Had the current NBA eligibility rules been in place during the 1970s when Joe B. Hall was coaching basketball at Kentucky, the UK boss could have won another national championship or two.
But Hall lost a couple of heavily-recruited prep superstars to the NBA in 1975. He could have used their help for his 1975-76 squad, which eventually captured the 1976 NIT crown with a 20-10 mark, and for his 1976-77 club, which lost in the NCAA regional finals.
Remember Bill Willoughby from New Jersey?
"I had him signed," recalled Hall in a recent interview with this sports columnist. "And Darryl Dawkins (from Orlando, Fla.). I lost them to the pros.
"Moses Malone was a strong consideration for us. But he signed with Maryland (in 1974). He didn't go to Maryland and went pro (in the old ABA)."
And in 1979, the Wildcats—who had won the national title in 1978— were set to sign Ralph Sampson, a 7-4 prep superstar from Harrisonburg, Virginia. But Kentucky lost Sampson, who had made a surprising, last-minute decision, stunning many folks, including Hall and his assistant coach, Leonard Hamilton (now the head coach at Florida State).
"Leonard and I were staying in his hometown and we've been there for a week," said Hall. "He came to us and said, ‘You're making my mother nervous,' and he said, ‘ I'm signing with Kentucky. You're going back home, but I guarantee you I'm going to Kentucky.'
"I didn't want to leave but we did what he asked, and I think to this day his mother persuaded him at the last moment to stay close to home."
So Sampson signed with Virginia and became a cover boy of Sports Illustrated magazine several times.
Sampson was a member of the same high school class that also
featured stars such as Sam Bowie, Derrick Hord and Dirk Minniefield.
The latter three went on to play at UK along with Charles Hurt and Tom Heitz.
Anyhow, Sampson would've been the sixth new Wildcat had he not changed his mind.
So as you can see, like many college coaches, Hall has won and lost recruiting battles but he was pretty successful, signing many highly- regarded superstars from the prep ranks.
A recently-named Hall of Famer who was the head coach at UK from
1972 to 1985 with three Final Four appearances and eight SEC championships, Hall said today's concept of one-and-done players (who become eligible for the NBA draft when they are 19 years old and one year removed from their high school class graduation) isn't healthy for college basketball.
"I think it hurts the fans," said Hall, who was raised in Cynthiana, Ky. "It hurts that those kids don't really get to be Kentucky players. A kid doesn't play for a name to be in front of his shirt until about the middle of the sophomore year. They just don't have the tradition (or the understanding) on what's going on with the past. They don't get that until you've been there awhile. That's what they've missed."
According to Hall, Kentucky coach John Calipari's job is much more difficult than when Hall coached because of one and-done players leaving early for NBA. In addition, Calipari has to deal with today's never-ending news cycle such as the Web sites, social media avenues like Twitter and Facebook, and 24-hour sports radio/cable TV programming. Hall didn't have these problems in the early days.
The four-time SEC Coach of the Year commented that Calipari has done a remarkable job in rebuilding the Cats every season with the new players since the current mentor arrived at UK in 2009.
"Every year it's kind of like ground hog day," said Hall, who had successfully replaced legendary Adolph Rupp in a tough situation at UK during the early 1970s. "He wakes up and he's got a lot of freshmen every year and that's a tough job to have to start over every year. He knows what these problems are going to be because he had the same one every year molding a bunch of all stars. It's a very difficult job.
"This year's been extremely tough because he didn't have that leadership from those older players to give them that direction. He was so fortunate last year (during the 2012 national title season) to have (Darius) Miller, who was a great leader. Then there (were
sophomores) Terrence Jones and (Deron) Lamb. They were coming back to their second year on that team. But the real ingredients were (Michael Kidd-)Gilchrist and (Anthony) Davis who were practice players who just made everything go smooth.
"I think that's what Cal has missed this (past) year. But I think he does a remarkable job after all these kids are freshmen. Willie Cauley-Stein is a freshman (soon-to-be sophomore). He did play football in high school. But that's (development of freshmen) the biggest thing I think that John does."
Added Hall: "We had the (1972) Super Kittens—Conner, Grevey, Flynn, Guyette, that group—and we scrimmaged against varsity every day and never beat them. They were an undefeated freshman team. But freshmen going against three-to-four-year players, they are always going to suffer not having the experience."
Calipari, who has just turned 54, has said he will probably coach another six years or so, meaning he would be around 60 years old when he quits coaching.
Calipari and Hall have discussed the rigors of coaching at Kentucky.
And Hall was 56 when he stepped down from UK in 1985.
"When I got into coaching, I decided I did not want to be an old coach," Hall said in another interview with this columnist over 20 years ago. "I said my coaching days would end at about 55. I would seek some other employment (banking profession) that was a little more suited for that stage in my life."
But, since his UK retirement, the grandfatherly Hall, 84, has continued to be a great ambassador for the Big Blue.
And Calipari and his Wildcats are certainly glad to have him around, including the team practices at the Joe Craft Center.
Jamie H. Vaught, a long-time sports columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is currently a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.