Bill Keightley, Mr. Wildcat dies at 81
Longtime Kentucky basketball manager Bill Keightley passed away Monday night at the University of Cincinnati hospital from internal bleeding caused by a previously undiagnosed tumor on his spine. Keightley was 81 years old.
Doctors believe the internal bleeding began Monday afternoon while Keightley was attending the Cincinnati Reds season opener. He was taken to University Hospital, where doctors at the trauma center were not able to stop the bleeding, according Dr. Pete Muskat, Clinical Director of Trauma Services. He passed away at 7:45 p.m., with his family and members of the UK coaching staff with him at the hospital.
Affectionately known as "Mr. Wildcat," Keightley had been associated with the Wildcats' basketball program since 1962. Keightley, who manned the "Bill Keightley Equipment Room" in Memorial Coliseum, was as much a fixture around UK basketball as the seven national championship trophies on display in the Joe Craft Center.
"This is one of the saddest days of my life," head coach Billy Gillispie said from Cincinnati Monday night. "I commented earlier today that at the age of 81, he's become one of my very best friends, and the person I was talking to said 'That's what makes him so great, because everyone feels he's their best friend'." 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 who he loved so much."
Having just completed his 48th season on the UK sidelines, the Wildcats' record over the past four decades with Keightley as equipment manager is 1,113-351. During his tenure, he served under six UK head coaches — Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall, Eddie Sutton, Rick Pitino, Orlando "Tubby" Smith and Billy Gillispie.
Kentucky, which has fielded 105 teams, has played 2,588; meaning Keightley played a role in 57 percent of those games.
In 1997, UK honored Keightley with a retired jersey in his honor. He joins veteran broadcaster Cawood Ledford as the only non-player or coach to have a jersey retired at UK.
"Mr. Bill embodied the optimism and love of life that epitomizes all of Kentucky," athletics director Mitch Barnhart said. "He was one of those individuals who make everyone around them feel special. His love of Kentucky was evident in everything he did. He was a friend to all who loved the Wildcats, and I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to call him my friend."
"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," said UK president Dr. Lee Todd. "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. He was 'Mr. Wildcat.'
"An entire state tonight – from Paducah to Pikeville – is mourning his passing and, I'm sure, remembering his family in prayer along with Patsy and me," Todd added. "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."
Keightley was also among 88 Wildcat greats inducted into the charter class of the UK Athletics Hall of Fame in 2005.
"I'm shook up," former UK head coach Joe B. Hall said Monday night. "We had dinner together Friday night and he was in great spirits. It's hard to believe. He was a good friend to all of us. He was so close to all the coaches, players, managers and everyone who was associated with Kentucky basketball. It's a total shock."
"Words can not describe what Mr. Keightley has meant to me and many others that have been involved with Kentucky Basketball," said former UK coach Tubby Smith in a statement released from the University of Minnesota. "Mr. Keightley has been a confidant to so many coaches that have had the good fortune to sit along side him. That is what it has been, us sitting next to him, not him sitting next to us.
"No one will ever love Kentucky Basketball more than Mr. Keightley. A few years back, he began writing his book of stories about UK Basketball. For those who did not know him personally, hopefully his book of memoirs will allow them the opportunity to learn about his legacy, one that can never be replaced. In my years with him, he taught me so much about life. We have certainly lost a great treasure in his passing."
A graduate of Kavanaugh High School in Lawrenceburg, he was a retired U.S. Postal Service carrier and veteran of the Marine Corps in WWII.
The avid Cincinnati Reds fan is survived by his wife, the former Hazel Robinson of Lawrenceburg and his daughter, Karen, who works in the University's veterinary science department and son-in-law Alden Marlowe.
Memorial services for Keightley will be announced.