Of all the University of Kentucky basketball fans I have known through the years, Joe B. Hall and Oscar Combs knew and appreciated more about the pull of the Wildcats than anyone else.
They wound up living their dreams about being associated with UK and its major sports. Joe B. became head basketball coach and led the Wildcats to the national championship. Oscar knew how much Kentuckians, either home or away in other states, thirsted for news about the basketball Wildcats, so he and his wife, Donna, founded The Cats’ Pause, which became an immediate success. When they sold the weekly to a newspaper chain, it made them millionaires.
Rupp recruited him
Oscar and Joe are native Kentuckians. Joe B. is from Harrison County in north central Kentucky, and Oscar is from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky in the coal country of Hazard and Perry County.
As a two-sport star at Cynthiana High School, Joe B. was selected after a tryout camp by Adolph Rupp to play on the great coach’s Wildcats. Joe was at UK at a good time and a bad time. He scrimmaged against the Fabulous Five, but didn’t get to play much. One of Rupp’s closest friends, Lon Varnell, coached at Sewanee (University of the South), and Rupp sent Joe to play for him. The young Kentuckian rewrote the Sewanee scoring records.
Hall landed his first coaching job at little Shepherdsville High in Bullitt County and advanced to the head job at Denver’s Regis University. When Rupp needed a young assistant, Joe B. landed the job and eventually succeeded Rupp as the head coach of a program that was great, and Hall would keep it that way.
Cats visit fans
Joe started taking the Wildcats to different little towns for intra-squad scrimmages. Fans responded by overflowing even the biggest high school gyms in the state. Alumni and fans besieged Hall to have the Cats visit their schools. Hall’s idea got so successful that he would put pins on a map of Kentucky so he could show people where the team had visited and future sites that were begging for a visit.
I saw several of the scrimmages in different ends of the state. Gyms filled hours before the scrimmages started.
Even Big Blue greats from 40 or 50 years ago would attract long lines of fans wanting autographs. I sat at the press table with Ellis Johnson in Ashland and couldn’t believe how many youngsters lined up to get him to sign his name. Johnson was an all-time great basketball and football player at UK in the early 1930s!
Hall’s idea was so popular that other teams started doing the same thing until the NCAA passed a rule against it.
Not a happy loser
Hall was a fierce competitor, so much so that he couldn’t stand it when he was a member of a team that toured with the Harlem Globetrotters and had to play foils for the Trotters. He quit and came home.
I don’t know what you think of John Calipari, but I like him because of how he has treated Hall. Some of Joe’s successors more or less ignored him, but Cal has made him welcome at practices and has included him in other things. He even lined up Hall, U of L’s Denny Crum and Morehead State’s Wayne Martin to coach the ex-UK and ex-U of L players who faced Cal’s Dominican team in recent games that drew 40,000 fans at Rupp Arena and U of L’s KFC Yum! Center.
Cal knows that it doesn’t cost a thing to be nice to people.
Joe B. and Oscar were lucky in having supportive wives. Joe lost his Katharine in 2007. One of the best things that ever happened to him was when his son-in-law, Mike Summers, was hired by Joker Phillips as UK’s offensive line coach. It couldn’t have come at a better time because Joe now has his daughter Kathy and some of his grandchildren in Lexington.
Joe once recruited a poor kid from Louisville who was married. At Christmas time, Katharine cooked dinner for them, turkey and all the trimmings.
Oscar Combs and I go back a long way, and Joe and I go back to an even earlier time when we attended a church camp at Hazel Green Academy in Wolfe County.
During one of Joe B. and Denny’s radio shows, Joe told Denny about Joe and I playing basketball in our sock feet at the camp.
Denny, who was calling from a fishing trip out west, said, “Earl, I didn’t know you were a basketball player.”
I told Denny, “I didn’t either!”
Category: Earl Cox on Sports
About the Author (Author Profile)
Earl Cox, Sports Columnist
Earl doesn¹t just write about sports legends, he counts many of them as his
friends. A member of the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, he has been writing
about sports for 60 years. Incidentally, that¹s about how long it’s been
since he¹s cleaned his desk but he knows where everything is.