By concrete accomplishment the last decade, America's best college basketball programs belong to the University of Louisville, North Carolina and Indiana. So it is a mystery why Dean Smith and Bob Knight are famous (and/or infamous) while Denny Crum is a stranger. Let's fix that up a little today.
Crum, 46, is the only college coach who has won 20 games every season of his career. In 12 years at Louisville, his teams are 295-75, which translates to 25-6 a year. All 16,600 seats at Freedom Hall are sold out each season. His teams have been in 10 NCAA tournaments. Five times, they reached the final four. Louisville won the 1980 national title, beating UCLA in a game that marked the passing of the crown.
What UCLA had been, Louisville now is: a dynasty, in the pure sense of the word, which is not to say Louisville will win 10 national championships. It is a dynasty nonetheless, in that its power is self-renewed and maintained by a succession of leaders working in a system that never changes.
The familiar knock against Crum (heard in these pages recently) is that he's a laid-back Californian whose teams play undisciplined basketball. Beg to differ. Crum grew up not on the beaches but in the rural outback of California, all scrub grass and skinny cows. He's as laid-back as, say, Bob Knight.
Or didn't you hear him call the NCAA bigwigs liars two weeks ago? Did you hear Crum zing Joe B. Hall with suggestions that haughty Kentucky stood to profit if it could "carve into our success"?
You weren't there when a sportswriter thought to challenge Crum at gin rummy. Crum is a gamesman extraordinaire. Be it hunting, fishing, golf, Ping-Pong or gin rummy, Crum loves the action. So a foolish sportswriter said, "Gin rummy, coach?"
John Wooden once listened to Crum's incessant chatter at the card table and said, "Denny, you're the world's greatest gin player . . . from nose to chin."
In three minutes, the sportswriter lost $7.48 and said, "Take it easy, coach."
"I play to win," Crum said, without smiling.
The difference between Crum, Knight and Smith is that Crum seeks no attention. In his perverse way, Knight attracts the psychoanalyst in all of us. By calculation, Smith builds a mystique of genius. It is no accident that Sports Illustrated (to name an image-maker) has done profiles of Knight and Smith in the last two years (with three covers on Carolina, two on Indiana and none on Louisville).
Crum remains mostly anonymous. "That's because he is depressingly normal," said Billy Reed, sports editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal. "It's amazing that a guy with so much ego is content with no publicity. He's The Sporting News coach of the year, which is the first national coach-of-the-year recognition he's ever had. But his comment was, 'I'd rather win some games.' "
So the image-makers, unable to deal with depressing normality, leave Crum alone.
Which is too bad, because they would find that Crum's teams, far from undisciplined, are mirror images of the combative, confident coach whose sense of self is so solid and secure that he needs no outside approval.
John Wooden's UCLA teams ran an eternal 2-2-1 full-court zone press. They ran a high-post offense and a fast break. Wooden fit players to his system. He taught them their limitations and allowed them to work only inside those limitations.
Of Wooden's teams, everyone said, "Great discipline."
Crum's teams are identical.
They are identical by design because Crum played two seasons for Wooden and later was his assistant coach for six years.
He runs the same system for a common-sense reason. "Because it's the best," Crum said. "It's been proven that it's the best. Look at what we've done. I like it because it works and it's what I teach best."
As Wooden did, Crum recruits players who can run, jump and press full-court. Not many schools wanted Lancaster Gordon, the Louisville guard. Nor did many seek out Charles Jones, the center. Both are from Mississippi, and both were recruited by Louisville only after a tip from an alumnus. When Crum's assistant, Bill Olsen, saw Gordon and Jones, he knew they were Louisville players as they once might have been UCLA players.
"Sure, we're undisciplined," Crum said, bristling.
"That's why we've been to the final four five times. We're averaging 25 victories a year with no discipline, right? We've shot less than 50 percent only once in 12 years with no discipline, right?
"We get accused of that because of our style. We play at a fast pace, and people equate that with no discipline. Discipline is playing like you practice. If you play differently than you practice, that's no discipline. But if you play exactly the way you practice, that's good discipline. We do that."
Crum runs a relaxed program. His players have two rules: go to class and be on time.
"I treat them as adults," Crum has said. "Hell, I go out at night and have a drink and horse around. They'd be looking for a new coach around here if I suspended a guy because he had a beer."
One thing more. Crum turned down the UCLA job in 1977 to stay in Louisville, where he lives on a 55-acre farm with a pond and a few head of cattle. This coach whom many think is laid-back once told a sportswriter he had a cow that he'd named "Joe B."
"Naw, that's not right," Crum insists.
He winked. "Not a bad idea, though."