Saturday, March 03, 2001

Crum's happy face fools nobody

Sad exit for Hall of Famer

        Denny Crum was able to negotiate the terms of his surrender, but he could hardly hope to determine its tone. The Hall of Fame basketball coach lost control of his fate many months before he announced his resignation Friday at the University of Louisville.

        His efforts to spin the story were energetic, but ultimately unconvincing.

        “Nobody's pushing me out of here, believe me,” Crum insisted on his 64th birthday. “I'm leaving because I want to.”

        If Crum is leaving Louisville of his own accord, it is only because staying put has become too painful. He has been engaged in an escalating power struggle with Athletic Director Tom Jurich, enraged by what he regards as inadequate support and entrapped by his own persistent recruiting failures. Louisville is 11-18 entering today's regular- season finale against Memphis at Freedom Hall.

  Highlights of Denny Crum's 30-year tenure as head coach at the University of Louisville:
  • Inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on May 9, 1994.
  • Coached two NCAA Championship teams (1980, 1986).
  • Coached six Final Four teams (1972, 1975, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1986).
  • Tied for fourth all-time with 23 NCAA Tournament appearances, including 20 during the past 25 years.
  • Won 12 Metro Conference regular-season championships and 11 Metro Tournament titles in the 19 seasons the conference awarded championships.
  • Ranks 14th on Division I all-time victory list with 674.
  • Reached 20-plus victories in 21 of 30 seasons.
  • Became the second-fastest coach to reach 600 career victories.
        “The perception,” Jurich told Crum in a memorandum last month, “is that our program is in a major downward spiral and has absolutely no care or concern from its head coach.”

        Unable to keep his job against this dreary backdrop, Crum is attempting to preserve his dignity. He has accepted a settlement that will be worth $7 million over the next 15 years and he has adopted the rhetoric of reconciliation. He would

        have us think his retirement a personal choice rather than a public coercion.

        “I honestly wish none of that had ever happened,” Crum said, referring to the acrimony revealed in a series of leaked memos. "There's no way any kind of division is good for the university. I don't want this to be, nor did I ever want this to be, something that could damage the university. Things happen, and sometimes you can't control them.”

        You can't blame him for trying. A coach wins 674 games at the same school — two of them for the national championship — and he'd like to think he has earned the right to script his own exit scene. He'd like to think his career achievements would provide allowances, stifle dissent and ensure an amicable parting on the coach's terms and timetable.

        Sadly, it doesn't usually work that way anymore. College basketball — at least that brand played at the Division I level — is too big a business to be steered by sentiment. Few schools can accept sustained mediocrity for more than a season or two because of the dollars at stake. Fewer coaches know when to leave because their jobs are so lucrative.

        This can create an awkward situation for all concerned. Even those who were eager to arrange Crum's ouster had to wonder if there weren't some more graceful means of arranging his exit. When a Hall of Fame coach is forced out after 30 years, it makes a university appear to have abandoned its enduring values in favor of quick victories. Yet it's one thing to keep a past-his-prime professor on the payroll — it's called tenure — and quite another to underwrite an underperforming coach.

        At many schools, men's basketball is the only athletic program that shows a profit and, consequently, the primary source of funding for many other programs. One of the reasons college basketball coaches are paid so well is because of the comparative revenues they generate. When that revenue stream is reduced, the trickle-down effect can be traumatic.

        Crum's Cardinals reached the NCAA Tournament in each of the past two seasons, but were eliminated both times in the first round. Few schools have spent so much time being investigated by the NCAA with so little talent to arouse suspicion.

        Perhaps Crum got lazy. Perhaps he came to believe that his Louisville dynasty was self-perpetuating, or that his coaching ability could overcome periodic talent shortfalls. Perhaps he underestimated the quality of his competition or the impact Proposition 48 would have on city schools such as Louisville. Perhaps he failed to recognize when his murderous non-conference schedule became counterproductive.

        Perhaps, after 30 years, Crum had wearied of the degrading parts of the job — wooing teen-agers, perverting education to keep them eligible, jetting cross-country for five minutes of face time, suffering second-guesses from people who couldn't diagram a pick-and-roll.

        On its best days, coaching college basketball is a tough gig. When you win as Crum has, it can be that much tougher because your standards are set so high.

        Crum says he's leaving because he wants to, but nearly no one believes him. No one believes he'd want to leave like this.

        E-mail Past columns at

Huggins sorry to see Crum go

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