Gary Payton out as head coach at little-known California college

Gary Payton, the retired NBA star, is out as the head men's basketball coach at Lincoln University after an unusual − and, at times, contentious − stint at the little-known Oakland, California school.

Lincoln University did not disclose the nature of Payton's departure but announced the hiring of William Middlebrooks, who previously coached high school basketball in California, as its new head coach earlier this month.

The coaching change came roughly three months after Payton made highly critical remarks about Lincoln and its athletic program during an interview with USA TODAY Sports. Payton’s criticism mirrored much of what many former and current football players told USA TODAY Sports for a story about the school’s struggling football program, in which one former player dubbed the school "the college Bishop Sycamore."

Payton, who had not been paid the past two seasons and was working as a volunteer, did not respond to requests for comment left with his agent. Middlebrooks referred questions to the school. And university president Mikhail Brodsky largely deferred questions about Payton to athletic director Desmond Gumbs, who did not immediately reply to an e-mail seeking more information.

Brodsky, however, did say that Gumbs told him Lincoln's new coach would have to rebuild the men's basketball program. He added that Payton's insistence on taking 19 people on the road for away games was too costly for Lincoln.

"I respect him a lot, but it doesn’t mean he can work here," Brodsky said.

Payton's departure comes after three seasons at Lincoln, which is not affiliated with the NCAA or any other national college athletic association. He was hired when the school decided to start an athletic program from scratch in 2021.

Payton, a nine-time NBA All-Star who was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013, told USA TODAY Sports in an interview in early January that he took the job at Lincoln for a chance to work with players in his hometown of Oakland.

"I'm here for these kids, basically," Payton, 55, told USA TODAY Sports. "That's about it. It's nothing else."

Over time, however, Payton said he had grown incredibly frustrated with the school and its leadership for several reasons, including that Lincoln had stopped paying his assistant coaches. He also said insufficient funds for travel forced him to cancel three trips and he had to pay for the players’ uniforms, shoes and meals on the road.

"I’ve stuck around too long," he said. "We should have been better than this."

Brodsky took issue with Payton’s criticism of the school.

"He's spending money like crazy," Lincoln’s president said in early January, noting that the basketball team’s travel party has included 12 players and seven staff members.

Payton had not collected a salary from the school for at least 18 months. Lincoln's most recently available tax records show that he made $112,500 during the 2021 calendar year, and Brodsky wrote in an email that Payton was paid an additional $90,000 in the early part of 2022 before the university stopped paying him "due to (a) lack of funds."

At the time of his critical comments, Payton said he would not step down as coach before the season ended March 2.

"I've got good kids," he said. "I think if I quit right now I'd be quitting on the players because they came here because of me."

Portland Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups, left, talks with former Seattle Supersonics point guard Gary Payton at Climate Pledge Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Portland Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups, left, talks with former Seattle Supersonics point guard Gary Payton at Climate Pledge Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Lincoln's results are not listed on the school's athletic website. But Glen Graham, who was Payton's top assistant coach at Lincoln, said the team went 5-3 during 2021-22, a season shortened by COVID-19 and 19-12 in 2022-23.

During the 2023-24 season, Payton guided the Oaklanders to the regular-season championship in the Southwestern States Intercollegiate Conference and also won the conference's postseason tournament. But during the spring semester, none of the team's players were registered for classes, according to Brodsky. He said the players provided no reason for not registering for classes, did not request a leave of absence and would not be allowed to return to school.

Brodsky did not explain why the team members were allowed to play despite not being registered for classes, which is prohibited by major college sports governing bodies like the NCAA.

Graham said all of the players and staff left the school after the most recent season. He said he had not talked to Payton about his status at Lincoln but added: "There's no way he was staying."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gary Payton, retired NBA star, out as coach at Lincoln University