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    As soon as I turn off the main road the lane looks familiar, though I haven’t driven it since 1986 while working on a story. The long private drive to the home of former University of Louisville men’s basketball coach Denny Crum lifts me gradually up a hill and past an artisan-carved, cedar-trunk totem pole with the Cardinal Bird perched at its top — a gift from his wife Susan Sweeney Crum for his 80th birthday. Many of the surrounding trees have matured, but the landscape feels unchanged. This 75-acre spread in far eastern Jefferson County has been a satisfying retreat for the two-time national champion, and it remains the relaxing redoubt for a man who never left Louisville after coaching the team for 30 years, from 1971 to 2001, even if at times the city seems to have forgotten him.

    Crum, now 81, appears the same too, in many ways. He’s still lean and upright, still presenting as an athlete. His imposing Maremma sheepdog and three Labradors greet me barking at the door, and he settles them with a calm command. They take positions on the floor around the kitchen table where Crum and I sit to talk. He puts his cell phone in front of him; he says he doesn’t answer it unless he recognizes the number. A landline on the wall rings occasionally; he never answers that one.

    Somehow, Crum has kept up a vestige of his youthful hairline, holding it against the ravages of time. He’s wearing a golf shirt with the U of L Cardinal Bird on his chest. His Hall of Fame ring weighs down the fourth digit on his right hand. Crum’s age shows through, however, in graying hair, a husky voice and puffs around his eyes (perhaps related to his persistent allergies). He repeatedly rubs those eyes during our conversation, as if doing so will help him see more clearly how to respond to my questions. He’s not a natural storyteller. A math and PE major in college, Crum is very analytical and not prone to see poetry in the events he describes.


    "I wasn’t so concerned about the winning and the losing. All I cared about was we played somebody good enough to beat us."

    Until recently, Crum served as an ambassador for the school and ran the Denny Crum Scholarship Foundation as part of a reported $7 million coaching buyout, which included a 15-year contract at $338,000 annually. That contract expired in 2016. Crum sounds almost apologetic when he describes how he spends his time now. “I don’t have a job,” he says. At another point, he adds, “Now that I’m not working at all.”

    Yesterday, Crum and his wife got back from a trip to Alaska. On that same sojourn last year, Crum suffered a minor stroke, which has left no major after-effects. His wife says he’s had no other health issues since. Crum went deer hunting with some Louisville friends right after the flight back (“I didn’t see the one I wanted to shoot”) and is scheduled to fly out tomorrow for two weeks of fishing in Idaho with a group of five other guys, then stay one more week when his wife and two of his children come out to the family cabin. (Crum has two sons and a daughter from previous marriages.) “Then I’ll be back here for the winter, and it’ll be deer season, which is my favorite time of year,” Crum says. “I’ve already been putting corn out, and I set up a trail camera so I can see which deer are coming up and eating that corn every night.” His hunting buddies do the same, and the group moves from one property to the next to look for trophy bucks. The octogenarian Crum can’t walk the woods like he used to, so a friend will four-wheel him to his deer stand in the morning and pick him up when the day is done. “Deer hunting has kind of consumed me the past few years,” he says. He learned to hunt with his father growing up outside Los Angeles. “I kind of quit when I was coaching,” he says. “I didn’t have time.”

    It’s hard to believe that a man as approachable as Denny Crum could sometimes seem left out in the cold by the school and much of the community that he brought into the spotlight with national championships in 1980 and ’86, as well as with nearly annual runs at the title.

    So many players come to mind from the high-flying days under Crum, when the Cards stared down the best teams in the country, from UCLA to North Carolina and Indiana, often in front of our eyes at Freedom Hall. The 1980 team had Darrell Griffith, who, with teammates Wiley Brown, Derek Smith and the McCray Brothers, became known as the Doctors of Dunk. And let’s not forget Junior Bridgeman, Pervis Ellison, Milt Wagner and, hell, DeJuan Wheat. Crum compiled wins at a 70-percent clip for a total of 675, more than any other U of L men’s basketball coach. (From 2001-2017, Rick Pitino totaled 416 wins at U of L before the NCAA, in the wake of scandal, stripped the school of 123 of those wins and its 2013 national championship, but we’ll get to that.) Aside from four early-career years at Pierce College in Los Angeles, Crum was never head coach at any other place.

