Denny Crum, the man who too Louisville men’s basketball from an upper echelon program to a national powerhouse, died Tuesday morning. He was 86-yeard-old.
Information on arrangements for Crum and plans for celebrations of his life will be released once finalized.
No one would buy the story of Denny Crum and Louisville if you tried to pitch it as a screen play or a manuscript today. Executives would criticize it for being overly fanciful and impossible to believe. They would write it off as a sequence of events that would never occur in the modern world. They’d probably be right.
A West Coast lifer who was groomed by the most legendary coach in college basketball to take over the most dominant dynasty the sport had ever seen, passing on the opportunity in favor of sticking with a program from Kentucky that had never won a national title. A man who had been the first to dare to poke and prod the state’s super power, and ultimately get his way. And finally, a man who felt so much loyalty to his program that even when he was given an exit that he deemed unceremonious and fair, he couldn’t bring himself to coach anywhere else. Instead, he would decide to retire and spend his free time giving back to the school and attending each and every home game.
Again, it’s a story that has no place in the reality of the modern world.
Denzel Edwin “Denny” Crum was born in San Fernando, California, where he spent his early years dreaming of playing college basketball for the UCLA Bruins. Despite developing into one of the most highly-touted high school players in the Los Angeles area, John Wooden — who wasn’t yet known as “The Wizard of Westwood — passed on the opportunity to offer Crum a scholarship to play for UCLA.
Disappointed but not deterred, Crum enrolled at Los Angeles Pierce College, where he put up gaudy numbers as a star guard on the school’s basketball team. Near the end of his sophomore season, a stroke of luck helped Crum bring his dream home.
“After my sophomore year, our school president, John Sheppard, helped me out,” Crum told The Los Angeles Daily News in 2010. “He went to the same church as John Wooden, so he told him how badly I wanted to play there. He brought him to one of our games - we didn’t even have our own gym, we played at Canoga Park High. I guess (Wooden) liked me because he invited me to their practice and training table, and called to set me up with some tickets to watch the Bruins play over at the Pan Pacific Auditorium. I had offers from Washington and Arizona State, but I still wanted to go to UCLA.
“It was funny, we were at training table - I was there with Coach Wooden and Ducky Drake (the trainer) and after the meal, Coach Wooden just says, ‘Well, are you coming or not?’ He didn’t say anything about a scholarship covering this or that or anything else. And I just said, ‘Yeah, I guess I am.’”
Playing on a pair of Bruin teams that were highly successful but unable to finish ahead of California in the Pacific Coast Conference, Crum was honored with the Irv Pohlmeyer Memorial Trophy for being UCLA’s most outstanding first-year varsity player in 1956-57. A year later he received the Bruin Bench Award, given annually to the team’s most improved player.
After graduation, Crum returned to Pierce and spent four seasons as the school’s basketball coach. He then returned to UCLA, where he first served as the program’s freshman team coach, and then later as Wooden’s primary assistant coach and head recruiter. With Crum on staff, UCLA won seven national championships in eight seasons, and compiled a total record of 221 wins to just 15 losses. In 1971, Crum left the greatest dynasty that college basketball has ever seen to take the head coaching job at Louisville.
“I never had any doubt Denny would succeed as a coach,” Wooden said in the fall of 2000. “Of any player I coached, Denny was probably the most cut out to be a coach.”
In his first season as a Division-I head coach, Crum guided Louisville to just its second Final Four appearance in program history. The opponent, naturally, was UCLA, which easily dispatched of the Cardinals in a 96-77 blowout, and went on to win its sixth straight national title.
Crum had U of L in a much better place in 1975, when the Cardinals and Bruins would once again meet in the national semifinals. Despite being in control for the bulk of the game, a disastrous final minute of regulation and a missed free-throw in the closing seconds of overtime ultimately doomed Louisville in a heartbreaking 75-74 defeat. After the game, Wooden stunned everyone by announcing that the national championship game two days later would be his last before retirement. Crum was immediately tabbed by the media as the next in line at UCLA, but he put an end to the speculation before it could gain too much momentum.
