Crum coaching the chips his way

Updated: March 20, 2006, 2:00 PM ET
By Steve Rosenbloom | ESPN Poker Club

We're in the middle of "March Madness,'' and we're dealing with a former NCAA championship basketball coach, so you know what that means.

Yeah, finding a place to play some poker.

Whether it's out on his native West Coast, back in his adopted hometown of Louisville, Ky., or across the Ohio River in Indiana, where he is the poker ambassador for the Caesars Indiana casino, Denny Crum is looking to ante up.

"I want to play as much as I can, but I don't want it to dominate my life,'' says Crum, who coached Louisville to a pair of national titles in his three decades on the bench. "I can play in Louisville every night of the week. I could. I mean, there are private games going almost every single night.''

Denny Crum
Elsa Hasch/TSN/Icon SMICoach Denny Crum on the bench during a game against Saint Louis University at the Kiel Center

And if that's a hassle, Crum simply goes online, giving an updated meaning to "tournament time.''

"I've won a number of tournaments in the Internet,'' Crum says. "I won a $3,000 tournament, as a matter of fact. It's not a real big one, but I also won a $10,000 tournament on Doylesroom.''

Crum played in his first World Series of Poker last year, cashing in the $1,500 buy-in no-limit hold'em event that drew 2,305 players. But he wasn't as fortunate in the main event.

"I played three hands in 7½ hours.'' Crum says. "I just didn't get anything to play. I got pocket aces on the second hand and I was in the big blind and they all folded to me. Then, about 3½ hours later, I got a pair of 8s, which got beat on the river with a 10. Then I didn't have another hand I could play -- I didn't get any pocket pairs or two face cards -- and I got a K-Q and the blinds were $400-$800 and a $50 ante, which is $1,650 a round and I was down to $1,900 chips. I went in with K-Q and a guy had pocket queens and I didn't catch a king, so I got beat with that.''

You might think that Crum is one of the millions of poker newbies joining the pokerpalooza craze in the last few years.

You would think wrong.

"I've been playing poker most of my life,'' says Crum, who turned 69 on March 5. "When I was at UCLA in the fraternity house, there used to be a poker game every Tuesday night. I used to make all my spending money playing poker. There was all kinds of dealer's choice poker.

"My college roommate owned a card room in Oceaside [Calif.]. When I'd go out there to play golf with him, we'd play golf in the morning and go to the racetrack in the afternoon at Del Mar and have a poker tournament at night in his card room.

"It's different today than it was back then because so many people have learned to play. They play on the Internet a lot. I think there are a lot of players who are good players. I think today a lot more of it comes down to good luck. I tell people it's kind of like getting to a Final Four: You either have to have some good luck or else no bad luck.''

Crum knows about getting to Final Fours and winning. He played at UCLA in the late '50s and was an assistant coach there in the late '60s and early '70s, all of it under legendary coach John Wooden.

"Coach Wooden was not only my coach, he was like a father to me,'' Crum says of the man who served as his presenter when Crum was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1994. "When you get to play for someone and coach under him, you get really close. He's just one of those special people that I've had an opportunity to not only play for, but learn from and be an assistant coach to.

"We won the national championship all three years I was an assistant there (1968-69 through '70-71). I'm not taking the credit for that, believe me.''

Crum left for Louisville, and immediately took his team to the Final Four.

"It was kind of funny at that stage of my career, because I thought it was supposed to be that way because at UCLA we did it every year,'' Crum says.

"And we got beat by UCLA with all the guys I'd recruited: Bill Walton, Greg Lee, Keith Wilkes.''

Crum got some revenge in 1980, beating Larry Brown's UCLA team for the national championship.

Funny thing is, Crum originally planned to return to UCLA and was offered the job three different times when the UCLA administration responded to pressure from fans and media when Wooden's successors weren't Wooden.

"I think I could've handled it,'' Crum says. "And coach Wooden thinks I could've handled it. And he's pretty smart.''

But Crum said he fell in love with Louisville, and Louisville fell in love with him. Going to four Final Fours in the '80s will do that.

"We lost to Houston in Albuquerque one year when they had [Hakeem] Olajuwon and them,'' Crum says. "We just ran out of gas. I only had six players that year, and that's a mile-high elevation. They just wore us down. A friend of mine made an observation after that game. He said, 'I learned something about basketball today.' I said, 'What's that?' He said, 'Olajuwon was still 7-foot tall at the end of the game.'''

These days, Crum works as a special assistant to the president of Louisville, duties apparently flexible enough to allow him to serve as the spokesman for the Caesars Indiana poker room.

"Caesars, with its expansion, is the largest poker room between Atlantic City and Vegas,'' Crum says of the 33-table card room located about 15 minutes from Louisville. "It's absolutely beautiful. There's more room between tables. It's awesome. It's a world-class room.

"And no smoking, which is a bonus. They allowed smoking in their old room, but not in the new room. Golly, if you're a non-smoker and you're sitting at a poker table and you have asthma like I do, and you sit there trying to play poker for 10 or 12 hours with people on both sides of you smoking, you can't do it. I've gotten up and left tournaments. Just quit. Threw my chips in because of smoking. I can't handle it. It's healthier for everyone.''

And so, the decorated old coach who took 16 teams to the Sweet 16 is spending his competitive streak at the poker tables.

"I love the challenge,'' Crum says. "It's exhilarating to me. It makes me concentrate. It's like having a horse and dreaming about getting in the Kentucky Derby. You want to get to that Final Four in basketball, and now I want to get to that final table in the World Series and then see what happens.''

Steve Rosenbloom's book "The Best Hand I Ever Played" is available at bookstores everywhere. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, he is also author of a syndicated column for the Chicago Tribune. To leave Steve some feedback or ask him a question for his column, check out his mailbag.

Steve Rosenbloom has been contributing to the ESPN Poker Club since March 2005. Along with his contributions to ESPN.com, Rosenbloom writes for the Chicago Tribune and is the author of "The Best Hand I Ever Played."

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