July 16, 2024


The Intersection of Information and Insight

Kenny Payne returned to save Louisville. Now a school and a city wonder what’s next

16 min read

LOUISVILLE — Kenny Payne sounded like a man looking for hope in a hard reality. His Louisville basketball team came close, so painstakingly close, to finally doing it — winning one of those games upon which corners are turned. Instead, No. 19 Texas pulled away late, handing Payne his 30th loss in 36 games as coach of the Cardinals. This was four weeks ago, what, in hindsight, feels like four years ago.

Payne settled in for a postgame news conference at Madison Square Garden. There was a certain optimism to him that Sunday afternoon. He nodded and offered a knowing gaze. “It’s only going to get better,” he said. “It’s not going to get worse.”

It was difficult to imagine then how wrong he was.

The Cards lost to Indiana the next day. Then, uncomfortable home wins over New Mexico State and Bellarmine in a near-empty KFC Yum! Center. A loss at Virginia Tech. Another at DePaul, one of the few programs supposedly worse off than Louisville. Then, a home loss to Arkansas State. (Not Arkansas. Arkansas State.) Last weekend, a three-game skid was snapped with a win over Pepperdine.

That’s been the story on the court. Off the court, the place has come to feel like some cruel thought experiment on the long-term effects of fatalism. Fans are apoplectic. Program alumni are mortified. New embarrassments seem to come by the week. Most recently, fans went from talking about why freshman guard Ty-Laur Johnson sat out to start a game because he didn’t have his leggings to wondering what led to junior guard Koron Davis’ dismissal.

Louisville, as one proud former player puts it, is “utterly unrecognizable.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Payne returned to Louisville in March 2022 as a beloved alum. Beowulf, reclaiming his land to slay the dragons of this program’s recent past — the NCAA, the messy end of Chris Mack’s tenure, the cloud of Rick Pitino, the sordid headlines, the vacated wins, the dark days. All that would recede into memory as Louisville returned to glory.

But Payne, who wasn’t made available to The Athletic during a recent visit, went 4-28 in Year 1. Now he’s 5-6 in Year 2. The negativity surrounding the program is unmatched in college basketball. Most of it’s warranted. Some of it’s hyperbolic. Such toxicity turns every missed shot into a manifesto on the program’s future.

What’s most uncomfortable, though, is the seeming universal acceptance that sweeping changes are a foregone conclusion. That Louisville, operating as a bastardized version of a program with 10 Final Fours and three national titles (no matter what the NCAA record book says), is already past a point of no return with Kenny Payne.

At no time might that be clearer than this Thursday. Everyone knows what’s coming. The Yum! is about to turn blue as thousands of Kentucky fans take over the building for the annual rivalry game. It will be a sight no one can ignore, and the ultimate question again will be asked.

Where do the Cards go from here?

Touching down on one of the two runways at Bowman Field, the small airport southeast of downtown Louisville, Kenny Payne stepped out of a private plane and into an American dream. It was March 17, 2022. Denny Crum, his former coach, had lived long enough to see one of his own inherit his program. The 85-year-old waited on the tarmac alongside Wade Houston, another Cardinal legend and Payne mentor, both men smiling. Lowering his head, Payne ducked his 6-foot-8 frame through the plane door, inhaled a familiar air, hugged them both and waved to fans along a perimeter fence line.

This is what so many wanted. Louisville’s post-Pitino world was one of lost identity. Program alum David Padgett admirably navigated the tumult of 2017-18 as interim coach but wasn’t trendy enough to be the school’s long-term option. Chris Mack was the hottest name on the market, so Louisville went and got him. The marriage was hailed nationally as a can’t-miss hire in March 2018. Twenty-one months later, Mack coached the No. 1-ranked Cards to a home win over No. 4 Michigan in front of 21,674 packed shoulder-to-shoulder in December 2019.

This was a new era.

Until it wasn’t.

Mack didn’t make it to the end of Year 4 in his seven-year contract, getting pushed out 14 games into the 2021-22 season amid another NCAA investigation and player discontent. Another ugly ending. Another round of preposterous headlines. (Seriously, what other program has had two head coaches entangled in extortion cases?)

