His Empire Is Crumbling : Suddenly, Louisville’s Coach Can’t Win at Anything, Including Basketball Games


Denny Crum sits in his darkened office, the shades drawn to keep out the bright winter sun, and works on a hot dog and fries, hardly the lunch of champions.

Behind him on a bookshelf is the basketball from his 400th victory. Another wall features mementos from his two Louisville national championship teams. And near the door is a picture of friend and mentor John Wooden.

Crum’s voice is a little hoarse, the result of another Louisville loss a night earlier. Every so often, he lets loose with a wheezing, painful cough that comes from having an infected lung. If he looks tired and a bit haggard, he is.


Ask him how he’s doing, and the Cardinal coach won’t hesitate.

“Terrible,” he says.

His chest hurts. His university president is nipping at his heels. The local newspaper is all over him about graduation rates. Morley Safer is taking shots at him on “60 Minutes.” His lunch is cold and his team is colder, an absolutely un-Louisville-like 7-11 and getting worse each week.

How bad is it? Not long ago, one of the city’s sportscasters ended his report on Crum’s team by noting, “Folks, only six weeks until spring football practice begins.” At Louisville, where basketball has ruled for decades, the words were as deadly as a shot of hemlock.

Things haven’t looked this bleak since the early 1940s, which was the last time Louisville recorded a losing season. Back then, as World War II raged, the Cardinals were reduced to playing the New Albany Furnituremen, the Ft. Knox Air Force ROTC and the U of L Army Medics. And still they struggled.

Now, almost 50 years later, Crum watches his team unwittingly try to repeat history.

Quite simply, this is the worst Louisville team Crum has coached in his 20 years at the school. Already the Cardinals, last in the Metro Conference, have lost six games at Freedom Hall, the most by any Louisville team in the 34-year history of the building. They have managed to lose every way possible: by close scores, by blowouts, on national television, to teams big and small.

Southern Mississippi recently beat the Cardinals at Freedom Hall, despite having lost its leading scorer, Darrin Chancellor, to a freak ankle injury suffered while sleeping. Louisville tried to take advantage of the mishap, but in a flurry that typified this lost season, two potential game-winning short jump shots by LaBradford Smith bounced off the rim.

Another loss, another heartbreak.

“It’s like you’re working hard, but they don’t pay you at the end of the week,” Smith said.

Next in town was Jerry Tarkanian and his No. 1-ranked Nevada Las Vegas team. Suddenly the diplomat, Tarkanian tried to give Louisville the benefit of the doubt.

“They’re not like they’ve been, but they’re still very good,” he said.

Final score: 97-85. The 12-point margin didn’t do the victory justice.

Since then, there have been losses to Virginia Tech and Southern Mississippi, marking the first time the Golden Eagles have swept Louisville. The Cardinals are safe from no one.

And so it goes for Louisville, which is in danger of setting all the wrong kind of school records. With nine regular-season games and one Metro tournament game remaining, the Cardinals could break the mark for most losses, 18.

All of this has Crum looking a bit more forlorn than usual. He has always had that hound dog look--half smile, half grimace--but this year it seems to be more pronounced. Crum has never gone through a year like this.

His troubles started last fall, when the Louisville Courier-Journal published a series of stories examining the graduation rates of Cardinal student-athletes. Crum’s teams, especially during the 1980s, did not fare well.

Using the NCAA’s formula for determining graduation rates, the newspaper found that only eight of 39 scholarship basketball players, about 21%, earned degrees in five years. Without the five-year limit, the number rose to only 15 of 39 or 38%.

Also targeted were those players who had accepted basketball scholarships from 1981-83. In that group, the newspaper reported that three of 13 players, 23%, received diplomas within five years. Surprisingly, the numbers were higher than the 22% graduation rate of the Louisville student body.

The Courier-Journal series started all sorts of brush fires. Standing there with a squirt gun was Crum, who couldn’t have been less prepared for the backlash.

First, school President Donald Swain was so disturbed by the reports that he publicly chided Crum and his basketball program.

“We have a problem with basketball,” he said. “I think we all know that.”

