Before Denny Crum arrived at the University of Louisville from UCLA, where he had been John Wooden's varsity assistant and No. 1 recruiter for three years, the Cardinals were known chiefly for two things: a load of talent and a talent for losing.
But along came Crum with his enthusiasm, his cockiness and his UCLA winner's charisma. He shuffled the starting lineup, installed Wooden's high-post offense and pressing defense and, best of all, established a solid rapport with his players. "He's so young that we can really relate to him," says Henry Bacon, a senior Crum shifted from forward to guard. "It's like he's coming right out of his teen-age years, just like we are." Presto! Instant gap-remover.
And presto! Instant controversy. After an opening loss to Florida on the road, the Cards reeled off 11 straight victories, including two last week—at Dayton (71-64) Wednesday night and at Bradley (75-71) Saturday night. Most satisfying of all, they swept over Syracuse, St. Peter's and Fordham to win the Holiday Festival in Madison Square Garden.
Unhappily, what should have been Crum's finest hour on the floor became his sorest trial off it. Doing exactly what many other college teams do, the Cards returned to their dressing room after warming up for their semifinal game against St. Peter's for a prayer. Deliberately, they did not return until after the national anthem had been played. From there it was nothing but rockets glaring and bombs bursting in air. To quiet matters, Crum claimed he would "come out with the flag draped over my shoulders if they want me to," but when the team appeared for the anthem before the final game, he was in mufti and the Garden crowd was in loud, derisive voice.
"I wish there was some kind of devil we could have placed on those people's heads," said Jim Price, the senior guard Crum has compared with Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich. "I'll bet that while the anthem was being played, 95% of that crowd were thinking about how much they had bet on the game. And then they make us the dirty guys. We really respected Coach Crum, because he stuck up for us."
The fans in Cincinnati a week later were even more generous with their boos than the New Yorkers. The Cards beat a tough Cincinnati team 84-76, and for their efforts were showered with popcorn boxes and soft-drink cups. A cup hit Price, and Crum got into a jaw-to-jaw hoedown with one blasphemous citizen, prompting Mike Lawhon, a Louisville forward who doubles as associate minister at the Clifton Christian Church, to tell Crum, "Way to go, Coach."
Coach went about all the way soon after, singlehandedly taking on Adolph Rupp's legions of devoted followers who, even in Louisville, outnumber Cardinal fans. This season Kentucky has an all-white, all-star, all-winning freshman team that supposedly is the finest in Rupp's long career. Crum announced that he was not overly impressed with any of Kentucky's freshmen and that his own Allen Murphy, a 6'5" black from Alabama, would "eat any of them alive." That really cut it. "Can you imagine such gall?" editorialized the outraged Lexington Herald.
Nobody doubts that Crum has the best varsity in the state, perhaps one of the best in the country. When Crum forced Price to cut down on his razzle-dazzle, behind-the-back passes, Price suddenly emerged as a fine player. So did Ron Thomas, a forward who may be the most intimidating 6'5" rebounder "anywhere. When Thomas was at Thomas Jefferson High in Louisville he was widely recruited in both football and basketball. "I love to hit," says Thomas. If Thomas does not get what he considers to be an attractive pro basketball offer after this season, he plans to return to Louisville next fall and play football for Coach Lee Corso under the five-years-to-play-four rule.
When Bacon, the team's finest all-round athlete, was shifted to guard, his forward spot was filled by the 6'4" Lawhon, a very steady player. At center the Cards may have a worry, for 6'9" Al Vilcheck on occasion seems timid and a bit awkward, facts that concern the home folks when they think of him playing against the likes of, say UCLA's Bill Walton or Marquette's Jim Chones. When will they meet? In the NCAA championship tournament, of course, Cardinal supporters are saying.
All of which brings up the question of what Crum would think of a confrontation with UCLA. Well, he "loves and respects" Wooden, Crum says, but Crum also has implied that he and his predecessor, Jerry Norman, had more to do with UCLA's success than most people realize. As one writer said, "To hear Crum, you would think Wooden was his assistant for three years." Well, offcourt, anyway.