[Ed note: Two and a half years ago, I wrote a feature on the Committee of 101, of which Van Florence was the president for 30 years. Florence kindly agreed to let me interview him for the piece, and his stories about the club and UK Basketball were invaluable. Florence passed away over the weekend at the age of 69, and to honor his legacy, we thought we would repost the feature so others can learn about his life’s work.]
If you’ve ever been to a game in Rupp Arena, you’ve seen them. With their royal blue blazers, black slacks, and friendly smiles, they are just as much a part of Kentucky basketball as the banners in the rafters or the buildings they so carefully guard. Who are they? The Committee of 101, a group of volunteers whose fanhood has spilled over to service. They usher the university’s football games, basketball games, and everything in between.
What started as a simple show of support from a group of coworkers has grown into the commonwealth’s most mysterious and coveted brotherhood. For almost five decades, the Committee of 101 has pledged their time and manpower to helping University of Kentucky athletics. How did this group of fans turn into the program’s guardians?
It all started with a telegram.
In March 1966, a group of 101 IBM employees in the purchasing department chipped in a quarter each to send Adolph Rupp and the Kentucky basketball team a telegram of support during an away game. They also came to the airport to greet the team upon their arrival from road trips.
After noticing the group’s support, Coach Rupp had an idea. At the time, basketball didn’t have a booster program like the football’s Wildcat Club. Rupp approached the group and asked if they would like to do something similar for basketball. From there, the “Committee of 101” was established, with the simple mission of supporting University of Kentucky athletics in any way possible. Forty-seven years later, the Committee has over 350 members, and work any sporting event the University asks them to. Members pay dues, but the only payment they receive for their service? The ultimate reward for any Kentucky fan: the chance to watch the Cats play for free.
Photo by Regina Rickert
A club with a waiting list
How do you even start to research a club like this? Go straight to the unofficial UK athletics historian: Oscar Combs. Oscar gave me some background info on the “101ers,” including the origin of the club and the people to talk to. From there, I got in touch with Lee Mills, the club’s current president. Mills joined the club in 1996 after retiring from teaching and was named president in 2009. Lee cleared up a common misconception: you don’t have to be an alum of the University to be a member.
Being able to see games for free seems like a pretty sweet deal, right? It’s so sweet that there’s still a waiting list. Total membership is currently at 356, 300 of which are classified as “working members,” and the rest “non-working members,” who can no longer work events due to health or family problems. If you’ve been in the club for forty years or more, you’re considered a “life member.” There are currently 22 life members, 19 of which still work games.
How did the club go from 101 members to 356? As UK football and basketball outgrew Stoll Field and Memorial Coliseum, membership needed to increase to keep up with the larger venues. Mills says that it takes 130 members to work a basketball game at Rupp, while it takes a whopping 300 to work a football game at Commonwealth Stadium. At games, members serve as greeters, program sellers, and perform lots of behind-the-scenes tasks. They split the arena and stadium into sections (1-5, 6-10, etc.), each with a section leader, and two members manning each station so they can take breaks periodically throughout the games. Mills added that the club likes to keep the number of working members at 300, and whenever someone leaves the club, will consider applications on the waiting list, which is rumored to be around 100 people long.
Want to join? First, fill out an application, which will only be considered with two signatures from members in good standing, and processed once a spot opens up. Close proximity to Lexington is not a requirement; Mills says there are members in Indiana, Virginia, and one who lives just outside Nashville, all willing to make the trip to work games.
How big of a time commitment is being a member of the Committee of 101? In addition to working games, members are asked to attend meetings. The club holds a board meeting every month except for May and July, and general meetings for all members once a month from August to March, except when the basketball team plays into April, of course. During football season, they hold a meeting every Wednesday prior to a home game, and similar meetings during basketball season.
So, the members just show up to the game and get to watch it for free, right? Wrong. On the day of a game, Mills says he is busy with committee work “all day long.” The time demand is so extreme that during new member orientation, rookies are given the chance to opt out if they feel it is too much.
In addition to football and basketball games, the Committee has worked baseball games, golf tournaments, track meets, basketball camps, the boy’s Sweet 16 and several other miscellaneous events. They also give back to the school via endowment funds and scholarships. In 2010, the group endowed a $50,000 academic scholarship to honor Van Florence, the club’s president for thirty years. In addition, they endowed $50,000 for the Bill Keightley scholarship for basketball managers, a $50,000 scholarship for the cheerleaders, as well as a $4,500 donation to the dance team. They also purchase 14 baseball season tickets and 20 UK Hoops season tickets each season, and during Florence’s tenure, donated $100,000 to the Joe Craft Center.
