Crum's legacy comes full circle with dedication of court

Updated: February 7, 2007, 8:51 PM ET
Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The coach in Denny Crum is still there, percolating under the ever-present grin and just-so hair. But these days, the former Louisville coach keeps his opinions to himself.

"My wife doesn't want to hear it anyway," Crum said with a laugh.

So instead, the man who led the Cardinals to 675 wins and a pair of national championships simply watches from the stands at Freedom Hall, trying his best to blend in with the rest of the 18,000 red-clad Louisville supporters.

Of course, when you spend three decades building a program into one of the nation's best, blending in can be a little difficult. During a recent Louisville home game, Crum received a standing ovation when an in-house camera panned to him during a time-out.

The ever-bashful 69-year-old Crum simply waved and looked away, almost embarrassed by the outpouring of support.

"I didn't even realize why they were cheering," Crum said. "My wife had to poke me."

Crum didn't need to be prodded Wednesday night, as the university dedicated Denny Crum Court at Freedom Hall before the Cardinals faced Georgetown.

It's an honor that was hard to imagine six years ago, when Crum abruptly retired after losing a battle of wills with Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich following a 12-19 season in 2000-01.

"It was disappointing the way it all had to happen," Jurich said. "But it was a fact of life that we had to face. I wish it would have been different. One of the reasons I came here was because of Denny Crum. That made it more difficult."

Looking back, however, Crum views his retirement as a blessing. While the passion to coach still bubbles up from time to time, he's focused on finding a life away from crowded gyms on cold winter nights.

He's more likely to carry a fishing pole these days than the folded up program he'd smack against his hands during games, a habit he picked from his mentor, former UCLA coach John Wooden.

"I've really enjoyed my life since I stepped down," Crum said. "I spent my whole life coaching. I didn't know what a normal life was. But after a few months of living in a different world, I really enjoyed having the kinds of freedoms that I never had as a coach."

Freedoms such as hunting, fishing and playing poker with some of his former players, spending time with his family and co-hosting a local sports talk show with former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall.

Yet where so many legendary coaches fade into the shadows once they step down, Crum has remained visible. He works as a special assistant to president James Ramsey and attends various alumni functions with former players like Darrell Griffith, who helped the Cardinals win their first national title in 1980.

"His outreach goes beyond the athletics and Freedom Hall," Griffith said. "He's had an influence on this community that you can't even put into words."

The hard feelings that surrounded Crum's retirement are gone. He is now embraced by the same alumni base that was screaming for change at the end of his career. An alumni meeting Crum attended in Chicago last month stretched two hours longer than expected, as fans asked for one more picture, one more story, one more handshake.

"Coach Crum is Louisville basketball," said Rick Pitino, who was Jurich's surprise replacement for Crum despite taking arch rival Kentucky to the national championship in 1996. "He's built an unbelievable tradition. It's very unusual that someone could bypass all the temptations of professional basketball and other jobs and stay and be so loyal to the university."

That loyalty includes deftly sidestepping any questions about the current state of Louisville basketball. Pitino led the Cardinals to the Final Four in 2005, but has struggled somewhat since joining the Big East last season. Yet Crum has been respectful and supportive, even as the coach inside him screams to be let out from time to time.

"You can't coach for 41 years and then all of a sudden not think about what's going on there," Crum said. "I see a lot more than a lot of people do. But I just try to be a fan. I don't think I'll ever get to the point where I won't enjoy a good game, especially where it's Louisville."

Now, the coach who never intended on spending 30 years playing at a school that perpetually lingered in the shadows of Kentucky before he got there finds himself a permanent part of the program he turned into a national power.

"You can't spend 30 years at a place and not grow to love it or you'd have been gone long before," Crum said. "The fact that I loved it here and they seemed to want me here and it just seemed to go on for a long time [is special]. It's not a common thing in this business for coaches to stay at one place. There's only a few of us who get a chance to do that."


Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press