Bill Keightley was born William Bond Keightly on December 17, 1926, in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky to Bessie Mae Sharp and Asa Porter Keightley. Keightley was the equipment manager for the University of Kentucky men's basketball team, a position he held for 47 years until his death on March 31, 2008. He was known affectionately to most as “Mr. Wildcat,” and players referred to him as “Mr. Bill” or “Big Smooth.”
Those who entered the Bill Keightley Equipment Room will tell you that this room tucked into the ground floor of Memorial Coliseum was much more than a place for University of Kentucky basketball players to pick up new shoes. It was a family room, a psychiatrist's office, a confessional, an alumni reunion headquarters, a baseball memorabilia museum, a small-town coffee shop, and a big-city back room. It was all of those things and more because the man running the place – the man for whom it was named was much more than the title “equipment manager” indicates.
Players from nearly five decades said he was a father figure or, depending on when they passed through Lexington, a grandfather figure. Coaches called him a close friend. Athletic directors called him a “sounding board.” And fans called him by the nickname he was given, the one that hangs from the rafters along with a retired jersey. Mr. Wildcat.
“If there was one thing that could be a symbol of Kentucky basketball,” former Kentucky player Scott Padgett said, “I think it would have to be Mr. Bill.”
Early Life and Career
Keightley was an All-State center for now-defunct Kavanaugh High School in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. He graduated in 1944. He then attended Eastern Kentucky University until he entered the U.S. Marine Corps to serve his county in World War II.
Keightley had always been a Kentucky fan but never dreamed that he would ever be a part of the UK program. In 1962, his chance came when George Hukle, equipment manager for Coach Rupp, needed help. Hukle and Keightley worked together at the U.S. Postal Service in Lexington. Hukle knew Keightley closely followed the UK program and asked him if he wanted to help. Keightley quickly said yes. Ten years later, in 1972, he succeeded Hukle as equipment manager. He held the post during the tenures of coaches Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall, Eddie Sutton, Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith, and Billy Gillispie.
Honors and Awards
- Keightley was on three NCAA Championship teams (1978, 1996, 1998) with the Wildcats. He wore one championship ring on each hand and kept the third ring in his pocket.
- In 1997, the university retired a jersey in honor of Keightley. He and broadcaster Cawood Ledford are the only two people who did not play for or coach the Wildcats that have received such an honor. For the 2009 season, the jersey was given the number #48 to reflect his 48 years of service (previously it simply read “UK” for the number)
- In 2001, Keightley was featured on special edition Maker's Mark bourbon bottles.
- In 2002, the university presented the first Bill Keightley Award. The award is given to “the individual who understands and exemplifies the pride, respect, and positive attributes associated with being a part of the Kentucky basketball program.”
- In 2005, he was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the university's annual “Catspy” awards.
- On May 2, 2007, Keightley was inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame.
- Several oral history interviews with Keightley were conducted by the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky Libraries between 2005 and 2007 and can be accessed online: William B. Keightley Oral History Project
Keightley was married to Hazel (Robinson) Keightley. The couple had one daughter, Karen, who currently works at the university's veterinary science center. Keightley was an avid fan of the Cincinnati Reds.
Keightley died on March 31, 2008, after suffering a fall from a bus on his way to the season-opening Cincinnati Reds baseball game versus the Arizona Diamondbacks. The cause of death was internal bleeding caused by a previously undiagnosed tumor on his spine. His memorial service was attended by many prominent basketball coaches, including Billy Gillispie, Rick Pitino, Billy Donovan, Rick Stansbury, and former Kentucky player John Pelphrey. Many other former Kentucky basketball players attended as well. The Wildcats did not hire a new equipment manager for the 2009 season. As an additional tribute, the first “K” in “KENTUCKY” on the player's jerseys for the 2009 season was black outlined.