John Yarmuth: 'Denny Crum Had A Heart The Size Of A Basketball, The Competitive Spirit Of A Gladiator...'

Father’s Day
LEO Founder/Former U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth

Today’s LEO Weekly readers would not recognize much of the first issue of what was then called simply “LEO,” published 33 years ago. There’s one name they would recognize, however: Denny Crum, the University of Louisville icon who passed away last week at the age of 86.

When I decided to start a new publication in 1990, I faced the challenge of establishing instant credibility, because I didn’t have the resources to build an audience over a long period of time. I knew the Louisville community was ready for an alternative weekly because those publications were thriving all around the country. 

Another thing had happened here; the Courier-Journal had been sold to Gannett, and several of the paper’s prominent writers had decided to retire. My plan was to recruit some of them as contributing writers and to give them an ownership interest in the paper. Bob Schulman, Mary Caldwell and Dudley Saunders are names few current Louisvillians would remember, but my final recruit was to be Denny Crum, who I knew could attract readers across the community. 

Denny and I had formed a friendship that went back to the mid-1970’s. It actually started after I had written an article in 1976 about the three incoming Louisville Cardinal basketball players, Darrell Griffith, Bobby Turner, and Tony Branch. Through them I met Denny, and a long relationship followed. I knew, from many hours spent with him, that he never said “no” to a request, not just from a friend, but from anyone who approached him. 

When I proposed to Denny that he join our small stable of writers, he naturally mentioned that he was not a writer, which I knew, and when I told him that I would be his ghostwriter, he readily accepted the invitation. So for several years, Denny and I would discuss ideas for his columns and I would try to execute them in his voice. To this day I don’t know whether people liked my interpretation of Coach’s ideas, but I know that many people picked up LEO (of course, it wasn’t available digitally at the time, only at about 400 businesses around town) because they wanted to see what he had on his mind.

In any event, while it didn’t make it into the other tributes to Coach Crum, he was a founding contributor and part-owner of the publication you are reading now.

Of course, his role with LEO was not high on his list of accomplishments, and, in fact, I would say it wasn’t the only way he affected my life in a consequential way. Importantly, he converted me from my then life-long Wildcats love to an avid Cardinals supporter. 

More consequentially, in late 1982, I was pondering the next step in my life when I traveled with the team to the Great Alaska Shootout, a pre-season event held in Anchorage. One night at dinner with Denny and a U of L vice-president named Steve Bing, Denny suggested that I might work at the University. Bing then mentioned he would be hiring an assistant vice-president to handle university communications. Several months later I was serving in that role, and I spent a wonderful three years on campus in good times and bad, promoting the institution. 

Lives rarely proceed in a logical pattern, but it’s fair to say that my years at U of L led to my founding of LEO, and LEO ultimately led to a race for Congress and the 16-year political career that I just concluded. 

Denny Crum was a Republican and self-identified conservative, but he was about as apolitical as anyone I ever met. If I had ever engaged him in a political discussion, however, I would have argued vociferously that he was actually pretty liberal. I believe that because of his compassion for every person he encountered, and for the many hours he gave to people and organizations whose role was to balance much of the unfairness in American society. 

Denny would not want me to write about his politics, so I will go no further, but I will repeat what many have said in these sad days since he left us. Denny Crum had a heart the size of a basketball, the competitive spirit of a gladiator, and he was more loyal to his players, his friends, his community and his university than the many dogs he cherished were loyal to him. He was a champion in every sense of the word.