I'm only 26 years old; my "I remember when..." doesn't go back nearly as far as many people's. I can count on one hand the number of times I've been privileged to enter the hallowed walls of Rupp Arena. But still, in my relatively few years of being a Cats fan, I have seen some strange things: The crowd cheering like we'd just won a national championship when Todd Svoboda hit a meaningless three at the buzzer of a blowout of Florida State; Rick Pitino sitting on the visitor's side for the first time at Rupp; our beloved Cats playing an SEC tournament game in a mostly empty gym. But nothing will seem as strange as the first game of next year... the first game in my memory where we will not see "Mr. Wildcat" Bill Keightley on the sidelines. Coach Gillispie could shave his head. The pep band could play "Pop Goes the Weasel." Nothing will seem as strange as not seeing Bill Keightley in that chair.
I hope they leave it empty next year, and maybe for several years after that. I hope they dedicate the season to him, and win championship number 8 for him, not for us. He was that important.
Like most of you, I never met Bill Keightley personally, but when I read the news last night, it still felt like one of my family members had died. It's the feeling UCLA fans will get when John Wooden passes. It's the feeling UNC fans will get when Dean Smith passes. But those two are college basketball royalty. Bill Keightley was an equipment manager, little known to fans outside the Bluegrass. Why do we feel this way about him? It's the same reason some of us don't know our representative in Congress but know Richie Farmer is Kentucky's Commissioner of Agriculture. It's the reason a first-year coach at once-hated Arkansas got a standing ovation in Rupp this year. It's the reason our chests swell with pride when Jamal Mashburn does commentary on ESPN. They're one of us, and they'll always be one of us. And Bill Keightley was one of us... the elder statesman of the Big Blue Nation.
Even the casual fan, who might not even know his name, knew the "nice, old guy" that sits by the coach. We hadn't met him. Most of us never even heard him interviewed. We just knew he was a nice guy because... well, we just knew. He was part of more Kentucky basketball even than the legendary Coach Rupp. In the history of the greatest college basketball program ever, he is the one they called "Mr. Wildcat." It's a moniker no one else will ever be entitled to.
But this morning, as we once again curse the scourge of cancer for taking another person we love, remember how blessed a man Mr. Keightley was. For 46 of his 81 years, he had the best seat in the house for each and every game. His last season on the bench was among the most memorable in Kentucky history. His last day was spent watching his "other favorite team," the Cincinnati Reds, on Opening Day. He was blissfully unaware of the cruel disease inside him until right before it took his life. We should all be so blessed.
Goodbye, Mr. Wildcat. You will always be missed.