Yes, Denny Crum turned Louisville basketball into a civic treasure and Freedom Hall into a vibrant landmark of the sport with two national championships, six Final Fours and massively entertaining teams.
Yes, his local standing grew more only hallowed after he left the sideline, an affable and approachable coaching emeritus never far away from the Cardinals in body or spirit, and doing a radio show with his old rival from Kentucky, Joe B. Hall.
Yes, he was a multi-dimensional legend. The national champion who won 675 games and spanned eras. He lost to John Wooden’s last Final Four team at UCLA and beat Mike Krzyzewski’s first Final Four team at Duke. But he also bred horses, collected Louis L’Amour novels and often went off to Idaho to hunt and fish.
Any remembrance of the career of the man who passed away this week at 86 must start with all that. But an intriguing question should be included.
What if Denny Crum had said yes to UCLA back in the 1970s?
How very different might college basketball history have been in two storied places had he gone thataway instead of thisaway when he came to the fork in the road of his career?
Denzel Edwin Crum was a UCLA guard for John Wooden in the 1950s, then a UCLA assistant for Wooden in the late 1960s. Did a lot of recruiting for Wooden, including landing a tall California kid named Bill Walton. And he already had a strong and competitive voice. When the Bruins stormed to another national title in 1971, a curious sidebar was the sight of Wooden and Crum arguing on the bench about substitution strategy. Question the Wizard? In public? Who had the gumption to do that? Wooden threatened to banish Crum to the end of the Bruins bench, but he understood his No. 1 aide was clearly ready to fly away on his own.
Crum moved to Louisville to be head coach in 1971, presumably as a dress rehearsal for when he would return to Westwood. That’d be whenever Wooden retired. Most everyone assumed it. The stars seemed in the right place. Crum took his first Cardinals team directly to the Final Four in 1972, where he lost to . . . UCLA and Wooden. He was back in 1975, where he lost to . . . UCLA and Wooden. That one by a single point in overtime. Wooden announced his retirement the same weekend.
Time for Denny Crum’s return?
Well, no. Twenty-six years and seven Wooden replacements later, Crum was still coaching Louisville.
He said back then he didn’t want to be the poor guy who had to immediately replace Wooden, understanding what a mission impossible it would be. That fell to Gene Bartow, who was devoured by the burden in two years. So UCLA needed another coach.
Then was it time for Denny Crum?
He thought not. By then, the city of Louisville loved him, there were no insane expectations and he could win big while keeping his sanity. “The professional end didn’t mean as much anymore,” he said in an interview in 1977. “My lifestyle did.” So he said no.
You wonder. Had he returned to UCLA, would it have been the Bruins with the Doctors of Dunk? Would there have been no pause in championship banners for Pauley Pavilion, and coaching stability at UCLA rather than the constantly revolving door of the post-Wooden era? Would Louisville have forever stayed the junior partner in the big blue shadow of Kentucky? Would there even be a KFC Yum! Center now, with its Denny Crum court? And who would have co-hosted that radio show with Joe B. Hall?
One thing we do know. Lute Olson . . . John Thompson . . . Hall . . . now Crum. Time goes by, the icons depart. A lot of them in recent years. With Crum’s passing, the message should be to appreciate the faces from a golden age of college basketball coaching while we still can.
Many had stories similar to Crum; men who planted a flag in one place and stayed long enough to be forever linked to the school they led. Louisville was the only head coaching job Crum ever had. His best glory days came in a rush, with all six Final Four trips in his first 15 seasons. The Cardinals never made it back his last 15 years, but his legend is secure. Crum and Louisville will always go together. Just like Kentucky and Hall, who died last year. Arizona and Olson, who passed in 2020, as did Georgetown’s Thompson. Dean Smith, Rollie Massimino, Jerry Tarkanian . . . all gone in the past eight years.
The only surviving national championship coach from before 1988 is now Bob Knight, who won his first title 47 years ago. There’s Larry Brown, from Kansas in 1988, Steve Fisher, from Michigan in 1989. Krzyzewski, Arkansas’ Nolan Richardson, UCLA’s Jim Harrick, Kentucky’s Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith and Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun are living reminders of who cut down nets in the 1990s.
There is the new wave. Dan Hurley and Scott Drew and Tony Bennett. Bill Self is still winning them. Tom Izzo would love another. But it is a coaching club that includes a great deal of transition, especially lately. Only seven past national title winners are still in the business of coaching college basketball. The only champion from the 20th Century still active is Pitino.
The history of that special round table of championship coaches, including Denny Crum in Louisville red when it might have been UCLA blue, is a pillar of college basketball itself. Even as they begin to disappear.