Thirty years coaching in the same major college program. National championship hardware won. Eventually fired, but asked to hang around by the school president.
No, this column isn’t about former University of Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer. It’s about former Louisville basketball coach Denny Crum, whom Fulmer might want to use as a model on handling termination with grace.
If you look closely in the stands during Louisville’s Midwest Regional final against Michigan State this afternoon, you may spot Crum clad in red and black. He’ll be cheering like crazy for the Cardinals to reach their second Final Four in five seasons under Rick Pitino, who replaced Crum eight years ago.
“I’ll be there,” Crum said late this past week. “I got my tickets through the (school) president’s office. I’m not sure where they are, but I’m pretty excited about our chances.”
Eight years ago, Crum was pretty much where Fulmer is today. Only he may have had more reasons to feel bitter about his ouster. Whereas Fulmer had won one national championship, Crum had claimed two. And he’d been the Louisville head coach for 30 years instead of the 16 Fulmer had been the Big Orange boss.
Then again, Crum wasn’t a Louisville alum as Fulmer was with UT. Crum graduated from UCLA, though he turned down a chance to take over the Bruins when the legendary John Wooden retired in the spring of 1975.
“I thought that was my dream job,” he said, “but I just couldn’t make myself leave Louisville. I didn’t want to fight the traffic, and I’d made too many good friends.”
So the guy they nicknamed Cool Hand Luke stayed in Derbyville. He took the Cardinals to six Final Fours, winning titles in 1980 and 1986. He fell in love with horse racing and a river city equal parts Midwest resolve and Southern charm. He thought he’d retire there on his own terms.
Then the 3-point line came in. Academic standards changed. That Pitino guy arrived at archrival Kentucky to tilt the balance of hoops power in the Bluegrass back to Big Blue.
One other thing. The U of L athletic director changed. Bill Olsen was out and Tom Jurich was in.
“Whenever they hire a new athletic director, you know he’s going to have his own agenda,” Crum said. “Most coaches know you’re hired to be fired. It’s just a matter of when.”
Which makes Crum’s continued support of the Cards all the more remarkable. Think Alabama’s Nick Saban instead of Lane Kiffin replacing Fulmer and you have some idea of the bitter pill Crum had to swallow when Pitino took over.
Even now, eight years later, when Crum is asked if he and Ricky P. are close, he answers, “Not really. I like Coach Pitino and I think he’s doing an excellent job coaching. But I try to be just a fan. It’s hard when you see things in a game and you think you could be helpful. But you don’t.”
Fulmer declined to be interviewed for this column, and certainly he has had less than eight years to become comfortable as a Big Orange ambassador, if he doesn’t return to coaching.
But Pitino isn’t even the only former UK coach in Crum’s life. He and former Wildcats boss Joe B. Hall just celebrated their sixth anniversary co-hosting a radio show together.
“Oh, Denny’s become a great friend,” Hall said recently. “When we were coaching against each other, we kept our distance. I thought it was better that way. But doing this radio show, we’ve realized we’re a lot more alike than we are different.”
Not surprisingly, Crum points to Friday’s ouster of Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie after just two seasons as a huge example of how coaching is different.
“The blogs, the Internet, talk radio, CNN, ESPN,” he said. “There’s so much information and so much misinformation. Gillispie was SEC co-coach of the year last year. Now they want to fire him. Did he suddenly forget everything he knows? What do they want him to do, go to the library and check out a new book on coaching? The expectation level has become brutal.”
Close your eyes and that could be Fulmer talking. Open his eyes and ears and Fulmer might find a kindred spirit in Crum, who often escapes to Idaho to go fly-fishing much as the former UT coach retreats to Wyoming.
“I don’t know Coach Fulmer,” Crum said. “But I know he took that program to a place it hadn’t been in a long time, and he did it in the toughest league in the country.”
In what may be the toughest Final Four in recent memory, Crum has Louisville — assuming it gets past Michigan State — winning one of his two brackets and North Carolina winning the other, depending on whether Tar Heels point guard Ty Lawson remains healthy.
But regardless of who wins, the 72-year-old Crum will be back at work next week, helping Louisville president Dr. James Ramsey any way he can.
“When you’ve spent 30 years of your life building something up,” Crum said, “why would you want to tear it down?”
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...