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Louisville fires head coach Kenny Payne after two-year nightmare

The Cardinals went 12-52 under Payne

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, Mar. 5, 2024. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
Kenny Payne's time at Louisville was an absolute disaster. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The most predictable firing in college basketball arrived on 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 morning, ending a two-year stretch that saw the once-proud program descend into a nightmare.

Under Payne, Louisville went 12-52. His two seasons were the only two single-digit-win seasons the program had seen since the end of World War 2.

Payne's final news conference likely didn't win him any friends on the way out, as he complained of the lack of fan support his team received as it struggled in the ACC basement. In the process, he whipped out an absolutely bizarre, but apt, metaphor for his program:

"It's unfortunate that we're talking about this right now. When I walked into the program as the new head coach, I talked about I needed everybody on the same page. We sort of forgot that. I talked about how I'm not going to let you blame me. I'm not standing up here by myself. I need all of Louisville with me. We sort of forgot that. I talked about it's going to take time, and I'm going to watch and see who jumped on and off the Titanic. We sort of forgot that.

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

It's rather hard to believe Payne's third year would have been any different.

Where did it go wrong for Kenny Payne at Louisville?

The Cardinals' descent wasn't an immediate nosedive when Payne took over but rather the culmination of a years-long slide. They last made the NCAA tournament in 2019 under previous head coach Chris Mack. They went 24-7 the next season but missed out on 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 the hire of Payne. At the time, he seemed like a smart choice to heal a storied program staggered by the bribery and escort scandals that led to Rick Pitino’s abrupt exit and by Mack’s inability to return Louisville 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 at Oregon and Kentucky, excelling in recruiting and in player development.

Alas, college basketball history is littered with well-respected assistants who weren’t cut out to be program CEOs, and right away questions arose about whether Payne could successfully make that transition. He was unable to restock an undermanned backcourt with transfers or late signees in time for the start of his debut season. He also failed to get the most out of the talent he did have, miscasting top scorer El Ellis at point guard because he had no other ball handlers and struggling to run sets that properly spaced the floor and generated open shots.

Promising newcomers Kamari Lands and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield didn’t develop as projected. Returning big man Sydney Curry, if anything, seemed to get worse.

The byproduct was a turnover-plagued, cold-shooting 2022-23 team that could neither score nor defend. Louisville lost its exhibition opener by 10 to Division II Lenoir-Rhyne. Then the Cardinals dropped their opening three regular season games against the likes of Bellarmine, Wright State and Appalachian State. By March, Louisville was 4-28 and 290th in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, an unfathomably bad season for any power-conference program, let alone one with championship pedigree.

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 fresh. Heird instead gave Payne a vote of confidence, telling Louisville-based columnist Tim Sullivan that “the vision of what Kenny is trying to accomplish gives me the most reassurances.”

Maybe Heird still truly believed in Payne. Maybe he worried about how it would look firing a popular alum and the first black coach in Louisville history after only one season. Either way, the decision to retain Payne was an avoidable mistake — and a costly one.

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

Worse yet, Payne’s Louisville program became a sideshow in between games.

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

Then came the messy ending to the saga of highly touted junior college transfer Koron Davis. Louisville announced in December that Davis had informed the program he intended to transfer, only to have Davis dispute that account on social media.

“I never asked to transfer,” Davis wrote. “I enjoy being a Cardinal. The fact an official statement was released giving false information is disheartening and sad.”

That forced Louisville to release a second statement, on the same day, clarifying that Davis had in fact been dismissed from the program. Louisville was surely only trying to protect Davis with the way it worded the original statement, but the messy outcome was indicative of a program in turmoil.

Kenny Payne: Criticism made job 'impossible' at Louisville

As the losses piled up, Louisville supporters gradually turned on Payne and opposing fans pounced. He trended on X after most Louisville games due to the spread of jokes and memes at his expense.

As he indicated Tuesday, the criticism got to him:

"Whether I'm the coach or not, I can look in the mirror and say I gave it 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 me. Contrary to those who criticize, I don't sleep at night thinking about my brothers, the former players who played here, who had no access to the program.

"Should not be talking about this right now, but I have to say this: These young men, to play in a program where there is so much scrutiny, is unfair to them. They deserve to play in a program where people are uplifting them to be better, not fighting and tearing them down, to make them question how good they are. Then you make my job impossible."

The overdue coaching change allows Louisville fans to focus on the upcoming coaching search and dream of better days ahead. Could Louisville swing big and try to pry Mick Cronin from UCLA or Shaka Smart from Marquette? Might the Cardinals go after an up-and-comer 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 that the Kenny Payne era is over.

Finally, mercifully, Louisville can move on. Finally, mercifully, Payne can too.