LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A year ago, Denny Crum was facing the biggest controversy in his celebrated 20-year coaching career at the University of Louisville. His priorities were being questioned. His team wasn't very good. And his future seemed clouded.
The city's largest newspaper, the Courier-Journal, reported that Louisville had graduated less than a quarter of its basketball players in a recent five-year period. Then CBS came through town, and used Crum's program to illustrate the ills of big-time college basketball in a "60 Minutes" report.
To make matters worse, the Cardinals had their first losing season under Crum -- their first sub-.500 season since 1944-45. Without three players who failed to qualify under Proposition 48, Louisville finished 14-16 and, for the first time in Metro Conference history, came in last.
And yet: "It wasn't as bad for me as people thought it was," Crum said yesterday morning in his office. "My team was fun to coach and to be around, and even though we didn't have a good year, we finished up pretty well."
Said senior guard Everick Sullivan: "We didn't pay attention to the story on '60 Minutes.' We didn't let it bother us. If you tried to talk to other people outside about it, it was usually a one-sided discussion. I thought it was pretty unfair to Coach Crum."
Crum is still a bit upset about the "60 Minutes" report and the way he says it distorted the picture. But strained relations with the school's administration, especially president Donald Swain, seem to have improved, as evidenced by the five-year contract extension Crum recently was offered.
As for the Cardinals, they, too, have gotten better. With sophomore forwards Greg Minor and Dwayne Morton now eligible, and with Sullivan developing into one of the country's best shooting guards, Louisville takes a 2-0 record into tonight's game against Maryland (5-0) at Freedom Hall.
"I'll be a much better coach by the end of this season than I was last season," Crum said with more than a touch of sarcasm. "And I'll be a much better coach by next season than I am this year."
In truth, Crum, 54, long has been considered one of the game's best coaches. A former player for and assistant under John Wooden at UCLA, Crum ranks eighth among active Division I coaches in winning percentage, and his 479 victories put him 13th on the list.
Moreover, he has led Louisville to six Final Fours, winning NCAA championships in 1980 and 1986. But some believed his star began to fade with the 1987 Pan Am Games, when Crum's U.S. team was upset by Brazil for the gold medal. Then came last season's disappointment.
Crum points to a number of reasons for Louisville's recent decline. It began three seasons ago, when his top assistant, Wade Houston, became the head coach at Tennessee, and Louisville released Houston's son, Allan, its top recruit, from his scholarship agreement. Then, Jerome Harmon, another top recruit, flunked out last season after a four-year struggle with grades and injuries. And finally came last season's Prop 48s.
"For all those things to happen in a two- to three-year period is very unlikely," said Crum. "It's unlikely that it will happen again. But, in the long run, we'll be all right."
It now appears that Crum will be here for the long run, something that didn't seem so certain a year ago. When the graduation rates were made public, Swain reacted by saying that his longtime coach would have to change.
In turn, Crum defended the job he had done with the players academically, saying that many who left to play professionally eventually returned to get their degree.
Crum said of the 14 players who went through the program during the five-year period reported by the Courier-Journal, 11 played pro basketball and seven of them have come back to earn their degree or are in the process of getting one.
"The '60 Minutes' thing was a farce," Crum said. "They were making the news instead of reporting it. . . . Our problem wasn't that the kids we were getting didn't perform academically. Our problem is we had too many good basketball players. I think the administration has a better understanding of that now."
Ray Nystrand, dean of the School of Education at Louisville and the athletic liaison to the university president, said efforts have been made over the past 15 months to improve the academic support given the basketball team.
Among the changes have been the addition of a full-time academic counselor, increased funds, tutors on the road and tougher academic guidelines for athletes than for the general student population.
As for Crum's effort, Nystrand said: "We're delighted with the job Dennis has done. He represents the university well. He's a great spokesman for the university. He runs a program that is above reproach, above criticism.
"One of the things he's proudest of is that many of the kids who do leave without their degrees come back and get it."
Said Sullivan, a communications major who expects to graduate next summer: "I feel that it's up to the individual. If you want to get your degree, you can get it."
Crum will likely will finish his head coaching career where he began 20 years ago.
"I haven't done it [signed the contract] yet, but my guess is that I will," he said. "If I want to move and go somewhere else, I'm sure I could. I don't think I'd have trouble finding a job. If I stay in coaching, I might as well stay here as anywhere else. There's no perfect situation, no Utopia. As long as we're treated fairly by the administration, I'm pretty certain that I'm going to stay."