     

    “And we did that for 30 years. I think that’s one of the things I’m proudest of. We scheduled the toughest schedule we could schedule."

     

    I tell Crum that I relinquished my season tickets a few years after his exit when the preseason schedule was dumbed-down so much I could hardly find a home game I wanted to see before conference play began in January. “I gave my tickets to friends and other people,” Crum says. “I didn’t want to go watch somebody get beat by 50 points.”

    Crum always brought out-of-conference powers to Freedom Hall. And fans benefitted from his ambitious scheduling. The Hall often rocked in November and December during the Crum era, in contrast to the scrimmage-level enthusiasm at many early-season Yum! Center games in recent memory. “I felt like the way to get our team to improve the most was to have them play against better competition,” Crum says. “And we did that for 30 years. I think that’s one of the things I’m proudest of. We scheduled the toughest schedule we could schedule.

    “I wasn’t so concerned about the winning and the losing. All I cared about was we played somebody good enough to beat us. It doesn’t hurt you to lose to Duke or North Carolina or Georgetown. It’s OK. That’s how you get better.”

     

    As a passable pick-up basketball player in the 1980s and ’90s, I often found my way to the standing noon drop-in game at the erstwhile Downtown Athletic Club. Situated in what was previously a YMCA building at Third and Broadway, the DAC drew a crowd of former area college and high school players, and guys like me who tried to run with them. Ex-U of L athletes Jerry King, Scooter McCray, Wiley Brown and Jerry Eaves, among others, came by for the action. The court was short and the lunch break long, up to two hours.

    One of the more amazing players on that scene was Phil Bond, a Cardinal point guard who played for Crum from 1973 to 1977 and held the career assist record at U of L for 14 years. He has been with Metro United Way since the mid-1980s and is now chief financial officer, but I know him as the affable guy at the DAC who looked like he’d lost a step and several inches of jumping ability but had such an uncanny awareness of his defenders that even men several inches taller and years younger could never block his go-to turnaround jump shot. When I call to get his reflections on Crum, Bond invites me to the University Club on U of L’s campus. We sit in the first-floor dining room, down the stairs from where Crum kept an office after he was essentially forced to retire in 2001.

    Over lunch, Bond recalls a conversation he had with Crum in 1975, at the beginning of the school year following Louisville’s dramatic one-point overtime loss to UCLA in the NCAA tournament semifinal. Legendary UCLA coach John Wooden, who was Crum’s coach and mentor when Crum attended the school in the ’50s, announced his retirement immediately following that nail-biter. (Wooden capped his career with a 92-85 win over Kentucky for the national championship.)

    “Coach told me he could’ve gone to UCLA to take Wooden’s place, but he said he was going to stay in this community because he liked it so much,” Bond says. Crum’s openness with him went back even further, to when he was a Manual High student being recruited by both Crum at U of L and Joe B. Hall at the University of Kentucky. “When (Crum) recruited me, he said, ‘If you think you’ll settle down in Louisville, you should go to either U of L or UK.’ That honesty really impressed me, him mentioning UK too,” Bond says.

    During the spring of his sophomore year in high school, Crum was tapped by his school’s coach to be in charge of the summer-league team. The juniors and seniors listened to him in part because he was the best shooter on the team, but also because he routinely rounded up all eight teammates in his father’s pickup and drove them around the San Fernando Valley to four or five games a week during the “off-season.” Crum went to junior college at Pierce for two years (averaging 27 points per game his first year), then became a guard for Wooden at UCLA. He averaged seven points per game there from 1957 to 1959.

    Crum became an assistant at UCLA from 1963 to 1971, and imported much of the Wooden way when he came to Louisville in 1971 — both in demeanor (nobody remembers him ever swearing at a player) and in strategy. He adopted Wooden’s gentlemanly sideline posture and focus on perfecting his own team’s skills, rather than reacting to opponents. As the assistant assigned to calling plays during UCLA timeouts, Crum honed the in-game play-calling skills that he would later become famous for. He also implemented a variation of Wooden’s signature high-post offense at U of L.

