Jon Teitel's Coaching Greats: Louisville's Denny Crum

March 20th, 2012

Recently as part of his "Coaching Greats" interview series CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with former Louisville head coach Denny Crum. During his time in the "Derby City", Crum led the Cardinals to 23 NCAA appearances and two national titles. 

Jon Teitel: Your nickname is "Cool Hand Luke". Who gave it to you, and how do you like it?

Denny Crum: Al McGuire gave me that handle because I never seemed flustered during tournament games. He said it on the air once and it kind of stuck. I always felt that I was under control and could tell what was going on.

JT: You began your playing career at Los Angeles Pierce College, but in 1956 you transferred to UCLA to play for Coach John Wooden. Why did you decide to transfer, and what was it like to play for Coach Wooden?

DC: I had always wanted to go to UCLA but they did not think I was good enough to recruit coming out of high school. I led the state in scoring during my freshman year at Pierce with over 27 points per game, and after that Coach Wooden came to watch me play, which he did not do often.

JT: After graduating you returned to UCLA to be an assistant coach and chief recruiter for Coach Wooden. How did you like working under Coach Wooden, and was it easy to recruit because of your school's winning tradition?

DC: Recruiting is never easy, but I got Coach Wooden to come down to San Diego to watch Bill Walton play because I told him that Walton was the best high school player I had ever seen. Coach thought I was nuts but that was my opinion, and we ended up getting Walton along with five other good freshmen.

JT: You are widely credited with pioneering the now-common strategy of scheduling tough non-conference match-ups early in the season in order to prepare your team for the NCAA tournament. How did you come up with that plan, and did it ever backfire on you?

DC: We had some years that were better than others based more on the talent level than the coaching. I felt that if we could find out in November and December what our weaknesses were then it would help us down the road. Good teams can exploit your weaknesses. If you are hung up on your won-loss record, then you might not schedule difficult opponents. It is nice to be undefeated going into conference play, but you are cheating your team and fans if you just play a bunch of bad teams.

JT: Your team was famous for running a man-to-man defense that switched on all picks. Why did you go with that defense, and what would your team do if your guard had to switch to defending a big man?

DC: Our philosophy was to front the guy in the post and play someone behind him. If you switch then no matter the size of the guy who switches you have two players guarding him. We had a bunch of big guards but only a couple of 7-footers in my career.

JT: In 1971 you decided to become head coach at Louisville. Why did you take the job, and what was the biggest difference between that program and UCLA?

DC: At Louisville we did not have any superstars like Walton or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but we made a living by recruiting good athletes out of the south and then teaching them the things they did not know.

JT: In 1972 you made it to your first Final Four as head coach. How were you able to come in and be so successful so quickly?

DC: At first I was stupid enough to think that was just the way it was supposed to be due to our success at UCLA! We just had a bunch of good players who worked hard and played together. I told them early on that I thought we could be a really good team and they bought into it.

1977 World University Games

JT: Your roster included Larry Bird, Darrell Griffith, and Sidney Moncrief. Was that the most talented team you have ever been around?

DC: Probably. They asked me to coach and I said that I wanted to pick my own players instead of having a committee pick them. We had great talent that was very coachable, and we did not get any weaker when we put in our bench guys.

JT: A bench-clearing brawl broke out in your game vs. Cuba. What started the fight, and how were you able to get your team's focus back on track?

DC: I was talking to one of my players on the court and some 30-something-year-old Cuban player came over and just pushed me into the stands, so my players ran out and started mixing it up. I think we won the fight, and we also won the game (which made it even better). Our guys were not intimidated by Cuba's aggressive style and we stepped it up a notch after the fight.

JT: You beat the USSR to win the gold medal. What did it mean to you to win a gold medal, and how did it compare to later winning an NCAA title?

DC: At the time I really enjoyed it. It was great to win it...but I would have a hard time saying it was better than winning an NCAA title with your own team and your own players.

1980 NCAA tournament

JT: Rolando Blackman made a 10-foot jumper to tie the game at the end of regulation, but Tony Branch made a 15-foot jumper with one second left to clinch a two-point overtime win over Kansas State. Could you tell at the time that Blackman was going to become a star, and where does Branch's shot rank among the most clutch shots you have ever seen?

