'Mr. Wildcat' dies at age 81
By Jerry Tipton
Bill Keightley, the longtime equipment manager for University of Kentucky basketball teams, died Monday. The man affectionately known as “Mr. Wildcat” was 81.
He died after falling while on an annual trip to watch the Cincinnati Reds’ opening game of the baseball season. Internal bleeding, which doctors traced to an undiagnosed cancerous tumor on his spine, caused his death.
To say Mr. Keightley worked in the program’s equipment room since 1962 barely begins to tell the story of his influence. As the news of his death spread, he was called a father figure to generations of players, confidant and companion to coaches, the “spirit of the program” and a beloved ambassador for UK.
“He is Kentucky basketball,” said former UK star Rex Chapman.
Marta McMackin, who left the program last year after working as an administrative assistant in the coaches’ offices since the late 1970s, noted how Mr. Keightley’s death permanently alters Kentucky basketball.
“It won’t be the same,” she said in a quiet voice. “It’ll never be the same again.”
Mr. Keightley fell while stepping off a bus at Great American Ballpark. The injuries were not thought serious at first, said Van Florence, head of UK’s Committee of 101 organization and a companion on many baseball trips to Cincinnati.
“On the way to the hospital, he cussed me because we were going to miss the game,” Florence said.
While being treated, Mr. Keightley went into cardiac arrest, said Don Crouse, a spokesman for University of Cincinnati Hospital.
“What they discovered was he had a previously undiagnosed cancerous tumor on his spine, and that’s basically what was the cause of death.”
Doctors think internal bleeding began before Mr. Keightley arrived at the hospital, Crouse said. In the fall, Mr. Keightley fractured a rib and punctured a lung, Florence said. In treating the injuries, doctors found that the tumor had caused a hole in an artery, Florence said.
According to a statement from University of Kentucky athletics, he was pronounced dead at 7:45 p.m., with his family and UK coaches at his side. UK Coach Billy Gillispie rushed to Cincinnati upon hearing of Mr. Keightley’s deteriorating condition.
“This is one of the saddest days of my life … ,” Gillispie said in a news release. “He’s become one of my very best friends … That’s because he was so genuine and so caring about others.”
In a separate statement, UK President Lee Todd noted Mr. Keightley’s renown.
“For many Kentuckians, and, indeed, for much of the country, Bill Keightley was not only the face of UK Wildcat basketball, but the University of Kentucky itself, ” Todd said. “It’s my belief that in heaven he’s already helping organize a game or two and telling stories of Wildcat lore to anyone who will listen.”
Mr. Keightley, a native of Lawrenceburg and graduate of Kavanaugh High School, served in the Marines in World War II and was a retired U.S. Postal Service carrier.
He had just completed his 48th season in service of Kentucky’s program. He served under six coaches (Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall, Eddie Sutton, Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith and Gillispie). UK said Keightley played a part in 57 percent of all Kentucky basketball games.
Reached by phone, Smith struggled to control his emotions.
“I don’t know what to say,” he said as he sniffled and paused between words. “There’s nobody like him. Never has been. Never will be.”
McMackin said coaches retreated to the equipment room to be with Mr. Keightley. Players sought his advice. Everyone got a kind word or a bit of jocularity.
“A lot of times he was the liaison between the kids and the coaches,” she said. “He was their buddy, their pal, their dad, their brother.”
Chapman recalled speaking with Mr. Keightley at this year’s Kentucky Sweet 16 High School basketball tournament.
“He said, ‘I love you, son,’” said Chapman, who played for UK in the 1980s. “I said, ‘I love you, too.’ I’m just speechless. He was one of a kind. There’s not a better human being on the planet that I’ve never known.”
Smith was especially close to Mr. Keightley, McMackin said. “Tubby went down there a lot of times to talk to him and just escape the upstairs. Just to get away from it.”
Smith recalled Mr. Keightley as a trusted friend.
“He had a way of making you forget all your cares and keep everything in perspective,” Smith said from his office at the University of Minnesota. “He knew when to say, ‘It’s OK. It’s time to move on.’ You know how coaches are. We hold on to things.”
The University of Louisville issued a statement from Pitino. “I’m so deeply saddened with the passing of Mr. Bill,” Pitino said.
“I’m so grateful that we had such special memories together.”
The players saw Mr. Keightley as a linchpin holding together Kentucky’s basketball history, and as a sage adviser.
“He was kind of a father figure to us, somebody you could always go in and talk to, especially for freshmen,” said Jerry Hale, who played for UK in the mid-1970s. “It’s a big adjustment. You’d think, maybe I should transfer. He’d always tell you to be patient and play it out.”
Asked for a reaction, Hall said: “Oh my God, I’m too shook up to even talk about it.”
Late last night, a small group of UK students gathered outside Memorial Coliseum to light candles in memory of Mr. Keightley.
Businessman Jim Host, a former UK student and longtime business associate and fan of the program, said that Mr. Keightley embodied Kentucky basketball.
“He’s the spirit of the program,” Host said, “the spirit of the university. I just can’t believe he won’t be sitting there on that bench.
“Of all people, he was symbolic of the program.”
Former UK Director of Athletics Larry Ivy released a statement: “You always hear that everyone can be replaced, but not this time.”
Host noted that Mr. Keightley died participating in his other great sporting love, Reds baseball. But Kentucky basketball was always first.
“He never met a stranger,” Host said, “as long as the stranger loved Kentucky basketball.”
Mr. Keightley is survived by his wife, Hazel, and his daughter, Karen. Memorial services were pending.
Staff writers Jennifer Smith, Raviya Ismail and Jennifer Hewlett contributed to this report.
Published in Lexington Herald-Leader from Mar. 31 to June 23, 2008