Darrell Griffith Crum celebration

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- On the evening the University of Louisville celebrated Denny Crum, Darrell Griffith was convinced it was the perfect moment to remind the world what Denny Crum wanted for U of L men's basketball.

Crum wanted Kenny Payne to succeed as the Cardinals' coach. He wanted U of L fans to embrace Payne, a player on Crum's 1986 NCAA title team.

Most of all, Crum wanted Cards' fans to pack the KFC Yum! Center for every step of the journey as Payne brings the program back from NCAA scandals and the losing culture that overtook Cardinal basketball.

Billy Thompson, another Cardinal national champion, believes what Griffith believes. Ditto for Junior Bridgeman.

That explains why Crum's Celebration of Life ceremony at the KFC Yum! Center on Monday night had elements of a pep session for Payne.

Payne went 4-28 in his debut as the Louisville head coach. The Cardinals lost games they should not have lost. They were blown out more than they should have been blown out. They lost several recruiting battles that set talk radio ablaze.

But as a native Louisvillian who remembered going to Freedom Hall as child, Griffith said both he and Crum were greatly disappointed by the lack of crowd support for Payne and his players last season.

Be angry about the losing. But be in your seats.

"Kenny Payne did not come to program that Coach (Crum) came to when he came in the 1970s," Griffith said. "(Crum) came to a great basketball team.

"I'm just going to keep it real with you. One of coach's proudest moments was when Kenny got the job.

"He felt just as proud for Kenny as (UCLA Coach John) Wooden felt for him when coach got the University of Louisville job (in 1971). He had one of his disciples who was going to follow in his footsteps, knowing that his program was in good hands.

"But as fans, we've got to believe that. We've got to believe that. If you want to celebrate Coach Crum's life. If you want to make him smile, then next year let's get back to the way that we were when we filled up this arena, night in and night out.

"I'm talking to those who are in here tonight, those who are watching the streaming and those you may talk to.

"Last year was tough. But (Coach Crum) came to every game that he could to support the program. (Health issues limited Crum to two games.)

"Times are (trending) up. We're going in the right direction. But, please, I say this from the bottom of my heart, because to have Coach Crum witness what we've witnessed over the last five years, I just felt for him. I really did.

"But times are changing. We're on our way. So celebrate Coach Crum's life. But more importantly, anything he would love, in talking to coach and asking coach, 'What do you think about the (upcoming) season?'

"He said, 'The season should be good. I hope the people show up.'

"I'll leave you with this: For Coach Crum, if you want to be a fan that he created generationally, grandkids, people who are now in their '70s and '80s, the same years as Coach Crum, people who went through that 30-year process to build this program into one of the top programs in the country — show up from here on out for Coach Crum. Fill the seats up."

Understand this: Griffith wanted to make this speech in January. Maybe last December. He bristled as Louisville's announced attendance plunged to 12,497 per game this season, which ranked 23rd in the nation.

For decades, the Cardinals always ranked top five in attendance, often trailing only Syracuse and Kentucky. COVID-19, NCAA issues, losing and coaching turnover changed that.

U of L dropped from third (20,846 per game) in 2017, Rick Pitino's final season, to sixth (16,883) in 2018, the first year of Chris Mack. Since then, Louisville ranked sixth (16,601) in 2019, seventh (16,658) in 2020 and 21st (13,242), during the 2021-22 farewell season of Mack and Mike Pegues).

Griffith said he talked to retired U of L senior associate athletic director for communication Kenny Klein about calling a news conference last season to address the situation. He decided against it.

Griffith knows the winning is the answer to everything. Payne and his staff have rebuilt the Louisville roster, winning several key recruiting battles. The product should be more entertaining. The record should reflect the upgrades. It must.

But Griffith said he will be disappointed if fans wait to jump on board again. He said that should not be the Louisville way.

He was at the KFC Yum! Center on Feb. 18. Louisville played host to Clemson, which was 11-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The season's largest announced crowd, 15,157, filled much of the downtown arena. They came to cheer the 2013 team on the 10th anniversary of their championship. They left howling about the Cards' 10-point victory over the Tigers.

"Do you think that crowd had anything to do with the way those guys played that night?" Griffith asked.

"As players, trust me, you notice those things. You do. You feed off that energy. It's been hard on the players. Really hard. If you want to help Kenny's team next season, you need to show them that you care."

Monday morning, while he focused his thoughts for the celebration, Griffith decided it was perfect opportunity to challenge Louisville fans. Thompson agreed — and made a similar pitch.

Neither former player told Payne what they planned to say. Sitting in the front row watching, Payne said that he was moved by their support.

"Humbled," Payne said.

"And very appreciative. We all want the same thing. We all want Louisville basketball to win again."

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