The place is Dayton, Ohio….
The occasion is the NCAA Mideast Regional Finals…
The date is March 22, 1975….
The odds-on favorite to win on that night was Indiana University. The Hoosiers were ranked No. 1 in the country and this was to be a rematch of basketball bluebloods as they squared off with the rival Kentucky Wildcats.
The earlier meeting had been memorable for a number of reasons. The Cats had been outplayed in every aspect of the game. To describe the game as miserable would be giving misery an upgrade.
However, the standout moment of the evening was when Indiana Hoosiers coach Bobby Knight had slapped Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall in the head. It was a childish cheap shot that like so many others, has punched holes in the career of Robert Knight, but that event had been weeks ago. The now undefeated Hoosiers were expected to do their job and continue their undefeated run to the NCAA National Championship.
Kentucky fans will remember this game as one of the greatest games in UK history. Among the players who participated that night and even Coach Hall, they would recall this game as one of the most amazing they had been a part of. A replay of the game would find Jimmy Dan Conner banging into Kent Benson with all of the toughness he had shown throughout his college career. Bob Guyette unraveled the mystery of the Indiana moving screens and put into motion Hall’s “pancake” defense. He sacrificed his body in an attempt to disrupt their offense and left players flattened on the floor. Kevin Grevey, Mike Phillips, Rick Robey, Jack Givens, and James Lee all had stellar efforts. Coach Hall sensed weakness in the Hoosiers and gave instructions to the guards to shoot away. Mike Flynn elevated his game to another level and simply refused to let Quinn Buckner throttle him. (His teammates honored his efforts by giving him the honor of leading the squad as they cut down the nets) When it was over, Indiana was no longer undefeated, and the Kentucky Wildcats advanced to the Final Four.
USA Today named the game one of the greatest NCAA Tournament games of all-time. Kentucky had won 92-90.
If you are a Wildcat fan or a basketball fan you are smiling as you remember the game. (If you are an Indiana fan, then you aren’t smiling, but you probably aren’t reading this article either)
One of the often forgotten stories of that game is the pregame speech gave by Joe Hall in the Kentucky locker room. This was not destined to be an Xs and Os diagramming session, it would be very different. There are various accounts of this event that can be found, but for accuracy sake we will stick with the official Coach Hall version.
That evening, the coach walked into the locker room, grabbed a piece of chalk and wrote 4 words on the chalkboard as the team watched…. Net, Bus, Police, Coliseum. As the team sat a bit puzzled at the pregame chalk talk, Coach Hall explained.
“Boys, we are going to beat Indiana tonight. In our excitement about winning we have to be very careful cutting down the net after our victory. I do not want anyone to get hurt or the backboard or anything else damaged. I want you to use a ladder and scissors in cutting down the net. You are all to ride home on the bus together with me. I do not want anyone to ride with friends or even their parents. We are to stay together on the bus. After we cross the bridge over the Ohio River into Kentucky, we will be met by the Kentucky State Police, who will escort us home to Lexington and on to the Coliseum.”
Four words on a blackboard not telling the team what it would take to win but instead telling them how they would win!
One of the things that make a great team is not just knowing what it takes to win. Indiana certainly had an amazing team that year. But there also is great value in how they win. There is no way to imagine how much the lack of class that had been put on display in the previous matchup dearly cost the Hoosiers in the rematch. Yet, every word Hall had written on the board were words that described how they would win, how they would act, and what was acceptable behavior in what was to be the aftermath of a win that most would not have predicted.
Those four words were exact descriptions of how everything happened on that particular night. The only glitch was the Joe Hall had not asked the state police to lead them. He mentioned it to Cawood Ledford on the post-game radio show and explained what he had done. Hall commented that he hoped the police were listening to the show.
Cawood jumped in, “Don’t worry about it. I will cross the bridge doing ninety if I have to and make sure the state police will be there.”
It was not necessary. The state police, along with everyone else in the state had been listening, and they were waiting for the team as they crossed the state line back into Kentucky. The roads were lined with people standing alongside. The crowds cheered, waved flags, applauded, and as the team bus entered each new county, more officers joined into the parade with the state police. There was a victory parade all the way to the Coliseum in Lexington, where the team entered with tears in their eyes.
Sports can reveal many things. There are always lessons that can be learned if you look closely. It is easy to miss what it means to win with style, dignity, and class in our world of endless sound bites and short news cycles. But on this night – many years ago – a coach walked into a locker room and looked at a team of underdogs and did not tell them he hoped they would win, instead he told them how they would win. Those four words are an important part of the legacy of the University of Kentucky Basketball program.