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U of L Coach Denny Crum remembered for on-court greatness and off-court friendships

Denny and Susan Sweeney Crum

Crum, who led the University of Louisville men’s team to two NCAA titles, died Tuesday.

Tributes have been pouring in for Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum, who died Tuesday after an illness.

The legendary University of Louisville men’s basketball coach led the Cards to two national championships, and built the program into a powerhouse during his nearly three decades at the helm.

Crum came to Louisville in 1971 from southern California, where he played and served as an assistant coach to his mentor, UCLA’s John Wooden. It was presumed by most, including Crum, that he would eventually return to Westwood and become head coach of the Bruins when Wooden retired.

But Crum came to a realization after he arrived in Louisville: He really liked it here.

“This community, it got me, I’ll tell you,” Crum recalled in 2007.

Crum joked that he decided to stay partly because it was much easier to get a tee time on the golf courses here than in southern California, but it was much deeper than that.

“It just came to me, why would you want to leave a place that you really enjoy, where you have a great relationship with everyone and where you have a legitimate chance to be successful and to have so many people care about what you’re doing?” he said.

Crum was successful right away, leading the Cards to the NCAA Final Four in 1972.

Highly recruited Louisville Male High School star Darrell Griffith chose to stay in his hometown and play for Crum. He helped bring home the Cards’ first national title in 1980. Griffith said Crum lifted the program to a whole new level.

“We knew we were getting a top-notch coach, coming from UCLA,” Griffith said recently. “He brought the same offense in. He said ‘if you run this, we’ll win, and we did.’”

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
Coach Denny Crum led the University of Louisville men's basketball team two two NCAA championships. He's remembered as a coach who rarely lost his cool.

A second NCAA title would come in 1986. Crum was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1994, with John Wooden at his side. It was during his tenure that the rivalry series with the University of Kentucky resumed after a long pause. Crum’s calm courtside demeanor earned him the nickname Cool Hand Luke.

Denny Crum retired from coaching in 2001, accepting a buyout from U of L, saying it was his decision to step down. There had been tensions, though, with then-athletic director Tom Jurich, who had made no secret of his desire to make a coaching change.

Crum continued to work for U of L as a special assistant to the president, he raised money for the Denny Crum Scholarship Foundation for incoming students and was a familiar presence at Cardinal athletic events, where he personally greeted an often steady stream of admirers. He also co-hosted a radio show with his one-time on-court nemesis, former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall, with whom he had forged a friendship over their shared love of hunting and fishing.

Through the decades, Crum stayed close with his former players. Former Cardinal Phillip Bond, who played for Crum in the 1970s, said the coach was also his friend and mentor.

“After I stopped playing for U of L, I could always count on him whenever I needed any help in my business career, he’d always be helpful and supportive,” Bond said.

There are reminders all around Louisville of Denny Crum’s contributions to the university and city. The court at the Cards’ home in the KFC Yum Center is named for Crum, as is a new residence hall on the U of L campus. A large banner honoring Crum hangs on a building near the arena. The former coach and the UK rivalry are part of an exhibit at the Frazier History Museum, where Rachel Platt is director of community engagement and a Crum family friend.

“I think his legacy will be the teams that he built, the relationships that were formed and something very lasting in a sport that I don’t think feels like it has that anymore. And I think that’s one of the things why people love him, because they got to know him and his players, they became family,” Platt said.

Coach Denny Crum was 86 years old. Survivors include his wife, Susan Sweeney Crum, and three children.

Rick Howlett was midday host and the host of LPM's weekly talk show, "In Conversation." He was with LPM from 2001-2023 and held many different titles, including Morning Edition host, Assignment Editor and Interim News Director. He died in August 2023. Read a remembrance of Rick here.

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