    Bond calls it the “guard-cut offense,” and before long he’s drawing it up on my notepad. A few simple passes, cuts and screens opened up scoring options for teammates. “All of the teams knew we were running it,” Bond says, “but if you have talented players they can’t stop it.”

    Bond pulls back from this reminiscence when I ask him if the same plays and skills taught by Crum in the 1970s and ’80s apply in today’s college game. He considers the question briefly. “The three-point line,” he says of the 1986 addition, “neutralized the guard-cut offense; it still worked, but you only got two points for it. The game has changed so much.”

     

    How much has the game changed since 10-time national champion John Wooden and his protégé who came to Louisville mastered it? That was one of the questions I hoped to ask new U of L men’s basketball coach Chris Mack. But when I requested an interview to talk about the Crum legacy and U of L basketball moving forward, a spokesperson informed me that I would not be able to connect with Mack anytime soon. They wouldn’t supply answers to email questions either.

    At a meeting earlier this year to introduce Mack to former coaches and players living in the area, Crum got to talking with the former Xavier coach. “I told him — and it didn’t matter what it was — I’d be happy to try to help him. He said he would appreciate that very much,” Crum says. He remembers preparing for Xavier when U of L played them in 1993, during Mack’s time there as a player. (Mack started his career at Evansville). “He was a pretty good player,” Crum says, adding, “He’s had a good experience (coaching at Xavier) and he’s played a tough schedule.”

    The Cardinals will meet some difficult opponents during pre-conference action, facing Tennessee and either Kansas or Marquette in an early-season tournament, then Michigan State, Seton Hall, Indiana and Kentucky — all by the end of December. Multiple matchups with nationally ranked Atlantic Coast Conference foes (Duke, North Carolina, etc.) will follow. Mack has embraced the challenge, and he’s been quoted as saying the team will need to have its “big-boy pants on” to get through it.

    That Crum took on all comers and didn’t obsess about rankings and tournament seeds placed him in stark contrast to his successor, Rick Pitino. That Pitino runs hot while Crum was nicknamed Cool Hand Luke — and that Pitino specialized in defense, while Crum was famous for calling brilliant scoring plays out of late-game timeouts — suggest an oil-water divide between the two. But Crum defends Pitino.

     

    "I don’t really believe Rick (Pitino) knew. . .because he was such a stickler. There’s no way they could have gotten away with that for four years. If he said he didn’t know, he didn’t know. And I’m serious about that. Why would a guy jeopardize his $6-million-a-year job to let something like that go on? He wouldn’t.”

     

    On the sordid matter of a member of the basketball staff, identified as Andre McGee, ordering strippers for players and recruits in an on-campus dormitory (which certainly contributed to Pitino’s firing last fall) Crum stands by his successor. “You’d have to talk to McGee and one of the assistants involved — and I know at least one of them had to be involved,” Crum says. “Having said that, I don’t really believe Rick knew. . .because he was such a stickler. There’s no way they could have gotten away with that for four years. If he said he didn’t know, he didn’t know. And I’m serious about that. Why would a guy jeopardize his $6-million-a-year job to let something like that go on? He wouldn’t.” Pitino ranked 15th on the all-time college coaching list with 770 career victories before the NCAA stripped U of L of 123 wins in February, following an FBI case involving several schools, and funds allegedly funneled by Adidas representatives to a U of L recruit’s family with the cooperation of Cardinal coaches. (On the career list, Crum now has 28 more wins than Pitino.)

    Pitino invited Crum to practices, but he attended only occasionally. “I just felt I’d be better off away from it awhile and just go watch the games and root for the kids,” Crum says. He credits Pitino with initiating the decision to name the floor at Freedom Hall (and later the Yum! Center) in his honor. U of L has played on Denny Crum Court since February 2007. I ask if that means former athletic director Tom Jurich wouldn’t have pushed for the renaming. Crum responds with the first curse word I’ve heard from him. “Oh, hell no,” he says. “Are you kidding?”

