(It’s about to get a little dusty in here after watching that video…)
Five years ago, a man was lost. Perhaps more importantly though, a life was celebrated. Bill Keightley, affectionately known as “Mr. Wildcat,” was the common thread for so many generations of Kentucky basketball players, coaches, and fans. While the players came and went, and the head coaching position changed hands, Keightley was always there. Bill Keightley was the constant in the ever-changing world of a major college basketball program.
In a way, Bill Keightley represented all of us. Keightley had his responsibilities; and to be certain, they were abundant and important to the day-to-day functioning of the program. At his core though, Keightley was a fan. His passion and devotion to the program was unwavering. It didn’t matter which player was wearing the jersey, or which coach was drawing up the plays. If Kentucky was sprawled across the chest, Keightley’s love and support was given.
Kentucky basketball has been defined by success over time. A few names have managed to become as synonymous with Kentucky basketball as the wins and championships. Rupp. Cawood. Keightley. When you think about it, the fact that an equipment manager has managed to become a name engraved within the history of the most storied college basketball program in the country, is quite incredible.
Sure, some of Keightley’s importance to the Kentucky tradition comes from his longevity with the program. Keightley devoted 48 years of his life to the job. Using the label “job” doesn’t even feel right though, because it has always been obvious that for Keightley it was so much more than that. And that’s why Keightley became so important to Kentucky basketball. It wasn’t just the 48 years of service, but also the connections he made with the players and staff. The pictures of Keightley and players spanning from generation to generation display just a glimpse into the affection and bond shared by the players with “Mr. Wildcat.” The smiles are genuine– candid moments of a man and his passion and love captured throughout time:
With the passing of Bill Keightley and Cawood Ledford, it’s hard to imagine anyone having as deep and long-term of a connection to the program as either of those two. Keightley, who left his position as a postal carrier in 1962 to be the assistant equipment manager, was around for the coaching careers of Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall, Eddie Sutton, Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith and Billy Gillispie.
Keightley passed away on March 31st, 2008. His life was celebrated and remembered in a ceremony that took place in Rupp Arena. That day was easily my most memorable moment as a Kentucky fan. Rupp Arena was flooded with Kentucky fans, former players, former coaches, friends of Keightley, and even some people who just understood the magnitude of Keightley’s life and love of Kentucky basketball– even if they didn’t share that same love themselves. Rupp Arena has hosted hundreds of big basketball games over the years. I’m not sure the walls of Rupp Arena have ever hosted anything more moving or as special as Keightley’s memorial service though. Keightley’s love and life brought together a room full of people who might have never gravitated toward one another for any other reason. Rick Pitino was welcomed warmly back into Rupp Arena for the first time as he delivered an emotional speech honoring Keightley. Former players shared memories, as well as the coach at the time, Billy Gillispie. Some cried. Some laughed. Some simply remembered and paid respect.
Bill Keightley brought us all together on that day. One man will never be bigger than the Kentucky basketball program itself, but one man has probably never embodied the Kentucky basketball program as well as “Mr. Wildcat.”