Denny Crum Moved Capital Of Kentucky Basketball From Lexington To Louisville In 1970s and ’80s

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If they are honest with themselves, it was a thought Kentucky basketball fans had in their hearts and minds for decades. But not on the tip of their tongues, because they didn’t want to say it out loud or even admit it to themselves.

But the University of Louisville – 78 miles west of the state flagship university in Lexington – had a better basketball coach and program than the Wildcats from 1971 through the 1980s.

Kentucky Blue had to ask itself:

“Should we have hired UCLA coach John Wooden’s assistant Denny Crum in 1971, instead of waiting another year to let Adolph Rupp go and hire assistant Joe B. Hall in 1972?”

Crum died at age 86 on Tuesday, and many people probably do not realize that Crum and Louisville were basketball in the state of Kentucky from the 1971-72 season through the 1989-90 season like the Derby. Over that span, Kentucky was basically the Preakness.

Denny Crum
Former Louisville basketball coach Denny Crum looks on during the Louisville Live Hoops event at Churchill Downs on Sept. 18, 2021. (Getty Images).

The late Marquette coach and NBC analyst Al McGuire nicknamed Crum “Cool Hand Luke,” but Crum was brash on arrival to Louisville in 1971. Rupp, 70, was soon to be starting his 41st and last season at Kentucky that year. Crum, 34, was about to start his first at Louisville.

Rupp had won four NCAA championships and reached six Final Fours, but the last title was in 1958. And the last Final Four was in 1966 when his all-white team lost to Texas Western’s all-black starting five. Crum had won four national titles as an assistant in only four years at UCLA from 1967-71.

Denny Crum Dismissed Kentucky’s No. 1 Class

So when asked about Rupp’s last hurrah, No. 1 signing class he left Hall with (Jimmy Dan Conner, Mike Flynn, Bob Guyette and Kevin Grevey), Crum did not genuflect, according to Eric Crawford of in Louisville.

“Not overly impressed,” Crum said.

“Can you imagine the gall?,” cried a Lexington Herald editorial headline. The answer was yes.

Kentucky went 21-7 and reached the Elite Eight in Rupp’s finale 1971-72 season. Crum? Why, he went 26-5 and reached the Final Four. There would be another Final Four in 1975. Hall and Kentucky would not reach the Final Four until 1975, but the Wildcats went again in 1978 and won the championship.

This didn’t stop Crum, who reached back-to-back Sweet 16s in 1978 and ’79 as the Wildcats waned. Then the Cardinals won it all in 1980 with Louisville native superstar guard Darrell Griffith. By the time Crum won a second national championship in 1986, he had taken Louisville to six Final Fours (1972, ’75, ’80, ’82, ’83 and ’86) to only three by Kentucky over the same span (1975, ’78, ’84).

Louisville And Denny Crum Got To Play Kentucky Annually

Crum also beat Hall and Kentucky in the political game of scheduling. After poking the Kentucky bear for refusing to play his team for elitist reasons, he got his way with the Kentucky General Assembly. The legislature passed a bill that forced Kentucky to play Louisville once a year in basketball on a home-and-home basis. That has happened every year since the 1983-84 season.

Oh, and Crum beat Kentucky, 80-68, in the 1983 NCAA Tournament Elite Eight round to get to the Final Four just before the annual series began. A little salt on the salt, so to speak.

Crum also was a thorn in the hearts of the team that also ruined Kentucky seasons during this same span. In 1976, LSU coach Dale Brown signed Louisville native superstar Rudy Macklin, who helped make the Tigers a power for the first time since the 1950s. Brown got Macklin by driving him around Louisville in a filibuster move while Crum waited to meet with Macklin, but never did. And Brown used Crum’s success against him.

“Dale told me, ‘If you come to LSU, you can always say you built something,'” Macklin said in the recent “Southern Hoops” documentary about SEC basketball history. It was already built at Louisville.

With Macklin, LSU replaced Kentucky as SEC champions in 1979 and SEC Tournament champs in 1980. The Tigers appeared on their way to their first Final Four since Bob Pettit in 1953 in 1980 … until it played Louisville. Crum won, 86-66, and beat Iowa and his old school UCLA to win his first national crown. Macklin and LSU won the SEC again and reached the Final Four with Macklin in 1981.

Cardinals Won 2 National Titles In 1980s To 0 By Kentucky

In 1986, LSU upset No. 1 seed Kentucky and new coach Eddie Sutton in the Elite Eight to return to the Final Four as the first No. 11 seed ever. But Crum ruined the Cinderella ball with an 88-77 win, then beat Duke and Coach K for the national championship.

Crum never got to another Final Four. And like, Kentucky, there were multiple NCAA invesigations and significant sanctions through the 1990s. But there were still 11 more NCAA Tournament appearances through his second-to-last season in 1999-2000, including an Elite Eight finish in 1997. He finished with 23 NCAA Tournaments. Kentucky had 24 while Crum was Louisville’s coach.

A former national champion Kentucky coach, Rick Pitino, replaced him after the 2000-01 season in a slap in the face. Pitino took the Cardinals to three Final Fours and a national title in 2013, but he resigned in 2017 in disgrace amid a bribery scandal and after serious NCAA sanctions and off-court embarrassments.

While Louisville had one coach from 1971 through 2001 in Crum, Kentucky had five.

“He is U of L,” Darrell Griffith, now 64, said at Crum’s 85th birthday party on March 2, 2022. “Most people in this city can’t imagine the place or the city without him.”

Same for the state of Kentucky basketball.

Written by Glenn Guilbeau

Guilbeau joined OutKick as an SEC columnist in September of 2021 after covering LSU and the Saints for 17 years at USA TODAY Louisiana. He has been a national columnist/feature writer since the summer of 2022, covering college football, basketball and baseball with some NFL, NBA, MLB, TV and Movies and general assignment, including hot dog taste tests.

A New Orleans native and Mizzou graduate, he has consistently won Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) and Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) awards since covering Alabama and Auburn at the Mobile Press-Register (1993-98) and LSU and the Saints at the Baton Rouge Advocate (1998-2004). In 2021, Guilbeau won an FWAA 1st for a game feature, placed in APSE Beat Writing, Breaking News and Explanatory, and won Beat Writer of the Year from the Louisiana Sports Writers Association (LSWA). He won an FWAA columnist 1st in 2017 and was FWAA's top overall winner in 2016 with 1st in game story, 2nd in columns, and features honorable mention.

Guilbeau completed a book in 2022 about LSU's five-time national champion coach - "Everything Matters In Baseball: The Skip Bertman Story" - that is available at, and Barnes & Noble outlets. He lives in Baton Rouge with his wife, the former Michelle Millhollon of Thibodaux who previously covered politics for the Baton Rouge Advocate and is a communications director.

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