Longtime 101er Joe Ebarb
Above and beyond
The club pledges to support the university in any way possible, which means there have to be some pretty interesting stories, right? As previously mentioned, Van Florence was president of the club for 30 years, and has been a member since May 1966, three months after its inception. Any story about the Committee of 101 is incomplete without talking to Van; he’s a treasure trove of information about UK basketball, having served as a self-proclaimed “gopher” for almost every coach, from Joe B. Hall, Eddie Sutton, Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith and yes, Billy Gillispie. Van, who has had numerous major surgeries over his life and suffers from cerebral palsy, left the club in 2009 for health reasons. Last week, Florence was honored as one of Camp Horsing Around’s Amazing Eight citizens in Lexington for raising over $75 million for charity in his lifetime. During his tenure with the 101 club, he also helped Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith start their charitable foundations.
According to Van, “anytime manpower was needed, [UK] would call on the 101.” He rattled off a laundry list of unique events the club has helped with, including the SEC Basketball Tournament when UK hosted, professional boxing matches, the SEC Baseball Tournament, professional tennis tournaments, the Cadillac Invitational Golf Tournament, and Keeneland’s commemorative Maker’s Mark bottle signings. When UK hosted the SEC Basketball Tournament in 1982 and 1986, the 101 set up an around-the-clock concierge service for teams to fulfill any request, whether it be finding a place for a closed practice, or giving restaurant recommendations. Former LSU coach Dale Brown was so impressed with their service that he asked for 300 101ers to work the SEC Tournament when it was in Baton Rouge in 1988. Van told him he couldn’t afford them.
The 101ers provide similar services whenever UK hosts the NCAA Tournament. Florence recalled a time when he was manning the hospitality booth and Maryland head coach Lefty Driesell came over to ask him a good place to take his team to eat. Florence recommended the various steakhouses and fine restaurants in the area before Driesell stopped him, saying “No, you don’t understand. I need somebody that serves a buffet and has video game machines, because these guys aren’t smart enough to take anywhere good.” Florence laughed and sent him to a buffet off Nicholasville Road.
Van has about a million stories about the club, but one of my favorites was about how unorthodox the requests from the program could be. One night, Van got a phone call from Larry Ivy, then Assistant Athletic Director. Kentucky was set to host the Final Four the next year, and at the time, didn’t have a very good method of fielding ticket requests. Because of that, the university had 134,000 ticket requests the couldn’t be filled, and therefore, 134,000 unopened pieces of mail with checks for Final Four tickets. Ivy asked Van and the rest of the 101ers, their wives and children to come down to Memorial Coliseum to sort through the mail, which they had dumped on the court. Van called the 101ers together and they set up an assembly line to open the mail, take out the self-addressed envelope, put the check back in and seal it. Kentucky fans being Kentucky fans, Van said there were letters from people claiming to be disabled, have sick parents, or anything they could think of to convince UK to give them a ticket, right down to cash bribes.
Oscar Combs and some 101ers
Another “above and beyond” moment for the club happened during Joe B. Hall’s tenure in March 1979. Florence was named the president of the club that year, and his first major event was helping UK host the Olympic Trials for the 1980 Olympics (which the US and 64 other countries ended up boycotting). The Trials were also an opportunity for Joe B. wanted to show off the new Wildcat Lodge to his colleagues, John Thompson, Larry Brown, and Dean Smith. Joe B. asked the 101 club and their wives to provide breakfast, lunch and dinner for the staff at the Wildcat Lodge during the week of the trials and let everyone know if they needed something, to get in touch with Van.
Being the UK fan he is, Van admits that at the time, he wasn’t too fond of Dean Smith, but Smith won him over in the end. Because UK is a dry campus and the Lodge is technically a dorm, Smith approached Van with a special request:
“I wanted to hate Dean Smith because he was from North Carolina, I just wanted to hate the guy, he didn’t have to do anything to me. On Thursday, he came to me, and said ‘Van, Coach Hall told me if I needed anything, to come see you.'”
Van agreed, and Smith asked him if he could help him get some spirits into the basement of the Lodge for the coaches to drink while they selected the Olympic team. Smith gave him some money, and when Van returned with the booze and $80 in change, Smith told him to keep it and Van refused. After dinner, Van went downstairs with the coaches to guard the door during their deliberations, only to be stopped by Smith: ” He said, ‘No, you get to come in and watch us pick the Olympic team. You get someone else to guard the door.'”
Want another great story from the Olympic trials? One night, the 101 club hosted all of the coaches at Joe B’s house and had pizza and beer brought in. Take it away, Van: “I was helping carry the pizzas in, and I hear this deep voice say, ‘Leave me three larges,” and it was John Thompson. He ate three large pizzas by himself.”
