A Tribute to Bill Keightley

Last night, Bill Keightley, long-time equipment manager for the University of Kentucky Men’s Basketball program, died at the age of 81 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Keightley, affectionally known as “Mr. Wildcat,” was in Cincinnati for the Reds opener as he was every year. Here’s a moving MEMORIAL VIDEO TRIBUTE set to the Mercy Me song, “I Can Only Imagine.”

He worked under six coaches — Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall, Eddie Sutton, Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith and current coach Billy Gillispie — during 47 seasons on the Wildcats’ bench. UK President, Lee Todd, said in a release:

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. In his five decades with the university, Mr. Keightley represented UK and the Big Blue Nation with class, with devotion, and with an abiding love for our players and fans. He was as much a part of the basketball program as any player or coach.

In 1997, UK retired a jersey in Keightley’s honor. Along with the late Cawood Ledford, the Cats’ longtime play-by-play radio announcer, Keightley, is the only non-player or coach to have a jersey retired at Rupp Arena. Keightley was an inaugural member of UK’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 2005, alongside the likes of Rupp, Ralph Beard, Bear Bryant and Jamal Mashburn.

Three things really impressed me most about Mr. Keightley:

  • His work ethic. He was known as a tireless worker. He was still working at the age of 81 because he loved what he was doing. There’s a lesson to be seen by those of us who are Christians. We should never “retire” from God’s work! Regardless of our employment status, there is always work to be done in the Kingdom. Jesus said, “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work.” John 9:3-4
  • His love for people. Everyone agreed that Mr. Keightley loved people. He worked with six different head coaches through the years and each of them spoke very highly of him. He had a way of adapting to their style and to their personality. Coach Billy Gillispie said,

 This is one of the saddest days of my life. I commented earlier today that at the age of 81, he’s become one of my very best friends….And that’s because he was so genuine and so caring about others. He influenced each of us on a daily basis, and he was a great example of someone who loved his university more than anything. Obviously, he’s in a better place, but the void he leaves for all of us, and especially his family, is going to be a difficult situation. Our hearts go out to his family and the millions of Wildcats fans he loved so much.

Former UK coach, Joe B. Hall said,

Everyone liked to be around him. He had a positive spirit about him. He was always in a great mood. So many people loved him. He touched so many people’s lives–coaches, players, managers. Even players from other teams would get to know him. He had thousands of fans.

  • His loyalty. Those who knew him best say Keightley was a loyal friend, even when his loyalty was tested. In his 1992 book “Full-Court Pressure,” Rick Pitino wrote of Keightley: “Bill would blame everything on Louisville if he could. The Gulf War. The recession. He’s disliked them for over 40 years.” But when Pitino became the head coach at the University of Louisville, Keightley remained his close friend.

As a fellow Kentuckian, I pay tribute today to this Kentucky legend and I call for every basketball fan who claims the name of Christ to model his work ethic, his love for people, and his loyalty to his friends.

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