    Crum retains animosity toward Jurich for the way Crum’s career ended, as do some who are close to him. Bitterness remains over the sequence of events that led to the retirement he announced in early March 2001, on his 64th birthday. “I didn’t let him bully me like he did most people,” Crum says of Jurich, who had become athletic director in 1997. “I didn’t need to. I mean, I’d been there 30 years, and if I’d wanted to stay I could have. He didn’t want me to because he wanted total control of everything, and I didn’t want to work for somebody like that. So I retired.”

    When Jurich returns my call seeking his version of events, he says he’s “out west,” no longer living in Louisville after being fired in October 2017 following the FBI findings, just two days after Pitino was terminated as coach. Jurich was athletic director at U of L for 20 years, the first four including seasons when Crum’s teams sagged in performance. “I put no pressure on him (to retire),” Jurich says. “Nobody wants to be in a situation where you have to be in a position to make a change with a Hall of Fame coach.” Saying it’s the first time he’s heard grievances about the naming of the court, Jurich adds, “Sure we considered it and of course we honored him. Rick (Pitino) was a big part of it. We all tried to respect him.”

    Could it be that Crum is a relic of a more innocent time, an era when less money was at stake and deep tournament runs were more joy than expectation?

    Or maybe it was simply time for Crum to go. After making it to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight in 1997, U of L won only 12 games the next year while losing 20, and won 12 and lost 19 in the 2000-2001 season — both disastrous. (The team won just 19 games during each of the intervening seasons, with first-round losses in the NCAA tourney.) Meanwhile, Crum’s team got two years of probation in November 1996 for a player’s improper use of a car and other minor violations; in September 1998, the team received three years probation and was banned for one year from postseason play, mainly for the improper use of an assistant coach’s credit card by a player’s father. The postseason ban was revoked before season’s end, but the team never took flight.

    I dial up Bill Olsen, who was U of L’s athletic director from 1980 to ’97 and, before that, an assistant to Crum. I ask him about Crum’s final year. Olsen recalls that Crum did not share his thoughts at the time with many others. “I think the way it was handled was very disappointing to him probably, even though he never expressed it to me,” Olsen says. “That’s Denny. He’s a very positive person.”


    Crum at home with his dogs.

    Crum became engaged to Susan Sweeney Crum, his third wife, the summer before his final season. They married in 2001. She says that when he found out about the behind-the-scenes discussions to remove him from his U of L job, it was “hard on him.” But he chose not to make a public issue of the maneuvers, she says, because he couldn’t fathom keeping the coaching position if he wasn’t supported at U of L. After spending three decades building the program, he didn’t want to harm it. “Denny wasn’t going to make waves,” she says.

    Some things still rankle Sweeney Crum, who retired this year from WFPL after a career in TV and radio broadcasting. “I think he was treated poorly for 16 years,” she says. Sweeney Crum mentions times when she and her husband traveled with the team to away games. On occasion, she says they would be given tickets in the upper arena, far from the seats handed to board members and certain donors. Fans came up to them, surprised the Hall of Fame coach was seated so far from the action. “It hurt him,” Sweeney Crum says. “I could tell. It hurt him.”

    Jurich bristles at the notion that he would assign lesser seats to the former coach, telling me he had nothing to do with ticket allocations on road trips. “That’s a manufactured story,” he says, asking why, after so many years, these complaints would be coming up. But, he says, “That’s Louisville.”

     

    I drive over to see Wade Houston at his family’s business, HJI Supply Chain Solutions. Located off Old Henry Road near the Gene Snyder, the logistics and warehousing company sprawls on both sides of its aptly named street, Complete Court. Houston was one of three African-Americans on the first team at U of L to break the color barrier, in 1962. From 1976 to 1989, Houston was an assistant to Crum and the team’s top recruiter of high school talent. He ended his basketball career as Tennessee’s head coach from 1989 to ’94, the first African-American head coach in the Southeastern Conference.

    Houston remembers a UCLA game at Freedom Hall when Crum was really sick from the flu and had to watch the game in bed and call in his comments. The team was mired offensively, so the assistants started drawing up new plays from the sidelines. Crum called in and said, “I don’t recognize this offense.” When he came back the next day, he took all of those plays out and none of the assistants dared tell him who put them in.

