Tim Sullivan On The Death of Legendary UofL Basketball Coach Denny Crum: ‘He Made Louisville Walk Taller’

Coach Denny Crum Passed Away Tuesday, May 9. He was an original member of the LEO editorial team with Founder John Yarmuth.

Louisville is better because of Denny Crum.

With Denny Crum, it took a backseat to nobody. If other places were more popular or more prosperous, better blessed by history or by happenstance, Crum made The Ville matter in ways that were important in a town where college basketball endears itself more than anywhere else.

The evidence is all around us, in the grandeur of the KFC Yum Center, the growth of the University of Louisville and the ratings records repeatedly set by basketball broadcasts in this town. The titles and entertainment value of the teams Crum coached at U of L were foundation pieces of the school’s increasing stature and the city’s swelling pride.

If Muhammad Ali was Louisville’s home-grown ambassador to the world, Crum was the guy who arrived for a career layover only to sink roots, surprisingly, and stick around to become an institution. When he died Tuesday at age 86, Crum was half a lifetime removed from the first of his two NCAA Championships, but so much a fixture that his name adorns the Yum Center floor and the new dormitory across the street from U of L’s practice facility.

“Coach Crum left a legacy that is unmatched,” University President Dr. Kim Schatzel said in a prepared statement. “He will be remembered not only for the many wins and championships, but also for his calm demeanor, warm sense of humor and deep love for his adopted hometown and its people. Our lives are better for having known him.”

The tributes poured in Tuesday, similar both in theme and in tone. Renowned for his composure and clever play-calling in tight games – Al McGuire dubbed him “Cool Hand Luke” – Crum took John Wooden’s UCLA blueprints and added a sense of spontaneity to the structure. Though his players generally followed Wooden’s precepts – a high-post offense, a full-court zone press, assists immediately acknowledged by the guy who scored the basket – they favored spectacular acrobatics over understated efficiency. 

Thanks to the gravity-defying Darrell Griffith and the extraordinary leapers who followed him, Crum’s Louisville teams were known as the Doctors of Dunk and became the best show in college basketball. They would win NCAA titles in 1980 and 1986 and reached the Final Four six times during Crum’s tenure. 

“They don’t make them like Coach any more,” Griffith told WDRB last year. “Coach Crum was the type of coach that everybody gravitated to. He was just so personable… He opened up this program to the city. Everybody was welcome. People feel that.”

The success Rick Pitino later enjoyed, and the program’s long-standing stature as the most profitable in college basketball, were largely attributable to the base Crum built. 

“If I have seen further,” Isaac Newton said, “it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Denny Crum was a giant.

He had long been in declining health, and concerns about his condition were such that two Courier-Journal editors, unknown to each other, assigned two different reporters to prepare advance obituaries following Crum’s 2017 stroke. Crum’s public appearances were subsequently more sporadic and sometimes silent, but for years the surest way to spark a standing ovation at the Yum Center was when a scoreboard camera found him in the crowd.

Though the second half of his U of L career was far less successful than the first, Crum’s reign was remembered with reverence Tuesday.

“He embodied what a coach should be,” U of L athletic director Josh Heird said. “He cared deeply about his players, he worked tirelessly for his university, he espoused the right values and stuck to them and lived every day for his family. Coach gave his heart and soul to this university and this community and he will forever be a part of our past, present and future.”

He made Louisville walk taller. He put a spring in its step. He leaves the scene stronger for his presence.