Louisville fires head coach Kenny Payne after a two-year nightmare

By | March 13, 2024

Louisville head basketball coach Kenny Payne watches his players during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Virginia Tech in Louisville, Ky., Tuesday, March 5, 2024. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

Kenny Payne’s time in Louisville was an absolute disaster. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

The most predictable shot in college basketball happened Wednesday.

Louisville parted ways with men’s basketball coach Kenny Payne a day after the Cardinals’ 94-85 loss to NC State in the first round of the ACC Tournament. the school announced Wednesday morningending a two-year period in which the once-proud program turned into a nightmare.

Under Payne, Louisville went 12-52. His two seasons were the only two single-digit seasons the program had seen since the end of World War II.

Payne’s final press conference probably didn’t win him any friends when he went out, complaining about the lack of fan support his team received as it struggled in the ACC basement. In doing so, he pulled out an absolutely bizarre, but apt metaphor for his program:

“It’s unfortunate that we’re talking about this now. When I came into the program as the new head coach, I talked about needing everyone on the same page. We kind of forgot about that. I talked about not let you blame me I’m not standing here alone I need all of Louisville with me We kinda forgot that I talked about it’s gonna take time and I’m gonna look and see who jumped on and off the Titanic, we had more or less forgotten about that.

“I gave a specific time — I said three or four years — and I’m good with that. That’s what I believed at the time and I still believe is what it takes to fix this program.”

It’s kind of hard to believe Payne’s third year would have been any different.

What went wrong for Kenny Payne in Louisville?

The Cardinals’ descent wasn’t an instant nosedive when Payne took over, but rather the culmination of a years-long decline. They last made the NCAA Tournament in 2019 under former head coach Chris Mack. They went 24-7 the following season but missed March Madness due to the COVID-19 pandemic, then struggled to a 13-7 record in 2020-21.

Louisville parted ways with Mack after a 13-19 record in 2021-22, leading to Payne’s hiring. At the time, he seemed like a smart choice to heal a storied program marred by the bribery and escort scandals that led to Rick Pitino’s abrupt departure and by Mack’s inability to bring Louisville back to prominence.

Payne was one of Louisville’s own, a 1,000-point scorer who reached the Sweet 16 three times as a player and helped the Cardinals capture the national title in 1986. He later built a reputation as one of college basketball’s elite assistant coaches in Oregon and Kentucky. , who excels in recruiting and player development.

Unfortunately, college basketball history is littered with respected assistants who were ill-suited to be program CEOs, and questions immediately arose as to whether Payne could successfully make that transition. He was unable to replenish an undermanned backcourt with transfers or late signings in time for the start of his debut season. He also failed to get the most out of the talent he had, mislaying top scorer El Ellis at point guard because he had no other ballhandlers and struggled to run sets that kept the floor appropriately spaced held and generated open shots.

Promising newcomers Kamari Lands and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield did not develop as expected. If anything, returning big man Sydney Curry seemed to be getting worse.

The byproduct was a turnover-plagued, cold-shooting team in 2022-23 that couldn’t score or defend. Louisville lost its exhibition opener by 10 to Division II Lenoir-Rhyne. The Cardinals then dropped their first three regular season games against the likes of Bellarmine, Wright State and Appalachian State. In March, Louisville was 4-28 and 290th in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, an unfathomably bad season for any power conference program, let alone a season with championship status.

That should have been the end for Payne. That should have been enough for Louisville athletic director Josh Heird to admit he made a mistake and start over. Heird gave Payne instead a vote of confidenceTells Louisville columnist Tim Sullivan that “the vision of what Kenny is trying to accomplish gives me the most reassurance.”

Maybe Heird still really believed in Payne. Perhaps he was concerned about what it would look like if he fired a popular alum and the first black coach in Louisville history after just one season. Regardless, the decision to retain Payne was an avoidable mistake – and a costly one.

Playing in front of a sparse, disinterested crowd, a revamped Louisville team has shown only marginal improvement. The Cardinals have started the season with losses to the likes of Chattanooga, Arkansas State and DePaul. Even a one-point win over UMBC and an overtime win against New Mexico State drew attention for the wrong reasons.

Worse, Payne’s Louisville program became an afterthought between games.

When asked why freshman Ty-Laur Johnson barely played during the first half of a close win over Bellarmine in November, Payne began his answer by telling reporters, “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this…” Payne then ignored his own advice. , explaining that Louisville “didn’t have the tights for that.” [Johnson] wild, so [Johnson] I didn’t know if he wanted to play.”

Then came the messy end to the saga of highly touted junior college transfer Koron Davis. Louisville announced in December that Davis had informed the program he planned to transfer, but Davis disputed that account on social media.

‘I never asked for a transfer’ Davis wrote. “I like being a cardinal. The fact that an official statement has been released with false information is disheartening and sad.”

That forced Louisville to issue a second statement on the same day, clarifying that Davis had in fact been dismissed from the program. Louisville was certainly just trying to protect Davis with the way it worded the original statement, but the messy outcome indicated a program in turmoil.

Kenny Payne: Criticism made a job ‘impossible’ at Louisville

As the losses piled up, Louisville’s fans gradually turned on Payne and opposing fans flocked. He was popular at X after most games in Louisville due to the spread of jokes and memes at his expense.

As he indicated on Tuesday, the criticism came to him:

“Whether I’m the coach or not, I can look in the mirror and say I gave everything I had to help this program. I love Louisville. I played here. I won a national championship here. This is not a job for Contrary to those who criticize, I don’t sleep at night thinking about my brothers, the former players who played here, who didn’t have access to the program.

“I shouldn’t be talking about this right now, but I have to say this: It’s unfair to them to play on a show where there is so much criticism. They deserve to be on a show where people lift them up to be better , not to fight and tear them down, to make them doubt how good they are. Then you make my job impossible.”

The overdue coaching change allows Louisville fans to focus on the coaching search ahead and dream of better days ahead. Could Louisville go big and try to pry Mick Cronin from UCLA or Shaka Smart from Marquette? Could the Cardinals go after a newcomer like Charleston’s Pat Kelsey or FAU’s Dusty May?

There will be plenty of time to debate that, but for now, Louisville fans can take solace in the fact that the Kenny Payne era is over.

Finally, graciously, Louisville can move on. Fortunately, Payne can finally do that too.

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