Denny Crum is closing in on his 80th birthday. The Hall of Fame former UofL head coach is celebrating by throwing a party to benefit the Denny Crum Scholarship Foundation. The event is Wednesday, March 1, at the Ramada Plaza Louisville Triple Crown Pavilion at 9700 Bluegrass Pkwy. For ticket info go to dennycrum.gesture.com. Maker’s Mark has even produced a commemorative bottle for the occasion. Crum won 675 games in his 30 seasons on the Cards bench, including National Championships in 1980 and 1986 and a total of six trips to the Final Four. He also won three National Championships as an assistant under John Wooden at UCLA.
Happy Birthday, Coach. You have a big one coming up, right?
Kent, I do. I guess they’re all big. It’s nice to have another birthday. This will be my 80th and we’re having a big Denny Crum Birthday Bash to benefit the Denny Crum Scholarship Foundation. The first time we had it, we gave seven $1,000 scholarships – this last year we gave 100 $1,000 scholarships.
What did you think of the Maker’s Mark bottle when you first saw it?
It is awesome. I mean, it’s a big bottle. We’re going to have 80 of those. We’re going to auction one and 80 at the event. The rest of them will be purchased and I’m going to get No. 30 for 30 years of coaching at Louisville. Of course I’ll sign all of them if they want them signed. We’ve got a huge auction. We’ll have over 100 items. There will be food stations all around.
UofL is going to honor the 45th anniversary of your 1972 Final Four team this weekend, your first team at UofL and your first Final Four team. What memories come to mind when you think about that team?
I wish I could have coached them more than one year. They were fun to coach. They were all mature and they could handle the workload. It took them a while to get used to the way I wanted things done, but they did. I could have coached that team forever and enjoyed them. To be in your first Final Four in your first year of coaching, at the time, to show you how dumb I was, I thought, that’s the way it’s supposed to be every year because I was at UCLA as an assistant. It was a great start to a wonderful career.
That first Final Four kind of set the tone for what was to come. How important was that foundation in getting kids to buy in?
I think it helped a lot. I mean two of our first recruits were Junior Bridgeman and Allen Murphy, and those two guys could play. They were not eligible as freshmen, but when their sophomore year came around, of course, we had just been to the Final Four and we had nine seniors on our team. Here you have two guys that just loved to play, that were great learners. They learn to do things, we flopped them, forwards and guards, did all kinds of things to take advantage of them. They were really as good as most any player in the country. Pete Trgovich was Mister Basketball at Washington High School in East Chicago, Indiana. Junior was a 6-foot-3 forward on their team. They went 32-0 that year and I was recruiting Pete Trgovich to go to UCLA, so when I took the Louisville job, I didn’t think it was ethical to recruit Pete; although, I may have been able to do that because we had a real good relationship. But I went after Junior instead. I told him that we would help him become a big guard and then he could play in the NBA, and I think he played 12 or 13 years. They retired his number in Milwaukee.
What do you think about the current Cards?
I admire what Rick did this year. I feel exactly like he said. When you have a good team or you think you have a good team and you make a schedule out, we made our schedule out every year to try to be as tough as it could be. Yeah, you’re gonna lose more games, your winning percentage won’t be as high, but you’ll learn a whole lot more playing against good competition. He did that this year and it just made it a lot more fun for me because I know where he was trying to get and this was his way of doing it.
A lot of times, coaches will remember a loss much more than they remember the wins. Is there a loss that stands out to you?
Yeah, the year that we played Georgetown, that loss. Milt Wagner had gotten some kind of skin disease and he had to wear golf gloves to be able to catch the ball because it was so painful just having the ball hit your hands. He couldn’t shoot it like he could without it. He played all right but he didn’t play near like the Milt Wagner that we knew, and we got beat by four. That one, because we were good enough to win that year.
So not the overtime loss to UCLA in the Final Four in 1975?
Well, that’s one, I remember it as well as anything, but we lost to Coach Wooden and if I was going to lose to someone, I wanted it to be him.
Is the stuff that he taught you about life, does that even transcend the stuff about basketball?
I remember most of that better than I remember the actual coaching. In fact, he would tell you if he were here today or if you had talked to him back then, he would tell you that he was a teacher, that’s what he did for a living. He would tell you that he would get a grade of C as a bench coach, but he was smart enough to put people around him.
Did Coach Wooden ever try to talk you into taking the UCLA job on any one of the three occasions when you were offered the job?
No, he knew that if I needed his advice or wanted to talk to him that I knew how to reach him. He was never one to push that type of thing.
Bobby Turner told me how you had Muhammad Ali call him and Darrell Griffith during the recruiting process. Was that common?
Oh yeah, in those days you could do that. When we recruited Tony Branch, he was from Michigan City and he was point guard and he was a huge Muhammad Ali fan, and in those days, anybody could call and talk to them. Muhammad had offered to help us and I had him call Tony and he said, “Is this Tony Branch from Michigan City?” He said, “This is Muhammad Ali from Louisville, Kentucky, and if you don’t come here and go to school, I’ll box your ears.” Of course he did and he was a big factor. VT