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On the 9s: ‘79 Cards Never Really Caught Fire

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Season ended with a whimper, but renewed commitment

(Third in a series of remembrances of Cardinal basketball seasons, from years ending in 9. Next: ‘89.)

The 1978-79 season, despite the 24 wins against only 8 losses, never found a groove.

It was, to coin a phrase, a winter of discontent.

For the team, especially leader Darrell Griffith.

For Coach Denny Crum.

For the fan base, growing restless.

For the third season in a row, Darrell & Bobby (Turner), local legends since their early teen days at DuValle Jr. High and exploits for Chocolate City in the Dirt Bowl as prepsters, failed to meet heightened expectations. Wunderkind mentor Crum had led the Cards to the Final Four in his rookie season, again in ‘75, and the arrival of that duo had the fan base frothing at the mouth in anticipation of more better success.

U of L lost 4 of its final 6 in ‘76. Anticipation notwithstanding, the arrival of the wunderkinds didn’t immediately help. The ‘77 campaign ended with 5 Ls in the last 8 games; ‘78 with an OT defeat to Dave Corzine and DePaul in the MW Regional.

But a hopefully more mature Griffith and Turner, crafty senior Larry Williams, along with a heralded group of newcomers -- Scooter McCray, Jerry Eaves, Derek Smith, Wiley Brown -- had all pumped for a return to the final weekend of the season.

But the ‘78-’79 campaign faltered. Louisville, forced yet again to take a hike by boat show/ car show scheduling at Freedom Hall, spent most of February on the road, and in the losing column. The Cardinals dropped 3 of their last 5 in the regular season, then fell to Virginia Tech in the Metro Tourney.

Then the coup de grâce to Sidney Moncrief-led Arkansas in the MW NCAA Regional, falling behind by 17 with just over ten minutes to play, fashioning a furious Roger Burkman-led comeback with team leader Griffith on the pine with four fouls, but eventually succumbing by 11.

(Back in those glory years, it seemed like there was always a pack of Razorbacks trying and sometimes succeeding to get in the way of post season success. ‘79. ‘81. ‘83. ‘89.)

The promise of Grif, that he and his running partner would lead their hometown team to the title, then was left with but one more chance for fruition. As it turned out, Turner wouldn’t be around for that last opportunity, due to academic issues. And that fact that Griffith kept his word in ‘80 doesn’t in retrospect diminish the extreme angst and disappointment at the end of ‘79.

The troubles showed up early on.

One local scribe called them “a team of quitters,” after they were throttled by 17 at Ohio State in mid December

The #10 Cards fell 80-73 to Mississippi State in a holiday tourney at Freedom Hall. After blowing a ten point halftime advantage, boos echoed from the stands from an exasperated crowd, most directed toward Griffith and Crum.

Ah, how extreme expectations can turn a fan base into Ralph Steadman caricatures.

The ensuing 13 game winning streak, including victories at Maryland with Buck Williams and Albert King, and rival Cincy, calmed down the internal and external displeasure. At least somewhat, but not entirely.

The pieces never seemed to fall in place.

Crum fiddled with the lineup. Freshman Smith, who ended up averaging just short of 10 points/ game, was rumored to be jealous he wasn’t getting more ink. Turner discovered his own personal assist man in McCray, but pressed too hard, adversely affecting his effectiveness. Eventually Bobby asked Crum not to start him.

The team experimented with hypnosis, calling on Dr. Stan Frager, a faculty professor, member of the pep band and psychologist.

The late season slide began at Marquette on February 10, and U of L only won thrice after that, at St. Louis, over hapless Tulane and a squeaker against South Alabama in the NCAA tourney opener.

Most of that disaffection about that campaign has been lost, thanks to what happened the following season, which ended with the Cards cutting down the nets in Market Square.

But, at the close of the ‘79 season, the fans were grumbling, and the squad was wondering.

Grif verbalized his renewed commitment: “I’m going to work harder than ever. This is my last year. When you know what people are saying about your game, especially the experts, you’d be foolish not to work on it.”

Only after the next campaign, did Cardinal fans discover what Darrell Griffith’s arduous summer of ‘79 workouts in the sweatbox of Crawford Gym would bring.

Only after the next campaign, did Cardinal fans discover that the sole member of the Cardinals’ “disappointing” recruiting class, Scooter McCray’s pudgy younger brother, would turn into an all-time favorite Cardinal Rodney McCray, frosh starting center for the national champions.

-- Seedy K

(Sources: My memory. Louisville’s Men’s Basketball Media Guide. Gary Tuell, “Above the Rim.” Billy Reed, “Born to Coach.” The Courier-Journal.)