Denny Crum is a former head basketball coach at the University of Louisville where he coached from 1971-2001. Crum was mentored under legendary coach John Wooden and went on to win two national titles at Louisville along with six final four appearances. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1994 and the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.
In this interview Denny and I discuss the last years of John Wooden’s life, his national championship teams and his relationship with coach Bobby Knight.
SHAFIN KHAN: Who were your basketball idols growing up?
DENNY CRUM: It would be the UCLA guys. I was fortunate enough to be Coach [John] Wooden’s assistant when Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] was a senior. So, I got to experience that with him and then we had [Sidney] Wicks, [Curtis] Rowe, [Henry] Bibby, [Steve] Patterson and all those kids who won it the next two years so we actually won three in a row at that point. Maybe it was four. They may have won one before I got there. I’m not taking any credit for that. I was fortunate enough to have good coaches along the way. I still give Coach Wooden credit for the majority of the experience that I got. When you have those kind of experiences which most people don’t have you end up being a lot better of a coach. He had been through so many things. Looking back at it from my perspective I learned so much from him about dealing with people and the X’s and O’s. I was better at that. I took some of the things he used and changed and added and did some things to what he did. I had the experiences of recruiting Jamaal Wilkes, Bill Walton and Greg Lee and all those guys. I mean those guys were exceptional ball players. They couldn’t play as freshman but every week we had a scrimmage with the freshman. The varsity got beat by the freshman every week, they were just so talented. They handled the ball so well and passed it so well. Other that I don’t know who else I could’ve learned from. You always learn from watching other people play because somebody is always doing something different. You could never figure out enough stuff to get ahead of Coach Wooden.
KHAN: Did you keep a relationship with Coach Wooden in his later years?
CRUM: Oh sure. We came out to California every year and we’d always go see coach. Sometimes we’d go out to dinner or just sit and talk. He lived in his same old apartment that he had before filled with books and pictures and things. I guess he felt that Abraham Lincoln was the best overall president. I found a picture of Abraham Lincoln once that I thought he would like so I scooped it for him to give it to him when I saw him next. We kept up with him. In fact we were at his bed side. He was 99. He made up his mind that he didn’t want to live anymore and that he wanted to go to where he could see Nell which was his wife. She’d been gone thirty years or something like that before he was. He never forgot her. That was the only girl he had ever dated, that was the only girl he had ever kissed. That was the important thing to him at that stage. He was 99 and a half going onto 100. He quit eating and finally he passed. It was his own doing. He could’ve stayed around more but he had done everything he had wanted to do here. He never had the opportunity to spend as much time with his wife as he would have loved too. He absolutely gave up eating so he could go to heaven where she was. That was what his goal was and I’d be surprised if he didn’t do it.
KHAN: What were the most intense NCAA tournament games you coached in?
CRUM: Well, I was with him when Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] was a senior and I was with him when [Curtis]Rowe, [Sidney]Wicks, [Steve]Patterson and [Henry]Bibby were all apart of the varsity team. In 1980 we won the national championship and in 1986 we won the national championship and we were in the final four another two times between that. In 80’ we had Darrell Griffith and had four sophomores that played on that same team with him so it was a really young team but they played well together and won the championship. In 86’ we won it again with Billy Thompson, Milt Wagner, Jeff Hall, Herbert Crook and Pervis Ellison who was a freshman center of ours. I think if I had to pick one team I think our 1980 team would be the best. If I had to go back to when I was an assistant I think it would have to be Kareem’s senior year but with all of those things I don’t know how you just pick one of them. They were all really meaningful. They were great teams.
KHAN: Who was your toughest tournament opponent during your 1980 national title run?
CRUM: I think the game vs. Texas A&M. They had big centers from what I remember.
KHAN: Did you ever have a relationship with Dean Smith?
CRUM: We played Dean’s team a time or two in the tournament and stuff. I don’t recall them beating us. I’m pretty sure we beat them every time we played them. I had a good relationship with Dean. He was a man that had a lot of charisma. Everybody liked him. He was very innovative as a coach. He ended up doing something different all the time. You’d better be prepared because it wasn’t going to be the same as it was last time.
KHAN: What other coaches did you form special relationships with?
CRUM: Bobby Cremins, who was at Georgia Tech at the time. We played golf a few times together, I had a nice relationship with him. Roy Williams became a good friend. With these guys, you were challenged. You had to be ready to go. These guys, they didn’t give anything to anyone. They were very aggressive.
KHAN: Who was the toughest coach to go up against?
CRUM: We had some great games with a lot of coaches but if I had to pick one I would probably pick Roy Williams. He always had great athletes that were very loaded in terms of their abilities and they always had good depth. They didn’t give you anything and you had to earn everything. I would say he would be the one I would pick.
KHAN: Were you ever aware of other programs paying recruits?
CRUM: No, I can’t remember. If there was, I’m still not aware of it now but I don’t think so. I’m not familiar with anyone in particular that did that.
KHAN: Who was the best basketball player you ever coached?
CRUM: Oh god, I don’t know how I would just pick out just one. Well, if you are talking about guard play I would say Darrell Griffith. If you are talking about guys that played forward, Billy Thompson. Pervis Ellison and Rodney McCray, those two guys.
KHAN: Did you ever have a relationship with Bobby Knight?
CRUM: I did. We used to play a tournament that had Purdue and Indiana in it. During those years we played Indiana almost every other year. As I remember we beat them four out of the six times which was not easy to do but we did it. It was very hard to have known him. I told Bobby one time, he asked me what he should do about the zero-tolerance policy when his president had given him that. I said well, you better start looking for a new job because you can’t control yourself well enough to ignore and be willing to accept what other people do. When you have those kind of feelings all the time it is going to be hard to survive with a zero-tolerance policy. Then of course it didn’t take long before he confronted one of the students on campus and I guess they reported it and for him that was his zero-tolerance and that’s when they fired him. I was sorry to see him have to go because he did a lot of good things in basketball. He was an excellent coach. He did everything through intimidation, it was a whole lot different than what a lot of coaches would do. They didn’t coach like he did. He left not much to be desired when it came to his language and all that but he was an excellent coach.
KHAN: What coaches do you still keep in touch with?
CRUM: Well, Bobby Knight was coming up to my home in Idaho and he was coming up to go trout fishing with us and something came up at the last minute and he wasn’t able to come but I had talked to him and asked him about coming and he said he would love to and would come but something came up and he couldn’t do it. We both love the north west when it comes to fishing and stuff. That was a big part of what he ended up doing.
KHAN: What life advice would you give to a young man?
CRUM: My father had been a good athlete in high school. He always said ‘Don’t major in minors’. In other words pay attention to what your doing now and what you are trying to do ahead. Don’t worry about what’s already been done in the past. That’s not going to help you. He just said ‘don’t major in minors’.