    Houston, still an agile presence at 74, surprises me a bit by saying he hasn’t seen a lot of major changes in college basketball since his days with Crum. He does agree that the introduction of the three-point line and increased overall athleticism have had an impact. “But even in the early ’80s we had the Michael Jordans of the world,” he says, “so we had a glimpse of that.”

    Houston mentions that a front-office member of the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans called him not long ago and wanted to talk about the Golden State Warriors, who’ve been NBA champions three of the last four years. The Pelicans official made note of Golden State’s strategy of moving guards down low near the basket and taller players to the perimeter, recalling that U of L was doing that long before anyone in the pro game. “We just discovered a way to find guys that were more interchangeable,” Houston says of the Crum-era recruiting strategy. “And we did it out of necessity.” Not able to outcompete more-storied programs for the seven-foot All-American centers, Crum and Houston looked in out-of-the-way towns for more versatile talent.

    “We’d go to Scooba, Mississippi, or Laurel, Mississippi, or Savannah, Georgia, and get…guys who were 6-foot-7 — or 6’8” or 6’9” in some cases — and just teach those guys to play different positions,” Houston says. “And we ended up with a better model than some of the guys who had 7-foot centers.” (Interestingly, both Houston and Crum mention the same player when I ask them who they recall first from the long line of stars during the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s: Wesley Cox, a 6-foot-6 leaper who played the post position for U of L in the mid-’70s and could dominate the 7-footers on other top teams.)

    Mack, U of L’s new coach, was a 6-foot-5 guard during his own playing days. His top scorer from the Xavier team he led last season to the school’s first-ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament was guard Trevon Bluiett, a 6-foot-6 talent who signed this summer with the Pelicans. Mack has arrived at Louisville during a time when the highest-ranked recruits may be less likely to consider its recently troubled program. A new strategy of necessity may be required.

    “I’ve had little vibes from what I’ve read that Chris might be doing some of the things that we did, in terms of the kind of players he’s recruiting,” Houston says. “I’m hoping he repeats some of those things, and I’m hoping he can make it work.”

     

    These days, Crum gets up when he wakes up, mostly dresses in polos or heavier casual shirts and eats eggs if his wife prepares them or cold cereal if she doesn’t. He dotes on his four dogs and already has plans for a fifth, a border collie. Then he’ll have his team of five. They patrol the house and the rolling hills outside. A large pond stocked with bass and bluegill spreads out below the back deck, where family and other guests fish. The spacious Crum home has a theater room and indoor pool on either side of the kitchen and a game room downstairs filled with basketball memorabilia. The exercise equipment and pool table down there don’t get much use these days, but there are still occasional card games at the casino-size poker table.

    When there’s a basketball game of any relevance on television, Crum can be counted on to run an open house. Family and friends drop by, announced or unannounced, for a plush seat in his company. “I actually pay a lot of attention,” Crum says. “I love the game.” Roger Burkman, a member of the 1980 championship team and the former player closest to the ex-coach, will come by. The two also fish together. “He’s kind of like one of my sons,” Crum says.

    Crum hasn’t spoken with Pitino since he went to one of the team’s early-season practices more than a year ago, while Pitino was still coach. He worries that the NCAA is not finished meting out punishment to U of L and is waiting for the FBI and court cases to reveal more about the recruitment allegations.

    Houston notes one effect of recruiting rules that changed during the end of Crum’s U of L dynasty. The Cardinal coaching staff, he says, which prided itself on outworking other teams to find talent, lost an edge after the NCAA restricted phone calls and visits with players. But Crum mentions another element of the change — the focus on the crucial July evaluation period, when coaches, including head coaches, are forced to travel to summer tournaments if they want to see top prospects. For Crum, a man accustomed to playing golf four or five times a week and dropping a line in the water whenever possible during the summer, this was an unappealing development.

    When I ask him if he ever considered coaching anywhere else after leaving his Louisville post, Crum doesn’t hesitate with an answer. “I never really thought about it much because I was enjoying the freedom,” he says. “When they put in that rule it was right in the middle of the summer — when the fishing is the best.”

    This originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Jessica Ebelhar, jessicaebelhar.com

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