It is clear from Denny Crum's manner that there are more important things going on around the globe than this Final Four. There is cribbage, and the fishing in Jefferson County, Ky., and the cattle he raises like so many championship teams.
In fact, there is a sense that Crum is here this week simply because every so often he is expected to slip into his Louisville-red brushed-denim jacket and make an appearance. The machine he has carefully built over the last 15 years insists on repetition, and so Louisville pumps out its Doctors of Dunk every two or three seasons, and Crum coaches them to perfection for the sake of form, or simply habit.
This is Crum's sixth entry in the Final Four as head coach at Louisville. The Cardinals' meeting with Louisiana State Saturday at Reunion Arena (3:42 p.m.) will mark their fourth national semifinal game in the last seven years, which borders on outright domination, as Crum well knows being a former math major at UCLA under John Wooden.
You don't do that without some sort of passion, but it is hard to find many signs of driven ambition in this coach who says almost nothing, gives away even less, and thus seems almost uninterested. Only on rare philosophic occasions is there a crack in the visage, which includes glassy eyes and a thin slash of a mouth on a wide, impassive tundra of a face, topped by an unmoving mass of hair.
"I don't know what I'd do if I didn't coach," he said. "I'd be a fishing guide maybe. I've thought about it often, but I haven't come up with an answer. Coaching is all I've done; it's my whole life."
Crum's teams are like his hairstyle; they haven't changed. They start slow against a diabolical schedule that he says pays off in the end. They pick up around tournament time and then come hurtling into the NCAA tournament. This year's team is on a 15-game winning streak and has won 19 of its last 20.
These Cardinals may be particularly emblematic of Crum's philosophy, which consists of relentlessly drumming fundamentals into his players. His even-handedness has created a squad of five starters averaging in double figures, led by forward Billy Thompson and guard Milt Wagner at 14.8 points each. They have a run-and-jam offense that is dependent on the usual full-court press and straight-up man defense.
Nothing cute, but nothing wrong with it, either, and the jams are showy. And lately the Cardinals have shown a pattern of strong stretch runs. In winning the West regional, they accomplished a rare blowout of North Carolina, 94-79, then dismantled Auburn, 84-76.
Louisville's habit of powerful finishes is largely a result of Crum's scheduling theory, which this year had the Cardinals playing 13 NCAA tournament teams. He says, "It can kill you, but if you survive it, you have an excellent chance of success."
But it is also a result of Crum's apparently total lack of temperament. To watch him coach a game is to visit a wax museum: he sits still, fingers laced together and face composed in disinterest. A call goes against Louisville, and he merely lifts an eyebrow as if to say, "You think you're going to get me out of this chair, do you?"
Crum's impassiveness often has been cited as a main ingredient in his consistency. His face is lineless, almost too youthful for a 48-year-old. A dedicated card player, he can stonewall with the best. That quality served him well earlier this season, when the Cardinals got off to an 11-6 start and suffered some rare midseason controversy.
First, reserve center Mark McSwain refused to go into a game against Eastern Kentucky. Crum calmly sent him to the showers. Then guard Kevin Walls staged a boycott of four practices and one game because he felt he wasn't getting enough playing time. Crum simply waited him out; Walls eventually apologized.
Crum accepted both players back to the team without penalties. They have since become key players off the bench, and the reserves have been crucial in the Cardinals' late show of muscle.
If there seems to be a lack of variety in Crum's style, it is because he is indelibly stamped by the system he came from. Wooden and UCLA are written across the Louisville program, which Crum freely admits.
Crum first encountered Wooden as a recruit out of the San Fernando Valley, where he grew up. His is one of those up-from-the-bottom stories: UCLA didn't offer him a scholarship right off, so he spent two years at Pierce Junior College proving he could play. He then transferred to UCLA, where he won the award for most improved first-year player, then was named most improved player the next season.
On graduating in 1958, Crum coached UCLA's freshman team for a season before returning to Pierce as a head coach for four years. He finally returned to UCLA as Wooden's top assistant from 1967-71 before leaving for Louisville.
"It's impossible to pick out one thing he taught that influenced me," Crum said. "It was the system, the organization, the planning, the whole picture. I do a whole lot of things like him and I wish I did some better."
One thing Crum has taught himself is to avoid burnout. He has shown no ill effects from coaching in the most high-pressure basketball state in the country. His contract takes some of the heat off; he is in the third year of a 10-year deal that is worth an estimated $225,000 annually and includes a clause that could pay him a $1 million bonus in 1993.
Crum also has learned to carve out his own time. His 55-acre ranch is well away from Louisville, and his offseason time is spent primarily on two things: golf and fishing. He does not lobby for positions such as Olympic or Pan American Games coach because he has no desire to spend that much time around the game.
So he settles for the Final Four. Crum remembers his first in 1971-72, when he took the Cardinals to the semifinals to meet eventual national champion UCLA and the Bruins he helped recruit. Louisville was drubbed, 96-77.
"I remember that we weren't good enough for them," Crum said. "But no one else was either."
By now, going to the Final Four is old hat for Crum, and he's learned how to handle it. "Everywhere you go people comment, and it gets to your ego, so you have to keep an even keel," he said.
"It's a different feeling for a fan. They have very definite feelings. To me, it's still my job."