LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- If you're a college basketball fan, you have known for decades that Denny Crum was a Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame coach who became an iconic figure in Louisville as well as to Cardinal fans scattered throughout the country as he guided the Cardinals to two national championships (1980, 1986) and six Final Four appearances in his first 15 seasons.
However, you may not know that college hoops was just the most serious and public of his many passions because he was something of a renaissance man. He was an avid fisherman and hunter -- his most prized memnto of those trips is the bear he bagged in Alaska that looms over a room in his house. He owned racehorses, he was an accomplished golfer and an intense poker player who competed in the World Series of Poker and put together charity poker events at Caeser's Southern Indiana. He hosted an entertaining radio show with former UK coach Joe Hall, a one-time fierce rival.
Most of all, though, he was a Hall of Fame person. Crum, 86, died Tuesday morning at his country home on a farm in Eastern Jefferson County, leaving a legacy of good will and generosity, both with his time and his money.
Crum had been in failing health since suffering the first of three strokes while fishing in Alaska in 2017. He bounced back from that one, but suffered another stroke in 2019 and then another last year that sent him into a downward spiral from which he never recovered.
I last saw him in early April when I went to his home to visit him, his wife Susan and daughter Cindy and pay my respects. He opened his eyes briefly and spoke, then went back to sleep.
In my job at the time with The Courier-Journal I had the privilege of getting to know Crum both on a professional and personal level while covering UofL sports. I spent time with him at his house on Henry's Lake in Idaho near West Yellowstone and the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park. I accompanied him on a fishing trip with a few other friends to Venezuela. Nights on the road during basketball season were often spent in poker games in someone's room (minus players of course).
Throughout that time I was in awe of how, despite having a pressure-packed job and enduring disappointing defeats, he was able to retain his friendly demeanor and never seemed to be ruffled by anything. Never lost his poise or his confidence. Somewhere along the line, Al McGuire gave him the nickname "Cool Hand Luke" and it stuck.
According to his players, Crum never cussed or had a temper tantrum. A player knew he was in trouble if Crum called him "Buster," as in "You got out of control Buster."
I can honestly say that in all the hundreds of times I have been around Crum in various circumstances, I never saw him snap at anyone, turn down a request from a fan or be anything but kind. Coach, how about an autograph? Sure. Coach, could we get a picture with you? Of course.
I remember walking out of a gym late one night into a light rain on our way to the team bus after a game and being stopped by several fans wanting pictures. Crum was feeling miserable and had barely made it to the game due to a cold and sinus infection, yet he not only stopped, but stood there waiting patiently while the fans fiddled with the camera and asked for several shots. I tried to pull him away, but he waved me off and wouldn't leave until they were finally finished.
That was Denny. He couldn't, or wouldn't, say no. Both during his coaching career and in retirement he helped raise hundreds of thousands for charities, attracted money for the university and established a scholarship fund.
Crum's signature prop during games was a rolled up program he gestured with, similar to his mentor, John Wooden. And I will never forget two of his favorite sayings: "We couldn't play dead in a cowboy movie" when describing a particularly bad performance in a game, and "Don't major in minors."
Crum was a constant visitor to UofL games until his health problems kept him away, cheering from his seats at midcourt in Freedom Hall and the KFC Yum! Center with Susan and smiling and waving to the crowd that cheered at the mere mention of his name.
"Today is a sad day for me personally, as well as the basketball world," UofL coach Kenny Payne, who played on Crum's 1986 title team, 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 loves. He was a true treasure who gave so much to this university and 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."
And this from UofL athletics director Josh Heird:
"Coach Crum brought so much joy and happiness to the UofL campus, the Louisville community and countless fans across the country for so many years. He embodied what a coach should be: he cared deeply about his players, he worked tirelessly for his university, he espoused the right values and stuck to them and he lived each and every day for his family. Coach gave his heart and soul to this university and this community and he will forever be a part of our past, present and future. In the days, weeks and months ahead we will honor and celebrate the wonderful life of Coach Denny Crum."
After his retirement following the 2001 season, Crum was appointed goodwill ambassador for UofL, which came naturally since it was a duty he had actually been performing since he moved to Louisville in 1971 at 34, having been an assistant under Wooden for four seasons, then choosing the Cardinals over an offer from Virginia Tech. He probably never thought he would stay for 51 years or earn the love and affection of an entire community, but it was well-deserved.
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.