Sundays with Mr. Bill
In case you couldn’t tell from those stories, Florence served as a right-hand man to the UK coaching staff for almost fifty years. The stories he has go beyond the 101 Club, and are too good not to share. Over the years, Florence became best friends with Bill Keightley, UK’s beloved equipment manager. Van says the two spoke “365 days a year and had personal contact on 300.” Bill would come over to Van’s house in between practices on Sundays and watch football with him, drink Maker’s and eat cheese and crackers. Van was with Keightley on the day he died after falling off the bus at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. While putting him in the ambulance, Van says Mr. Bill turned to him and asked where they were going. “To the hospital to check your hard head out,” said Van. Bill’s response? “By God, if I miss the first pitch on opening day, I’m gonna kick your ass!”
Cheers to you, Mr. Bill.
A front row seat to college basketball
One more anecdote and then we’ll move on. Ever wonder why the Cats and other college teams travel in charter jets? It may have been because of Van Florence. No, really. In addition to being the president of the 101, he traveled with the team to every road game. During the Rick Pitino era, Van and the team were on a private plane getting ready to take off for Athens, Georgia, and as they were going down the runway, the pilot noticed a warning light on. When they got back to the terminal, the technicians determined nothing was wrong, but Van noticed that there was still smoke coming from the plane. He pointed it out to Rick Pitino, who then refused to let the team get back on it and had Van call up everyone they knew with a plane in order to get the team to the game. They took the assistant coaches and the starters on the first plane they found, and everyone else afterwards. From then on, the team only traveled on charter jets, many of which were owned by NBA teams. During his time with the team, Van rode on planes owned by the Washington Wizards, Boston Celtics, and San Antonio Spurs, just to name a few. From there, other college teams started to do the same, and now, it’s the norm for the sport’s top teams.
Still, when putting in a request for a charter jet, Kentucky is always at the top of the list. Van keeps in touch with Tubby Smith, and Tubby recently told him that after the Big 10 Tournament, Minnesota had difficulty getting a jet to take them home. When Van expressed his disbelief, Tubby simply said, “We’re not Kentucky.”
Keeping up appearances
It’s not hard to find a member of the Committee of 101 at games. They’re instantly recognizable by their uniform: royal blue blazer, black slacks, white shirt, 101-logo tie, and dress shoes. Florence says the club’s look has evolved over time, and that during his tenure, he stressed the importance of consistency. “We took great pride in the way we presented ourselves to the fans,” Florence says. “We had what we thought were the right rules in place to present ourselves to the public in the best way. You could identify us by the jacket, dark slacks, white shirt and tie. It’s still that way today.”
In schools and clubs across the country, dress codes have always led to a bit of rebellion, and the Committee of 101 is no different. Florence says that over the years, members have “gotten carried away” trying to make their uniforms more fashionable: “You’re not coming in here like you’re dressed out of GQ,” Van said. “We want you to look nice, but you don’t necessarily need a pink sweater to go with your blue jacket.”
Also off limits:
Chewing gum – Why no double bubble on duty? One time, a member was chewing bubble gum and while blowing a bubble, turned around to answer a fan’s question, and the bubble popped right in the lady’s face. The club passed a rule outlawing gum after that.
Earphones – Members need to be able to hear fans if they have questions. Besides, “Why do you need earphones? You’re standing right in the arena.”
Baseball caps: “You don’t need a baseball cap in Rupp Arena,” Van sniffed.
The ultimate fans
Both Mills and Florence admit that when they joined the Committee of 101, it was because they wanted to see games for free. However, after years of service, they know it is much more than that. The club is made up of more than 350 men from all walks of life, from millionaires to just your average Joe. What brings them together? Their love for Kentucky athletics. Florence says that is one of his favorite things about it. “You’ve got businessmen and successful people in their own right doing something for the love of what they’re doing. Not for recognition or anything else.”
Only at Kentucky could you have fans so passionate they devote their free time to serve the team they love. Mills says that’s what keeps it going: “I’m a fan first, but in my position and being a member of the 101, I know we’re there to serve the University of Kentucky athletics. When they call on us to help do stuff, I guess you could consider us a servant, but you have to be a big fan to volunteer to do all of this.”
Both men say the club has given them a lifetime of memories, with more great games than they can count. As Mills so aptly put it, “it’s always a great memory when you win,” and even more, “anytime you beat Louisville, those are the highlights.”
As you can imagine, the link between the 101 and the players is also strong. Over the years, Mills and Florence have accumulated so many favorite players that they declined to name one or two in fear of offending the others. And even in today’s “one-and-done” age, Mills says that whenever players come back for games, they make it a point to come up and shake the 101’s hands: “It’s always amazing, when they come back, they’ll come up to us and shake our hands because they recognize the job the blue coats did for them.”
The club is so well respected that when Missouri came to town for ESPN GameDay back in February, the university’s Athletics Director Michael Alden asked to get in touch with Mills and Florence because he was interested in starting a similar club in Columbia. Florence wasn’t surprised: “We have a reputation of being honest, hardworking people that support UK and people respect that.”
How could you not?