Louisville's Crum not afraid to take road less traveled

January 30, 1995|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun Staff Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- His office at the University of Louisville is a little more than two miles from the twin spires of Churchill Downs, and if Denny Crum doesn't produce another NCAA basketball champion, maybe he'll train a Kentucky Derby winner.

Farther to the east is his 75-acre farm, where the stable houses Medium Cool, a 7-year-old colt by Conquistador Cielo with earnings of $550,000.

His golf course, Valhalla, site of the 1996 PGA championship, is nearby. The hunting and fishing in Kentuckiana were other amenities that helped Crum turn down two offers to return to UCLA, where he learned the game from John Wooden.

Freedom Hall is filled and his likeness pops up on about every third billboard on Interstate 65, but, best of all, Denny Crum gets to do it his way, whether it's telling the NCAA to get off his back about graduation rates, or going places others in his position never would -- such as the Towson Center tonight to play Towson State.

"I've known him since 1977, and he's pretty much the same guy he was then," said Scooter McCray, an assistant coach who played on Crum's first NCAA title team. "He's been at Louisville ++ for 24 years, and he's going to stay here until he retires. He knows what he wants, and he knows who he is. He's very secure with who he is."

Being in a circle whose only other members are Bob Knight and Dean Smith will do that to a man. They are the only active coaches who are in the Basketball Hall of Fame and have more than one NCAA title to their credit, Crum's coming in 1980 and '86.

Crum, 57, is secure enough to take the knocks over the poor graduation rate of Louisville basketball players. Fifteen percent of the freshmen basketball players who entered Louisville between 1984 and '87 got degrees within six years, but Crum won't apologize for top recruits who go to the NBA early or begin playing professionally as soon as their eligibility has expired.

As a junior last season, Cliff Rozier was an All-America center. Crum told him to take the money and run to the NBA, even though it set back the Cardinals.

"As far as I'm concerned, the NCAA has to take a back seat,"

Crum said. "When you recruit a kid, you have an obligation to do what's best for him. If it's best for a kid to go [pro], I'm the last person in the world to tell him not to."

Without Rozier and two others who were taken in the NBA draft, Crum is 12-7 this season with his youngest team ever.

Three of the losses came on the road early, to Brigham Young and Villanova in the Great Alaska Shootout, and at Michigan State. The Cardinals won at Georgia Tech and beat Kentucky at Freedom Hall. In the last two weeks of the regular season, Louisville will go to Massachusetts and play UCLA at home.

"What you've got to remember is there isn't anyplace in the country we haven't been," Crum said. "We play everywhere."

Even at a Towson State, where, despite success in several minor conferences, coach Terry Truax always has been resigned to going on the road for nonconference games.

A proponent of Crum's offense, Truax began asking Louisville officials for a game in the late 1980s. Almost annually, the Tigers completed their schedule in the spring, and Louisville called back in August or September with an invitation that Towson State declined.

When Louisville called in November, however, it was in a bind. Crum said that national TV games against Arizona and Texas fell through, but Truax was told that the Cardinals mistakenly counted their participation in the Great Alaska Shootout on their regular-season schedule. Louisville needed two games.

Towson State wasn't available, but Louisville called Dayton, where the Tigers were to play on Dec. 29. Louisville arranged to replace Towson State as Dayton's opponent that night and to set up a game with the Tigers. Truax was prepared to go to Louisville, but as a way to thank the Tigers for accommodating him, Crum offered to come to the Towson Center.

"I never entertained the notion of them coming to Baltimore," Truax said. "A lot of big-time programs recruit here, but they won't play here. That's the difference between Denny Crum and some of the so-called masterminds, the security he has to do this."

Said Crum: "We could have just as easily said, 'Will you come here?' and given them $20,000 or $30,000. Most people in this business aren't as secure and most coaches won't probably do this, but most of them probably aren't caught in a situation like this."

Crum said he's not just being a nice guy. He said a game here is a way to revive some recruiting ties on the East Coast. Without it, the Cardinals would have played five straight games at Freedom Hall.

"Getting out and seeing the world is the only way a young team is going to learn," Crum said. "In 1985, we did something similar. Even though we weren't very strong, we played a lot of good teams on the road. We went from the worst record since I'd been here to winning the national championship."

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