Legendary former Louisville coach Denny Crum, who led the Cardinals to two national championships, dies at 86


The most important and beloved coach in Louisville Cardinals history has died. 

Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer Denny Crum died at his home Tuesday, the school announced. He was 86. Crum led Louisville to national championships in men’s basketball in 1980 and 1986. In ’80, Louisville won with its “Doctors of Dunk” moniker, led by the petrifying presence of Darrell Griffith. In ’86, Louisville beat Duke in the national title game thanks to the poised play of a freshman: “Never Nervous” Pervis Ellison.

Crum coached for 30 seasons, all of them at U of L, where he held a .696 winning percentage and won 675 out of his 970 games. Crum guided Louisville to six Final Fours (1972, 1975, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1986), and it’s because of the program’s consistency and prominence across the majority of his time that Louisville has an easy claim to being a top-10 all-time program in men’s college basketball. 

“Today is a sad day for me personally, as well as the basketball world,” Cardinals coach Kenny 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. Those lessons are still relevant today.  We were so blessed to have him in our lives.  He was a true treasure who gave so much to university and the community.  We must keep his memory alive.  My prayers go out to his family and especially Susan. He is in a better place. Rest in peace Coach. You touched so many. Well done.”

Louisville went to the NCAA Tournament in 23 of Crum’s 30 seasons, the first 13 years of that run coming before the Big Dance expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Crum held an impressive 43-23 record in the NCAAs. At the time of his retirement, the only coaches with more Final Four appearances than him are arguably the three greatest coaches in the history of the sport: John Wooden, Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski.

Crum’s legacy in basketball was cemented in 1994, when he earned induction into the sport’s highest honor: the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

“The University of Louisville, our community and college basketball fans everywhere have lost a legend in Coach Denny Crum,” Kim Schatzel, Louisville’s president, said in a statement. “Whether he was leading his beloved Cardinal teams, representing the university with alumni and friends or supporting the many community organizations that counted on his generous spirit and enthusiasm, Coach Crum left a legacy that is unmatched. 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. Our hearts go out to Susan and the entire Crum family.”

Denzil Edwin Crum was born on March 2, 1937, in San Fernando, California. One of the most accomplished coaches in college basketball history began his collegiate ties at a little-known university that was less than a decade old when he enrolled: Clarence W. Pierce School of Agriculture. The school would later change its name to Los Angeles Pierce College. Crum transferred after two years to UCLA, where he’d play under the coach (Wooden) who would eventually set up his coaching career.

After graduating from UCLA in 1961, Crum went back to Pierce, at first to be an assistant and then as the head coach there, at the junior college level, for four years. In 1967, he returned to UCLA and served under Wooden at the peak of UCLA’s dynasty, coaching the likes of Lew Alcindor, Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe. The Bruins won four consecutive national titles in the four seasons Crum was an assistant. Louisville hired him in 1971.

In the years to follow, Crum could be spotted barking orders to his players with a rolled up program in one of his hands — just as Wooden so often did at UCLA. Louisville went from the Missouri Valley to the Metro Conference in Crum’s time, and in all but two of his 19 years coaching in the Metro, Louisville finished first or second in the conference. Crum carried an elite reputation for his coaching acumen, both in scouting report analysis and in-game adjustments. 

He lifted, then legitimized, Louisville basketball and in doing so kept the Cardinals apace in many seasons with their superior in-state rivals, the Kentucky Wildcats. In fact, as Kentucky faded amid cheating scandals in the 1980s, Louisville hit its peak as a program. The embers of that rivalry, which Crum helped renew in 1983 after it was dormant since the 1950s, helped stoke a Bluegrass State competitiveness that’s led to many in Kentucky swearing by the notion that UK-Louisville — not Duke-North Carolina — is the fiercest/best rivalry in college basketball.

Crum also coached the United States to a gold medal at the 1977 World University games. 

In a bittersweet twist of fate, Crum’s retirement came at the same age of his mentor; both Wooden and he hung up the whistle at the age of 64. For Wooden, retiring was entirely his decision, one that, coincidentally enough, was publicly announced by Wooden after UCLA defeated Crum’s Cardinals in the 1975 national semifinals. Crum, conversely, was forced out by university power brokers, led at the time by athletic director Tom Jurich. Crum’s tenure ended in a whimper (the Cardinals’ 12-19 mark in 2000-01 was his worst season in three decades) and as he shuffled off, Louisville courted and landed another Hall of Famer: Rick Pitino. 

Despite splitting with some acrimony, Crum never left Louisville, living there into his 80s and continuing two of his most passionate hobbies: hunting and fishing. He also was kept on as a special assistant in the president’s office.

“Since 2001, The Denny Crum Scholarship Foundation and the Denny Crum Scholarship Fund at UofL have awarded over a million dollars benefiting over 425 students,” the school said Tuesday. “The San Fernando, Calif., native made Louisville his home and has lent countless hours of his time for charitable causes throughout the community for over 50 years.”

The university also opened a residence hall named after Crum in the fall of 2022.

Ultimately, the final few years of Cardinal hoops under Crum didn’t taint his Louisville legacy. Whereas Pitino’s protracted ending at Louisville was covered in controversy and NCAA scandal, Crum (who did see an NCAA probe himself in the late ’90s) had nevertheless been regarded as the beloved guardian of Cardinals basketball for 60-plus years. The old court at Freedom Hall — and now the one at the KFC Yum! Center — is named after him, and almost certainly will be for as long as they play basketball in Louisville. 

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