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Denny Crum, who coached Louisville to 2 NCAA titles, dies

A painted sign on wooden plans has images of U of L coach Denny Crum and team players. It commemorates the 1980 NCAA championship-winning team.
Courtesy the Frazier History Museum
Renowned basketball coach Denny Crum died Tuesday.

Denny Crum, who won two NCAA men’s basketball championships and built Louisville into one of the 1980s’ dominant programs during a Hall of Fame coaching career, died Tuesday. He was 86.

The school announced Crum’s death in a release after being informed by his wife, Susan. No cause was given, but Crum had battled an extended illness. He had a mild stroke in August 2017 while fishing in Alaska and another two years ago.

Susan Sweeney Crum is a former Louisville Public Media employee.

Nicknamed “Cool Hand Luke” because of his cool, unflinching sideline demeanor — legend has it he never uttered a curse word — Crum retired in March 2001 after 30 seasons at University of Louisville with 675 victories, which ranked 15th all-time then, and championships in 1980 and '86. The disciple of legendary UCLA coach John Wooden often wore a red sport coat and waved a rolled-up stat sheet like a bandleader’s baton as he directed Louisville to 23 NCAA tournaments and six Final Fours.

The second half of his tenure was not nearly as successful as the first, however, as Louisville endured two separate NCAA investigations and never returned to the Final Four after Crum’s second championship season.

Nonetheless, Crum was inducted into the Hall of Fame in May 1994, with Wooden, his college coach and longtime mentor at his side. Crum finished with 11 more wins than his most influential advisor amassed at UCLA.

Crum remained a beloved, revered and respected presence around Louisville whose legacy has been recognized in many ways. He frequently attended Cardinals games played on the KFC Yum! Center home court bearing his name and signature. And Crum was present for the September 2022 dedication of Denny Crum Hall, a new campus dormitory for athletes and students.

“You try to remember all of the things that you did, things that happened,” Crum said at a February 2020 ceremony honoring the 1980 title team. “Some was bad, but most of it good. It just makes you really proud that you were a part of it.”

Crum had a front-row seat in March 2022 for the introduction of one of his former players, Kenny Payne, as the U of L Cardinals coach. Payne said then that he would rely on Crum’s insight in his first head coaching job; and there were plenty of the Hall of Famer’s other pupils to not only support Payne, but enjoy another meeting with their mentor and friend on and off the court.

Last December, the Frazier History Museum opened an exhibit called Kentucky Rivalries, which partly focused on Crum's time as coach. The exhibit will remain on display until this fall.

A life-size image of a University of Louisville basketball player, mid dribble, is one of many colorful displays on a white wall. It's part of the Kentucky Rivalries exhibit at the Frazier Museum.
Courtesy the Frazier History Museum
The Kentucky Rivalries exhibit features Denny Crum's legacy as U of L men's basketball coach and community member.

According to Rachel Platt, the Frazier’s director of community engagement, Crum loaned a couple of personal items to the exhibit including a painting of his championship team from 1980 and an editorial cartoon.

Platt said she knew Crum personally and from her days as a reporter. As his health began to fail, she and the Frazier team felt it was important to pay tribute to him and all that he did for the university and the city.

“[His team] will all tell you they never heard him say a curse word in all of those years of coaching. [He was] a gentleman, a friend and somebody who was just cool under pressure,” Platt said. “The nickname Cool Hand Luke stuck.”

Though Crum was originally from California, Platt said he considered Louisville his “adopted hometown.” His commitment to one university and one team is something rarely seen in sports today, Platt said.

“He could have left, he could have gone somewhere else. But he decided to stay because of his love of Louisville, and the people and the University of Louisville,” Platt said.

Louisvillians and elected leaders expressed their condolences for Crum's family. Gov. Andy Beshear said in a tweet that Crum improved the community with his "inclusive program for all to enjoy."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also released a statement Tuesday.

“His storied career included two National Championships, six NCAA Final Four appearances, and a well-deserved inclusion into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame," McConnell said in a press release. "The Cardinal community loved their coach and will miss his calm leadership both on and off the court. We send our deepest sympathies to his wife Susan and all of his friends and family.”

This story has been updated with additional detail.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.

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