DC: Branch had gone in for Griffith after he fouled out. He worked hard every day and was tougher than nails mentally, so it did not surprise me that he made the shot. To win without Darrell was a big victory. Blackman was already a star and there was no doubt he was going to be great in the NBA.

JT: You had an overtime win over Texas A&M despite shooting less than 40% from the field. How were you able to get the win despite shooting so poorly?

DC: That is a tough one to answer. You have to give Texas A&M credit for that: they were a good team. We just fought and scrapped even though we did not shoot it well.

JT: You beat LSU in large part due to a three-quarter court trap that you had introduced earlier that week. Why did you decide to use that strategy, and why was it so successful?

DC: LSU was not prepared for it: they had not played anyone who switched on man-to-man defense against their two big men. We did not let them catch it where they wanted to shoot it.

JT: Darrell Griffith scored 34 points (14-21 FG) in an eight-point win over Iowa after you did a pre-game locker room dance to loosen everyone up. Was Iowa star Ronnie Lester's first half knee injury the turning point of the game?

DC: Lester hurt his knee and missed most of that season. He was a really good player.

JT: Tournament MOP Griffith scored 23 points in a five-point win over your alma mater to clinch the title. What did it mean to you to win the title, and how did it feel to have to go through UCLA to do so?

DC: We had lost to them three times in the previous eight tournaments. At halftime I told my team that it was a shame that we had gotten all the way here and then played so poorly. Griff made a three-point play down the stretch and we were off and running: we deserved that win.

JT: That year's team (specifically Derek Smith) was credited with popularizing the "high five". Who actually started it, and what did you think the first time you saw it?

DC: It was Derek and Wiley Brown who did that. When they came to school they both spoke Pig Latin to each other so that nobody could understand what they were saying. They just had a flair for doing those kinds of things.

1986 NCAA tournament

JT: You beat Drexel after Milt Wagner wondered if Drexel was "one of them academic schools". Were you worried that Wagner was going to provide bulletin board material for your opponent?

DC: Milt had missed the previous season due to a foot injury and lost some of his quickness. We knew at the end of the game that we could just put the ball in his hands and he could make some free throws if he got fouled.

JT: Wagner and Pervis Ellison each scored 16 points in a win over Bradley (Hersey Hawkins scored 22 to lead the Braves). Could you tell at the time that Hawkins was going to become a star?

DC: Yes. He was an outstanding athlete who had great size for a guard. I would have liked to have him on my team.

JT: Billy Thompson had 25 points and nine rebounds in a win over North Carolina. What was it like to coach against Dean Smith, and how proud were you of your team making 15-16 FT in the final three minutes?

DC: Free throw shooting is one advantage that I always felt we had, and we also made good decisions down the stretch. I think North Carolina and Duke were the only two teams ranked #1 all season long and we had to beat them both to win the title.

JT: Herbert Crook had 20 points and 11 rebounds in an eight-point win over Auburn. Why did you decide to switch to a zone defense in the second half, and why did it work so well?

DC: We actually waited until about eight minutes were left in the game. We had worked on it in practice and I just thought it would be effective.

JT: Wagner had 22 points and 11 rebounds in a win over LSU. What was the mood of your team like going into the title game, and did you think you could win it all?

DC: We had a good team the previous year even though our record did not reflect it, so we were feeling good going into the title game.

JT: Tournament MOP Ellison had 25 points and 11 rebounds in a three-point win over Duke to clinch the title. How did that title compare with your first one, and how were you able to hang on and win the game?

DC: Johnny Dawkins had a big game early so we tried to focus on him down the stretch. Both titles were great but winning your first one is always special. Having a guy like Milt come back from injury and win it all was nice as well. We were trailing most of the game but were able to come back at the end.

JT: You were named National Coach of the Year three times in a 7-year span. What did it mean to you to win such outstanding individual honors, and do you consider yourself to be one of the best coaches in the history of the sport?

DC: I will let other people judge that but we went out of our way to play the toughest schedule we could. We had four Final Four teams and won two titles in the 1980s, which was significant because not too many other teams accomplished that.

