Issue March 14, 2006

Who would have ever thunk it?

Denny and Joe B. Hall are knocking ’em dead in the radio ratings department

By Matt Willinger

Some say it’s sports talk of a refreshingly different sort. Others say it only proves that in Kentucky, anything to do with the basketball fortunes of the Cats and the Cards will have an audience. But everybody has to admit that the popularity of “The Joe B. & Denny Show, ” heard locally each weekday from 10 a.m. to noon on 790-AM, is a bigger upset than anything that will happen in this month’s NCAA basketball tournament.

The co-hosts once hated each other. That was in the 1970s and early ‘80s, when Crum, the brash U of L coach, was challenging the UK dynasty built by Adolph Rupp, and Hall, in his role as Rupp’s successor, was doing everything in his power to treat the Cards as second-class citizens.[img_assist|nid=776|title=photo courtesy Denny Crum / WKRD|desc=Joe B. Hall and Denny Crum were bitter rivals when they coached, but now the partners in radio almost have a little Brokeback Mountain thing going on. Well, not exactly.|link=|align=left|width=200|height=150]

Make no mistake, it was bitter. The hearts and minds of the state’s college hoops fans were at stake. Once Hall even refused to let a couple of his UK players pose with a couple of U of L players for a Sporting News cover story, on the grounds that he didn’t want to legitimize the insurgents.

But now, on the radio, they act — dare we say it? — almost like the two cowboys in “Brokeback Mountain.” OK, that’s a stretch. But they do chat amicably about whatever comes to mind, mostly fishing and hoops. They’re careful not to reopen the old wounds, and they avoid controversy as assiduously as they used to avoid each other.

“It’s a feel-good show,” Hall said. “We don’t try to be controversial.”

During their coaching days, Crum had a better relationship with the media, mostly because he was more accessible, but he also did the most boring post-game monologues in college history. Hall seemed so uptight and humorless that he never made anybody’s best-interview list. But now it’s Hall who carries the show more than Crum. At times he sounds more like “The Beasman” who lives in Terry Meiners’ fertile imagination than the unsmiling successor to Rupp.

Indeed, Hall usually is folksy, charming, witty and entertaining. When Crum gets on a soapbox, Hall will reply with what has become his trademark phrase: “Are you crazy, Denny?”

Originally airing only in Louisville, Lexington and Somerset, the show can now be heard on 18 affiliates throughout Kentucky and Southern Indiana. So much for the naysayers who predicted that neither Hall nor Crum had the personality or overall knowledge of sports to pull it off.

“The show is doing great,” said WKRD program director Jim Fenn. “It’s one of the highest rated shows we have and it’s growing like crazy.”

Naturally, hoops is the year-round staple. The coaches have brought in former players, former rivals and even some former media critics as guests, but they’ve also used their vast hoops connections to attract an “A list” of guests that includes John Wooden, Dean Smith and Dick Vitale.

In a nutshell, the program is, well, different.

Listeners are continually surprised by how much Crum and Hall know about sports other than basketball. Hall can even talk knowledgably about U of L football, mainly because he has a son-in-law on Coach Bobby Petrino’s staff, and Crum can speak at length about Texas Hold ’Em because he’s an expert poker player.

The program has a large female following because some days the coaches don’t talk about sports at all. They talk about parenting, philosophy, motivation — the sort of stuff you get from Oprah or Dr. Phil.

Hall, who retired from coaching 21 years ago, says the program changed his life.

“I’d get up in the morning and go to breakfast. After a long breakfast, we’d decide where to go for lunch. Then I would take a nap and see what was on TV that night,” Hall said. “Doing the show has totally energized me.”
That just isn’t coach-speak. In two years and more than 600 broadcasts, Hall has yet to miss a show, and his friends say it’s the happiest he’s been in 15 years. Crum doesn’t let the show get in the way of his fishing and hunting, but he’s resourceful enough to combine the two whenever possible.

Last week, for example, they could be heard live from Alberta, Canada, where they spoke to locals, mountain guides and rock climbers. And last year the crew spent a week scouring the Pacific West wilderness, fishing in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana while staying in Crum’s cabin in Island Park, Idaho.

“We have a lot of fun with it,” Crum said. “My golf game is suffering, but you can’t beat a retirement that includes fishing, the radio show and Texas Hold ’Em.”

Of course, neither Joe B. nor Denny does the show for the sheer fun of it. One thing they learned as coaches was the phrase, “Show me the money.”

In a market where only a few superstars are well-paid and many on-air personalities work for peanuts, Hall and Crum are making enough money to keep themselves in rods and reels.

“We’ve just about sold out of advertising space, and that’s very rare in this business,” says Dick Robinson, a close friend of Hall’s who created the show and manages it for the coaches. “The show has far exceeded our highest expectations. With so many sports shows out there, we weren’t really sure how it would be received, but we’re two years into it and it’s the highest rated show in the Fox Sports Ohio region.”

Had Crum predicted that kind of success to Hall when the program started, there’s no doubt that Joe B.’s response would have been, “Are you crazy, Denny?”

*Joe B. Hall coached 13 seasons (1972-85) and compiled a record of 297-100. He took three teams to the Final Four and won a national championship in 1978.

*Denny Crum coached 30 seasons (1971-2001) and compiled a record of 675-295. He led the Cards to six Final Fours and two national titles.

Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com