‘’I hadn’t yet accomplished what I wanted to at Louisville,’’ Crum explained to The New York Times in 1986. ‘’And when I was offered the UCLA job after Gene Bartow left a couple of years later, I decided that I loved Louisville and didn’t want to leave. I think I probably could have done the job at UCLA better than anyone else. It’s never easy following a legend but because I knew the people and the situation there, I don’t think I would’ve had the problems other people had.
‘’Through the years, I’ve learned to be patient. Coach Wooden had tremendous patience. When he said, ‘Goodness gracious, sakes alive,’ he was swearing at you. He was at the end of the line with you as a player. And as an assistant coach, I had my conflicts with him on the bench as to what to do and who to put in the game. But that was good instead of bad. There’s no value to having a ‘yes man’ as an assistant coach. You need opinion from your assistants.’’
Crum’s belief in his own abilities and newfound affection for Louisville resulted in the Cardinals morphing into college basketball’s newest super power. Conversely, it would be 20 years after Wooden’s retirement before UCLA won another national championship.
Louisville’s first national title would come in 1980, when senior Darrell Griffith — the winner of the National Player of the Year award that bears Wooden’s name — carried the Cards to a 59-54 toppling of (who else?) UCLA. U of L returned to the Final Four in 1982 and 1983, and then claimed its second NCAA Tournament championship with a 72-69 triumph over top-ranked Duke in 1986. When the 1980s came to a close, Sports Illustrated named Louisville as its “Team of the Decade” for college basketball.
Success continued for Crum in the 1990s, just not at the unprecedented level that his fan base was now accustomed to. Louisville routinely played its way into the second weekend of the tournament, but played in just one regional final under Crum after the ‘86 championship season.
With Louisville struggling to land blue chip talent and in the midst of what would be just Crum’s third losing season in 30 years, things got ugly at the start of the 21st century. U of L athletic director Tom Jurich had done little to hide the fact that he believed the basketball program needed to go in a different direction, and Crum had made his thoughts on the matter even more well-known.
“You can’t say you don’t know if it can happen,” Crum said on Feb. 22, 2001 about the speculation that he would be fired if he refused to accept a buyout. “It can happen to anybody at any time. The justification for it is another issue. Whatever decision is made, then they’ll have to live with it.”
Two weeks later, Crum called a press conference to announce his retirement. His words said that he was ending his tenure at Louisville after 30 years because he wanted to. His sullen, almost resentful demeanor said otherwise.
As he stood before the Louisville media, Crum was the only active coach in college basketball who had already been inducted into the Hall of Fame, an honor he received in 1994. He was also one of just two active coaches who had won multiple national championships. None of this made the surprising changing of the guard any easier to stomach for those whose closets were lined with mostly red and black attire.
Never one to carry a grudge, any ill-feelings about the way things ended dissolved soon after the start of Crum’s retirement. He discovered a life outside of basketball, one dominated by fishing and a local radio show that he co-hosted with Joe B. Hall, the former Kentucky head coach whom Crum had ribbed incessantly about his refusal to play Louisville in the early 1980s. He also continued to attend Cardinal home games (and away games when he could), and always received some of the loudest ovations of the night when he showed up on the big screen during a timeout.
In 2007, Louisville held a ceremony in which it named the court inside Freedom Hall “Denny Crum Court.” It was a deserving honor for the man who had taken a program with limited history and won two national titles, gone to six Final Fours, made 23 NCAA Tournament appearances and won 675 total games over 30 seasons.
So how does Crum explain the story that would never be believed even as a work of fiction in this day and age? How does he explain turning down the chance to assume Wooden’s throne at UCLA, or not leveraging his status as college basketball’s most dominant coach into a professional gig during the 1980s?
“You can’t spend 30 years at a place and not grow to love it or you’d have been gone long before,” Crum said. “The fact that I loved it here and they seemed to want me here and it just seemed to go on for a long time, that’s special. It’s not a common thing in this business for coaches to stay at one place. There’s only a few of us who get a chance to do that.
“What I never expected when I originally took the job here was the love I developed for this university and the people of this city. After a while, there was just no place else I wanted to be.”