JT: In 1987 you coached Team USA (featuring Danny Manning and David Robinson) in the Pan American Games in Indianapolis and won a silver medal after a five-point loss to Brazil in the championship game (Oscar Schmidt scored 35 points in the second half to finish with 46). Could you tell at the time that Robinson was going to become a star, and where does Oscar's performance rank among the best you have ever seen?

DC: Oscar was out of his tree! We switched on defense and did whatever we could but it was just one of those nights that great players can have. We were good enough against most other teams, but Oscar just threw them in from everywhere. We felt that Robinson was going to be a special player, even though he was a late developer.

JT: In 1994 you were inducted into the Hall of Fame. What did it mean to you to be inducted, and where did that rank among your all-time accomplishments?

DC: That represents an entire career, which is very special. You have to get an active Hall of Fame member to present you, and to have Coach Wooden do that for me meant a lot. You never think about making the Hall as your career goes along but I was as proud as could be when I got in.

JT: In 2007 Louisville named its home floor at Freedom Hall "Denny Crum Court". What was your reaction when you learned of the decision to name the court after you?

DC: I was tickled to death. I coached there for 30 years and there were no statues or anything, so I felt really honored.

JT: You play professional poker and breed horses. How did you get into those hobbies, and which one do you enjoy more?

DC: I got out of the horse business a few years ago but loved every minute of it. It was fun to take an active part in it and watch the horses run and congratulate the jockeys after a race. My college roommate had a poker room so we would golf in the morning, watch horse races in the afternoon, and play poker at night. I really enjoyed playing in the poker tournaments and now have my own tournament at a casino (the Denny Crum Poker Open), which is a lot of fun. I enjoy the competition and I can remain fairly good at it even after getting old.

Crum is also on Jon's list of best coaches in Big East history.

Cincinnati: Bob Huggins (1989-2005) 399-127, 14 NCAA tourneys, 10 conference titles, 1-time national COY, 3-time conference COY
Connecticut: Jim Calhoun (1986-present) 627-244, 17 NCAA tourneys, 10 conference titles, 3 NCAA titles, 1 NIT title, 1-time national COY, 4-time conference COY
DePaul: Ray Meyer (1942-1984) 724-354, 13 NCAA tourneys, 5 conference titles, 1 NIT title, 4-time national COY
Georgetown: John Thompson (1972-1999) 596-239, 20 NCAA tourneys, 7 conference titles, 1 NCAA title, 4-time national COY, 3-time conference COY
Louisville: Denny Crum (1971-2001) 675-295, 23 NCAA tourneys, 15 conference titles, 2 NCAA titles, 2-time national COY, 2-time conference COY
Marquette: Al McGuire (1964-1977) 296-79, 9 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title, 1 NCAA title, 1 NIT title, 2-time national COY
Notre Dame: George Keogan (1923-1943) 327-97, 2 Helms titles
Pittsburgh: Henry Clifford "Doc" Carlson (1922-1953) 367-247, 1 NCAA tourney, 5 conference titles, 2 Helms titles
Providence: Joe Mullaney (1957-1969, 1981-1985) 290-147, 3 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles, 2 NIT titles
Rutgers: Tom Young (1973-1985) 239-116, 4 NCAA tourneys, 5 conference titles, 1-time national COY
Seton Hall: John "Honey" Russell (1936-1943, 1950-1960) 295-129, 1 conference title, 1 NIT title
USF: Bobby Paschal (1986-1996) 127-159, 2 NCAA tourneys
St. John's: Lou Carnesecca (1965-1970, 1973-1992) 526-200, 18 NCAA tourneys, 5 conference titles, 1 NIT title, 2-time national COY, 3-time conference COY
Syracuse: Jim Boeheim (1976-present) 889-303, 28 NCAA tourneys, 8 conference titles, 1 NCAA title, 1-time national COY, 4-time conference COY
Villanova: Rollie Massimino (1973-1992) 355-241, 11 NCAA tourneys, 5 conference titles, 1 NCAA title, 3-time conference COY
West Virginia: Gale Catlett (1978-2002) 439-276, 8 NCAA tourneys, 4 conference titles, 1-time conference COY