Swain wasn’t through. When reminded that three of the five 1990 Louisville basketball recruits remained ineligible because of NCAA academic rules, Swain called the situation embarrassing.

Nor did it probably help Swain’s mood that Jerome Harmon, a player of vast skills but questionable classroom commitment, had been given a reprieve by Crum. Crum told Harmon, who already had flunked out once, that he could return to the Cardinals next season if he fulfilled the proper eligibility requirements. Harmon was Louisville’s second-leading scorer last season.

It is difficult to determine what stunned Crum most: Swain’s remarks or Swain’s decision to make those remarks public. Crum said he couldn’t understand why his school president would make such criticisms available for print, and the Swain-Crum feud was formally under way.

Said Tennessee Coach Wade Houston, who was an assistant to Crum for 13 years: “It surprises me that it would come to that, that (Swain) would have to say something like that. I’m sure Denny was hurt by a lot of those things.”

So Crum, historically the pacifist, has decided to fight back. For starters, he disputes the Courier-Journal’s results, charging that the statistics were manipulated.

“Those things were not done properly or fairly,” he said. “You can look at those things any way you want.”

The numbers Crum would prefer people to look at are those compiled by Burt Monroe, chairman of the school’s department of biology, as well as faculty athletic representative. According to Monroe’s study, 14 of the 33 Cardinal basketball players, 42%, who played in the 1980s and used their full eligibility eventually earned degrees. And from 1972, Crum’s first year at Louisville, to 1979, 24 of 33 players, 73%, graduated.

Overall, Crum’s graduation rate is 38 of 66 or 58%.

However, if a five-year limit for graduation is used, Monroe’s findings read like this: Overall--32 of 78 or 41%; 1970s--22 of 41 or 54%; 1980s--10 of 37 or 27%.

Clearly there is work to be done, a point acknowledged by Monroe’s Academic Performance Committee, which said it was “far from happy with the graduation rate, whatever its basis.”

A clash of ideologies has occurred at Louisville, with Crum on one side and Swain on the other. Crum said he sees Louisville as a school with an “urban mission.” That means creating opportunities for the so-called high-risk students, basketball players included.

There are those in the Louisville athletic department who think Swain wants the university to become “a Harvard on the Ohio River.”

Swain declined interview requests for this story.

So far, Crum is losing his battle. In October, about a month after the Courier-Journal series, the Louisville Athletic Assn. voted to toughen academic standards. A Cardinal player must have a 2.0 grade-point average at the beginning of his junior and senior terms to remain eligible. The previous rule allowed a student-athlete to compete while on a year-long academic probation.

Again, Crum found himself in the middle of a controversy. In an impassioned speech, he warned the association that the new standards would endanger his ability to recruit and win. The possible trickle-down effect of that, he said, was fewer television and postseason appearances, thus, less income for the university.

“I’m not opposed to the highest standards anyone wants to set, but I think they ought to be the same for everybody,” he said. “I want it on a level field.”

Crum wants to know why the academic standards for athletes at Louisville should be similar to or more difficult than those of, say, more prestigious Virginia, UCLA, Notre Dame, North Carolina or Indiana?

The answer is because Swain and the athletic association want them to be. Whatever Crum says, the new guidelines are here to stay.

“It’s like anything else,” he said. “Everybody isn’t going to see eye to eye with everyone else. I work for this university. Whatever rules they set, I’ll do my very best to see that they’re implemented. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. And that doesn’t mean I think it’s necessarily fair. But I will do that because that’s part of my obligation to this university.”

As for the three recruits who fell victim to NCAA academic guidelines, Crum proudly said they are doing well in school. Four of his five freshman players, including two of three ineligible athletes, earned 3.0 grade-point averages or better last semester.

“Which says what I’ve said all along: that those (standardized entrance exams) are not an indication of whether or not a kid can do college work,” Crum said.

He also won’t budge when asked about his support of the troubled Harmon.

“Coach Wooden told me one time that he’d rather go too far than not go far enough,” he said. “You can criticize me if you want about (Harmon), but there’s nothing negative about it.”

