill Keightley, Mr. Wildcat, last Thursday. There he was in the crowd for the NCAA Sweet Sixteen game between Louisville and Tennessee. As best I know, it was the last game he ever attended, which was a bit ironic, given that they’re the two biggest rivals of the school he loved as much as life. But Bill was a Wildcat to the end. “I’ve been coming to NCAA Tournament games for 59 years,” he said. “But I couldn’t enjoy them because I was so worried about the outcome. Finally I get to watch one and not care who wins.”

Tomorrow, I’ll put together a column I’d hoped would not be necessary for a long while, a look at his life and the people he touched. Certainly, if anyone reading has stories about Keightley, I’d love to hear them.

But for now, here’s a column I wrote about him two days before Christmas. I don’t think anyone else was marking this milestone of his 1,100th win, and he was a bit surprised when I asked to interview him. But I’d heard through some of his friends that he was particularly proud of making it to that point, and also that he might’ve been thinking more and more about hanging it up. He never acknowledged the latter to me, and now, I’m glad he didn’t hang it up. He died doing the things he loved.

Anyway, here’s the column that ran Dec. 23, 2007. Just for a brief glance at what he meant to UK and its basketball program:

Celebrate Keightley as UK’s man of the fans

Yesterday, for the 1,100th time, University of Kentucky equipment manager Bill Keightley sat on the Wildcats’ bench for a victory.

Most places wouldn’t keep track of such statistics, let alone hang a banner from the Rupp Arena rafters for a person in that capacity.

Of course, the world of UK basketball isn’t like most places. And Keightley, well, he’s not quite like anyone else in college basketball.

He’s been on the sidelines for more than half the games in UK basketball history. Think of that. He’s been through six head coaches, many of them not the easiest guys to get along with in their primes. Some players are lucky to last six months.

Keightley has lasted 47 seasons.

Part of it is testament to his love of the program, part to his genuine liking of people and his outgoing nature. But there’s more to Keightley than that.

Somewhere along the line, his devotion to this program struck a chord with fans in this state.

After yesterday’s milestone mark, Keightley said, “I’ve never scored a point or got a rebound to help us win, never coached a player to do it. But I can go places around the state, even up in Eastern Kentucky, and people will recognize me. And that is an honor, and it actually humbles you.”

Here’s the thing about Keightley. He’s friendly and accessible to all, speaks to everybody he passes, has a smile almost all the time, except when the Wildcats are trailing.

But what has made him beloved by so many UK supporters is this: They can’t score a point or get a rebound, either. They can’t coach the players. But they love the program the way he loves it. He might not be their eyes and ears in the locker room, but he certainly is their presence. He represents a great many fans who would do anything in the world for that program.

“When we lose,” senior guard Ramel Bradley said, “the person I feel the worst for is Big Smooth (the team’s nickname for Keightley). I know how much this program means to him, how much of his life he’s put into it.”

Keightley is the guy there slapping the backs of discouraged players when the rest of the Big Blue Nation can’t.

“He’s always encouraging,” freshman A.J. Stewart said. “No matter what is going on.”

You wonder how an 81-year-old man and an 18-year-old freshman have much in the world to talk about. But while I was talking to Keightley after yesterday’s game, Stewart walked up and clapped Keightley on the shoulder.

“Today was all about Mr. Bill,” Stewart said.

Keightley laughed and said, “I don’t think like someone my age if I knew anyone my age. I think like these young guys. We socialize together, go to events, go to restaurants. I’ve been fortunate to be around so many good people. … Society has changed and kids have changed, but good people don’t change.”

Keightley is good people. You wonder, given his age, how many more of these milestones he can accomplish. More and more, people are asking him if he’s getting close to stepping aside.

“I tell them I’m day-to-day,” Keightley said. “Someday, I’m reasonably sure, everybody meets an end. I don’t want to stay too long. But you know, it’s so much a part of me, I don’t know how I’d function without it. That’s the tough part. You don’t really want to try it to see, because once you try it, you might be gone.

“… I taught Sunday school for 16 years but must not have been as good at it as I thought. I turned out more coaches than preachers.”

I suspect he’s exactly where he belongs. Because more than anything, as long as he’s on that sideline, the program’s past and its passion is alive not just in the rafters, but in the locker room.

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