Give us a call
Get your Pallets Picked up
In the most pressure-packed of situations, Denny Crum remained cool. And none is more intense in college basketball than the single-elimination NCAA tournament. Crum, a Hall of Fame coach, took his University of Louisville Cardinals men's basketball team to six Final Four appearances, winning the NCAA title twice. He took his team to the tournament 23 times in 30 years.
Throughout his career, Crum's calm presence earned him the nickname "Cool Hand Luke."
"I tried to set a good example," Crum, 80, told IBD. "I always felt if I couldn't keep myself under control, how could I expect my players to? I always tried to keep a cool demeanor. I didn't yell or scream at officials."
As the Cardinals' head coach from 1971 to 2001, Crum amassed a 675-295 record, good for a .696 winning percentage. His NCAA Tournament record was 43-23, or .652%. The Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, which inducted Crum in 1994, says he's the second-fastest NCAA Division 1 coach to reach 500 wins.
He was named NCAA Coach of the Year in 1980, 1983 and 1986. Crum's teams won 12 regular season Metro Conference championships and 11 conference tournaments. Crum and the Cardinals won the NCAA tournament in 1980 and 1986. He was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.
"You've got to be able to make the young people that are under your supervision be aware of the fact they aren't working for you, they are working with you," Crum said.
Darrell Griffith, a former Cardinals star who was named the most outstanding player of the 1980 Final Four, told IBD, "Coach wanted to do things the right way. He was a hard worker, extremely competitive and had the will to win."
Griffith went on to a stellar NBA career. "I was fundamentally sound and taught well by a great coach in Denny Crum. I could accept constructive criticism, I had a willingness to always want to be better and I was never satisfied. I didn't take my game for granted. Those were all traits from Coach Crum."
Jerry Jones, an assistant coach for Crum for 28 years at Louisville, said his former boss "utilized the talents of the players."
"He played to their strengths," said Jones, "and we tried to cover up their weaknesses.
"His plan was: day one to the end of the season. He'd say: 'This is where we want to be at the end of the season. Here's how we go about being the best we can be to get there,' and he followed that step by step. Even when there were ups and downs, we stayed with the system."
Crum was born in San Fernando, Calif. His mechanic father instilled in him the ability to avoid "majoring in minors," Crum recalled. "He meant there are some things you cannot do anything about, so don't dwell on them. Spend your time and effort on things that you can control."
Crum played basketball at Los Angeles Pierce Junior College from 1954-56. He then transferred to UCLA to play under the legendary John Wooden. After graduating in 1958, Crum became UCLA's freshman basketball coach at a time when first-year players weren't varsity eligible. He then went back to Pierce as an assistant and later became its head coach. In 1968, Crum returned to UCLA as Wooden's lead assistant and top recruiter. In that position he would be part of Wooden's 1969, '70 and '71 title teams there.
Both playing and coaching under Wooden has left an indelible impression on Crum.
"Paying attention to details, that was one of the things I learned from Coach Wooden," Crum said. "If you don't pay attention to details, there are so many little things that are going to slip through the cracks it's hard to get a job done well. They'll all build up to become one big obstacle to whatever it is you're trying to get done.
"Coach Wooden would be the first to say he wasn't great at strategy, that he was a teacher."
Crum was influenced by that, and it came naturally to him. "As a teacher and coach I think patience is crucial because you can't push young people to do things. You've got to lead and guide them."
"Coach dominated and commanded the practices by his teaching," Griffith said. "He taught us well."
After assisting Wooden on title teams — and identifying and then recruiting superstar center Bill Walton to Wooden and UCLA — Crum was hired by Louisville as their head coach at age 34.
"I thought I was ready," Crum said. "I had the privilege to play and coach for Coach Wooden, so I learned from both sides of it. When I went back to UCLA as Coach Wooden's assistant I learned the planning, that attention to detail. Coach Wooden's ego never got in his way. He would always say it's amazing what you can get done if you don't care who gets the credit."
At Pierce, Crum found different ways of doing things, and when he'd suggest those to Wooden upon his return, the legend was receptive. Jones said Crum was the same way with his assistants.
Having been mentored by Wooden, Crum still strived to be himself. "You can't do something someone else's way and expect to be as good at it as they are," he said. "You have to have your own personal feelings about things, your own experiences. Everything that goes into making up who you are is what your team will get from you."
At Louisville, Crum instilled something Wooden insisted on for his UCLA teams — that a player who scored on a pass must immediately acknowledge the player who made the assist, as a way to build teamwork and camaraderie.
"They had to (do so) 100%," Crum said of his players. "I'd take them out of the game if they didn't. They learned quick. A lot of times we get too hung up on the individual stuff and don't think enough in terms of the team. Teamwork is crucial and essential in almost anything you do that makes you successful."
Crum found success right away. He'd taken over a good Louisville basketball program, but one that hadn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 1968, hadn't reached a Final Four since 1959, and had never won a national championship. Crum's first Louisville team went 26-5 and made it to the Final Four, where he lost to his mentor Wooden.
While it wasn't Wooden's way to actively recruit players, Crum recognized that without that kind of stature — and in a region that was a hotbed for college basketball with competition from the universities of Kentucky, Cincinnati, Memphis, Duke and North Carolina — he had to.
"Whenever my assistants were out there, and I was out too," Crum said, "I tried not just to find the best players, but to show the kind of interest in them that you were sincere in wanting them to be a player in your system."
Eight years later, after six NCAA Tournament berths and two NIT ones, Crum had his Cardinals in the 1980 NCAA title game, going against UCLA and fellow future Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown.
At The Pinnacle
"I can remember telling my 1980 team at halftime," Crum told WPLF.org, "it's a shame that you played so good getting here and now you're playing scared and tight out there. I think you just need to go out there and relax and do what you've been taught to do, and things will turn out good for us.'"
It did, as Louisville won the game 59-54, and the title. Six years later Crum's Cardinals were NCAA champs again.
Crum feels there are certain characteristics that championship teams have. "For one, you can't have a selfish team and win against the good competition," Crum said. "Your kids all have to be willing to give their very best not for individual accolades but for the good of the team. Coach Wooden said your best five players don't always make your best team. I believe that 100%."
After Crum retired from coaching in 2001, he began the Denny Crum Scholarship Foundation. Its purpose is to raise money to help kids go to college. Candidates must maintain a B grade-point average and contribute to society in such ways as community service.
"Coach is one of the most giving people you'll ever be around," Griffith said.
"It's a labor of love," Crum said of his foundation. His biggest reward is receiving letters from kids saying how much they appreciate it.
It's part of what he says is a most important lesson Crum learned from Wooden: "Do something nice for someone every day," Crum said. "I've tried to do that in my life."
Head men's basketball coach at the University of Louisville, 1971-2001. Lifetime win/loss record of 675—295, .696 winning percentage. Won two NCAA Basketball titles in 1980, 1986. Inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, 1994.
Overcame: The challenge of coaching in his own way after working in the shadow of John Wooden.
Lesson: Don't let pressure or outside expectations change your approach.
"I had a lot of patience. A lot of people don't have that. And when you have a goal, I was pretty good at attaining it."
So Said Crum
"You have to be willing to give 100% of your attention and your mind and your body. It's a combination of those things to attain whatever success you're going to have."
"Don't be afraid of failure; if you're afraid you're probably never going to have the kind of success that you could have. If you're afraid of failure, you're not going to be trying new things and you're not going to be willing to listen to anyone else."
"You learn life's lessons by listening and watching and seeing what other people are doing, both good and bad."