LEXINGTON, Ky. — Denny Crum was a disrupter before disrupters became cool.
But then Denny Crum was always cool or “Cool Hand Luke” as they called the University of Louisville basketball coach, who died Tuesday at the age of 86. From the time he arrived in the commonwealth from California after serving as John Wooden’s assistant at UCLA, Crum was the brash, young coach unafraid to accept the apple cart.
He lobbied for an annual Louisville-Kentucky basketball series. He didn’t just lobby, he raised the subject at every opportunity, needling the bigger school up the road.
And, as often happened, Crum won. He won on the court. And he won in the court of public opinion. A UK-U of L series, the “Dream Game” was eventually established and the world didn’t end. The state and the state of basketball were both the better for it.
And by the end, the circle closed. Kentucky fans came to appreciate if not love the basketball coach of the hated school down the road. Their former enemy. They loved the way Denny Crum and Joe B. Hall became friends, co-hosted a radio show together, talked basketball and life and, better still, their love of the state.
A couple of things should be noted about Denny Crum beyond his two NCAA titles, the first in 1980, the second in 1986. He embraced Black athletes at a time when not all programs or coaches did so. His teams played an up-and-down, free-wheeling style of basketball that showcased athleticism.
People remember the 1983 national title game in which Jimmy Valvano and North Carolina State upset heavily favored Houston. What they forget is that epic 1983 national semifinal game between Louisville’s Doctors of Dunk and Houston’s Phi Slama Jama. Louisville featured Rodney and Scooter McCray. Houston featured Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler and pulled away for a 94-81 win.
The game featured 14 dunks, including six consecutive dunks at one point. At the final buzzer, everyone had to catch their breath. Said official Hank Nichols, who worked the game, “At times, I thought I was in the London blitzkrieg.”
Where opposing coaches such as Bob Knight, Dean Smith and, yes, Joe Hall, were seen as control freaks and rigid program protectors, Crum was more relaxed in his leisure suits and laid-back sideline demeanor. The narrative: Crum let his players play.
That was only partially true. Crum was actually ahead of his time in many respects, championing the use of tall guards and offensive spacing. He found players in Southern spots dominated by football. Pervis Ellison was from Savannah, Ga. Derek Smith was from Hogansville, Ga. Kenny Payne was from Laurel, Miss. Lancaster Gordon was from Jackson, Miss.
Behind the famous twinkle in Crum’s eye, the coach was a keen competitor in everything he did. I covered Louisville’s national title run in 1986, which began in Ogden, Utah. One night, Crum and a friend drove to a casino across the state line. The next morning at the team hotel, Crum was holding court at breakfast, not just lauding the excitement of playing “craps” but explaining how you can win at the game.
I also remember talking to him after an early-round NCAA Tournament victory when I remarked I thought he got the better of the opposing coach. “Wasn’t hard,” said Crum, and though this was a phone interview, I can say with 100% certainty there was a sly smile on the coach’s face.
Alas, the ‘86 title was the apex of Crum’s coaching career. That was his sixth and last Final Four appearance. The coach was slow to adapt to the 3-point shot. SEC basketball improved, slowing his player pipeline to a trickle. Crum went 62-62 his last four seasons before U of L Athletics Director Tom Jurich forced the Hall of Fame coach into retirement to make room for Rick Pitino.
Still, Crum deserves a place among the great coaches in college basketball not just for his titles, but for the way he changed the game. More than that, he changed people’s attitudes about basketball and rivalries in this state. A cool accomplishment, indeed.