The name of Denny Crum will always be synonymous with University of Louisville basketball.
The man who turned the ambitious dreams of UofL fans into glorious realities died at his Louisville home on Tuesday. What he left behind was a reputation for excellence, having captured two national championships, six Final Fours and six Sweet 16’s during his 30-year tenure.
Denny arrived in Louisville in 1970, fresh from his job as an assistant to the legendary John Wooden at UCLA, a program feared and respected throughout the college basketball world. He would quickly exceed expectations, guiding UofL to a Final Four during his very first season. He would come to love the community, turning down an opportunity to return to his alma mater after Wooden.
The UCLA coach announced he was retiring after an overtime win over UofL in the semifinals of the 1974-75 NCAA tournament. Denny said he never gave leaving Louisville a second thought, he wanted to spend the rest of his career here. He would compile an incredible won-lost record of 675-295 over 30 seasons.
A person Louisville fans should never take for granted. He set the standard by which his successors will be measured. If Darrell Griffith is a legend, Denny Crum was a landmark. He brought UofL basketball to the forefront, not only on the national stage but in the state of Kentucky, considered an imposing challenge to UK’s predominance in the commonwealth.
Denny’s career was on the decline when he was pressured to resign by Athletic Director Tom Jurich after an depressing 12-19 record during the 2000-2001 season. Everybody knew Denny’s better days were behind him even if Crum was not ready to leave the game. He would be given a $7 million parting and a position and an office in the UofL Alumni Center as an ambassador for the university.
Small wonder fans were disappointed during the latter stages of his career. Crum had raised UofL fans’ expectations to such levels that anything less than a deep run in the NCAA tournament was disappointing. When the recruits and tournament appearances quit coming, he would become a victim of that success.
Timothy Johnstone, who co-authored the Cardinal Laws blog site a few years ago, had the fortune of spending some time at Denny’s complex in Southeast Jefferson County a few years ago. He wrote:
“Denny is the kind of person who makes awkwardness impossible. He’s welcoming and down to earth, patiently signing innumerable autographs and answering every question with thoughtful consideration. In fact, he is exactly the same in person as how he comes off on his radio show. He talks a little slower, and is more mellow than in his brash heyday. But he still has charisma; he speaks without bombast or hyperbole, just a self-assured, quiet, authoritative demeanor. Not a hint of arrogance either, just confidence; I get the impression he’s the kind of man that’s never done an unconfident act in his entire adult life.”
Denny was always approachable, making conversation easy for friends, fans and other admirers. One his best friends was the late Joe B. Hall, who had been a fierce competitor at Kentucky. The picture of them sharing popcorn at a UofL women’s basketball game is an image that has lingered for years. He was available for any good cause, making himself available for a myriad of fundraising events and charities throughout the area.
This observer had a chance to interview Denny in his campus office shortly after he led UofL to its first national championship in 1980. A picture of John Wooden hung on the wall behind his desk. “This is a special job at a wonderful university in a great community,” he told me. “The people here face many challenges but their support for UofL will never take a back seat to anyone. That’s why I love this place.”
It is unfortunate that UofL was going through some really bad times as Denny’s health declined. The specter of a procession of interim coaches, the uncertainty of NCAA investigations, and an ugly 4-28 record during the past season had to take a mental toll on him.
Denny would always be optimistic about the future of the University of Louisville, having been a part of the university’s success for so many years. He achieved greatness and he would expect us to pursue the same for the school.