Denny Crum, who coached Louisville to two NCAA Tournament championships, dies at 86

Nicknamed “Cool Hand Luke” because of his cool, unflinching sideline demeanor — legend has it he never uttered a curse word — Crum retired in March 2001 after 30 seasons at Louisville with 675 victories and championships in 1980 and 1986.

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Denny Crum, who won two NCAA men’s basketball championships and built Louisville into one of the 1980s’ dominant programs during a Hall of Fame coaching career, has died at age 86.

Denny Crum, who won two NCAA men’s basketball championships and built Louisville into one of the 1980s’ dominant programs during a Hall of Fame coaching career, has died at age 86.

David Longstreath/AP

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Denny Crum took everything he learned from legendary UCLA coach John Wooden, added his own touch and built his own sparkling legacy at Louisville.

Crum, who won two NCAA men’s basketball championships and built the Cardinals into one of the 1980s’ dominant programs during a Hall of Fame coaching career, died Tuesday. He was 86.

The school announced Crum’s death in a release after being informed by his wife, Susan. No cause was given, but Crum had battled an extended illness. He had a mild stroke in August 2017 while fishing in Alaska and another two years ago.

Nicknamed “Cool Hand Luke” because of his cool, unflinching sideline demeanor — legend has it he never uttered a curse word — Crum retired in March 2001 after 30 seasons at Louisville with 675 victories, which ranked 15th all-time then, and championships in 1980 and ‘86. A disciple of the legendary Wooden, Crum often wore a red sport coat and waved a rolled-up program and stat sheet like a bandleader’s baton as he directed Louisville to 23 NCAA Tournaments and six Final Fours.

The second half of his tenure was not nearly as successful as the first, however, as Louisville endured two separate NCAA investigations and never returned to the Final Four after Crum’s second championship season. He accepted a $7 million buyout in March 2, 2001 — his 64th birthday — and was replaced by Rick Pitino, an eventual Hall of Famer who guided Louisville to a third NCAA title in 2013 that the governing body later vacated following a sex scandal.

Nonetheless, Crum was inducted into the Hall of Fame in May 1994, with Wooden, his college coach and longtime mentor at his side. Crum had 11 more overall wins and 55 more than his most influential advisor amassed at UCLA.

Crum remained a beloved, revered and respected presence around Louisville whose legacy has been recognized in many ways. He frequently attended Cardinals games played on the KFC Yum! Center home court bearing his name and signature. And Crum was present for the September 2022 dedication of Denny Crum Hall, a new campus dormitory for athletes and students.

“You try to remember all of the things that you did, things that happened,” Crum said at a February 2020 ceremony honoring the 1980 title team. “Some was bad, but most of it good. It just makes you really proud that you were a part of it.”

Crum had a front-row seat in March 2022 for the introduction of one of his former players, Kenny Payne, as Cardinals coach. There were plenty of the Hall of Famer’s other pupils present to not only support Payne, but enjoy another meeting with their mentor and friend on and off the court.

Payne expressed prayers for Crum’s family and called his former coach a true treasure who gave so much to the school and community.

“Today is a sad day for me personally, as well as the basketball world,” Payne said in a statement. “My thoughts go through all the lessons that he taught, not just to me, but every player he ever came in contact with. ... Rest in peace, Coach. You touched so many. Well done.”

Former Cardinals great Junior Bridgeman echoed Payne on Crum’s impact on generations of players.

“He said if you are good at what you’re going to do, we’re not going to worry about what the other team is going to do,” said Bridgeman, who played for Crum from 1972-75. “That’s a life lesson that’ll carry you farther and in whatever area you go into.”

A native of San Fernando, California, Crum played guard for two seasons at Los Angeles’ Pierce Junior College before transferring to UCLA in 1956. The Bruins went 38-14 in Crum’s two seasons as a player.

He briefly served as a graduate assistant to Wooden before coaching Pierce in the mid-1960s.

Wooden hired Crum as his assistant and chief recruiter in 1968, when the Bruins were in the midst of their dynastic run to 10 NCAA championships. Crum is credited with luring Bill Walton to UCLA, and the Bruins went 86-4 and won three NCAA titles during Crum’s three seasons there.

Crum succeeded John Dromo as Louisville’s coach on April 17, 1971, but Wooden figured his former assistant would soon return to succeed him.

“Denny was so good that I knew I wasn’t going to keep him very long,” Wooden told the Courier Journal of Louisville back then. “I was pleased when he got the job at Louisville. I had always hoped when I retired that he’d be the one to succeed me, but he left and proved to be just what I thought he was.”

Louisville had enjoyed little postseason success before Crum’s arrival, reaching the 1956 NIT championship and the 1959 NCAA Final Four. The Cardinals lost Crum’s first game, 70-69 to Florida, before reeling off 15 consecutive victories.

They won the Missouri Valley Conference — the first of 15 regular-season league titles for Crum — then reached the Final Four, where they met Wooden and UCLA. The Bruins won 96-77 on their way to a sixth-straight championship.

The schools met again in the semifinals three seasons later with a similar result as UCLA won 75-74 in overtime. By then Crum employed much of Wooden’s fundamentally focused style, but with pressure defense and a fast-breaking flair. Instead of an offense built around a dominant center, Crum used athletic guards and forwards who could finish plays with the high-flying dunks Wooden eschewed.

His philosophy made the Cardinals perennial NCAA Tournament participants with 20 or more wins each season from 1975-1979. Their breakthrough came in the 1979-80 season, when homegrown star guard Darrell Griffith and the so-called “Doctors of Dunk” marched through the regular season 26-3 and won their second Metro Conference championship in three years.

Crum’s second-seeded Cardinals reached their third Final Four in nine seasons and encountered UCLA again, this time coached by Larry Brown. Louisville finally prevailed with a 59-54 championship-game win in Indianapolis led by Griffith, an All-American and Wooden Award winner known by his popular nickname of “Dr. Dunkenstein.”

“It means more to me probably than the other guys because I’m from Louisville and I’ve seen how we came so close so many times and were never able to get over the hump,” Griffith said in 2020. “And to be able to get over the hump, that means a lot to everybody, but to me in particular, an extra special reason.”

Crum’s second title followed in 1986 with freshman Pervis Ellison, Billy Thompson and Milt Wagner leading the way as Louisville beat Duke 72-69.

Tributes and condolences began pouring in, with U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky saying, “The Cardinal community loved their coach and will miss his calm leadership both on and off the court.”

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