No sooner had one controversy subsided than another bullied its way to the forefront, again with Crum in the middle.

In November, the Louisville football team, which had a 9-2 record, accepted a much-debated bid to play in the Fiesta Bowl at Tempe, Ariz. When it became apparent that Louisville’s decision was irreversible--Arizona voters had failed to approve a referendum calling for a paid state holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.--attention was turned to the estimated $1.5 million earned by such an appearance. Swain recommended that the money be funneled to the school’s minority programs. Crum wanted the bulk of the profits to be distributed among the 13 non-revenue producing sports, all of which, he said, were under-funded.

This is how crazy it got: Crum helped lead a campus demonstration against Swain’s recommendation. . . . Football Coach Howard Schnellenberger said that coaches shouldn’t participate in protests. . . . Crum stood his ground.

Since then, the university has reevaluated the disposition of that Fiesta Bowl money. No word yet on who will get what, but this much is evident: Swain was forced to amend his position. Also, don’t expect Schnellenberger and Crum to exchange fruitcakes next Christmas.

Next up was a “60 Minutes” report, in which Safer exposed Louisville as a basketball factory. The segment uncovered little. The real investigative work had been done by the Courier-Journal months earlier.

This has been some six months for Crum. For the first time that anyone can recall, his coaching has been criticized. A losing record, especially at Louisville, where fans are spoiled with annual successes, can do that.

Why hasn’t Crum adjusted to the three-point rule?

Why is archrival Kentucky playing the up-tempo game and Louisville isn’t?

Why are we losing?

Crum waves away the criticism as if it were a gnat. He said if he had better three-point shooters, he would have his guards shoot more. He said the demise of the Louisville style of play is greatly exaggerated. He said he believes in his coaching methods, an opinion seconded by Wooden.

“It’s a tough year for him,” Wooden said. “But Denny’s well proven to be a fine coach. Didn’t he win two championships? And wasn’t his record among the best during the ‘80s? This is just one of those years.

“I’m surprised that their record isn’t a little better than it is,” he said. “But one thing I know is that it isn’t (Crum’s) fault.”

Crum’s 10-year contract expires in July of 1993. If he stays until then, he will receive a $1-million annuity.

“What happens after that, I’ve got no idea,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of options. I’ve turned down dozens of jobs (among them a return to UCLA) that I could have made a lot more money (from) than I make here.”

One of those options is a contract extension. Perhaps a year ago, Crum happily would have agreed to stay at Louisville. Now, he isn’t so sure. Those close to Crum said his reluctance to sign is the product of a growing frustration with the school’s administration.

“Anything’s possible, but he’s certainly not going to leave before (his contract) is up,” Wooden said. “At the end of that time, I don’t know. In my own mind, I’ll be surprised if Denny doesn’t finish up there. I might also say that I’ve been surprised before.”

Crum doesn’t like surprises or instability, which is one of the reasons he has stayed at Louisville for 20 years. But for the first time in those two decades, it is fair to say that Crum feels unappreciated.

After all, he said, his basketball program bankrolled an athletic department. His program established the school as a national name. His program made do with poor practice facilities and offices so small that his players used to sit on the floor to watch game films.

Who knows what will happen next? Crum could leave in 1993 and accept a new job. He could retire. Or he could make Swain, who can’t afford to alienate many more Louisville faithful, sweat out the contract extension.

That done, Crum, with the help of those three freshmen and maybe Harmon, could return Louisville to the polls. Besides improving his record, Crum also might want to improve his team graduation rate, new rules or not.

Whatever the outcome, Crum said he will have fond memories of this season’s undermanned team. His Cardinals mean well, they just don’t play well.

“All you can really do is ask that they give a maximum effort,” Crum said. “With this team, at least, I know they’re giving all they’ve got.”

Crum tosses his lunch wrappers into a nearby waste basket. The shot is . . . good. He glances at his watch, coughs another cough and heads for practice. Before he leaves, Crum remembers another piece of advice from his former boss.

“Coach Wooden told me that you only prosper through adversity,” Crum said. “Well, guess what? I’m going to be rich when this season is over.”