Many around Louisville say that then-interim athletic director Josh Heird had little choice in the 2022 coaching search. Trustees, ex-players, boosters — most wanted Payne. Louisville is a place where the streets go backward, where some loyalists and ex-players are still upset Crum was forced into retirement in 2001, and others still regularly relitigate Pitino’s various cause célèbres. The school needed someone to tie its binds.

Payne, 57, was born and raised in southeast Mississippi but is a son of Louisville. He was a freshman on Crum’s 1986 national championship team. He played with legends Billy Thompson, Milt Wagner and Pervis Ellison. He led the program to the Sweet 16 in 1988 and ’89. He carried all imaginable Card credentials and had a coaching résumé to go with them. Payne honed his recruiting chops for years as an assistant coach at Oregon and Kentucky, then sharpened his coaching prowess with a few seasons in the NBA.

This was the right man at the right time for Louisville. More impactfully, Payne stood as the first Black head coach for a program with a long history of racial barrier-breaking. The size and scale of his hiring wasn’t lost on him.

“It’s bigger than me,” Payne told The Athletic in October 2022. “That’s the best way to say it: It’s bigger than me. It’s a lot.”

That was only 14 months ago.

Today’s version of college basketball, with its transfer portal and its Name, Image and Likeness jockeying, comes with an inherent stress of assembling talent as fast as possible and winning games now, not later. Louisville saw Payne as a tap to a keg of all readily available talent. His 10-year tenure at Kentucky turned him into a near-mythic figure. He was critical in landing and developing Anthony Davis and other five-star future NBA lottery picks. He coached nine big men who were drafted in the lottery, including two No. 1 overall picks. He was best friends with basketball’s ultimate power broker — William “Worldwide” Wesley. NBA All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns once called Payne “the horse beneath the jockey driving Kentucky basketball.”

The math was easy. If Payne did that at Kentucky, imagine what he’d do on his own horse in Louisville.

Immediately after the hiring, several top-rated recruits were suddenly rumored to be heavily interested in Louisville. In May 2022, Payne hired Milt Wagner, his former teammate and U of L luminary, as the program’s director of player development and alumni relations. Wagner’s grandson, D.J., happened to be the No. 1 recruit in the country at the time.

The flood of talent to Louisville felt all but imminent.

But things aren’t so simple.

Payne’s first recruiting class, cobbled together late, ranked a respectable 26th in the 247Sports Composite rankings but lacked a top-50 prospect. He mined the portal for two pieces, notably Tennessee transfer Brandon Huntley-Hatfield. But it wasn’t enough. The Cards’ 2022-23 roster, with a handful of returnees, had 10 scholarship players. They won four games. Losses included an exhibition to Division II Lenoir-Rhyne and regular-season upsets by Bellarmine, Wright State, Appalachian State and Lipscomb. They went 2-18 in the ACC and finished 290th in KenPom’s ratings. The next closest high-major was California at 270.

On top of the losses, things soured through Year 1 as, one by one, all that rumored incoming five-star talent went elsewhere. D.J. Wagner not only declined Louisville’s scholarship but also committed to Kentucky.

What’s gone wrong? Theories abound among those in grassroots basketball. About Payne spending his entire coaching career at Nike schools (Oregon and Kentucky) and now being under the Adidas umbrella. About Payne and assistant coaches Danny Manning, Nolan Smith and Josh Jamieson not pounding the pavement. Whatever the reason, the flood hasn’t come.

Seven scholarship players entered the transfer portal in Payne’s first offseason, including three captains. Then came a more significant loss. Trentyn Flowers, a five-star recruit who reclassified to enroll early at Louisville and headlined the Cards’ five-player 2023 recruiting class, opted out of his commitment. He did so after practicing with the team for weeks last summer. A potential starter, Flowers left the program on Aug. 14 and signed with the Adelaide 36ers of the National Basketball League in Australia.

The 2023-24 Louisville roster would feature nine new players, including key sophomore transfers Skyy Clark (Illinois) and Tre White (USC) and a freshman class that, despite Flowers’ departure, ranked No. 6 by 247Sports. Most agreed the roster was upgraded.

Eight current Louisville players entered college as top-100 players in 247Sports Composite recruiting rankings. Four of them — Huntley-Hatfield, Dennis Evans, Clark and White — ranked in the top 50. The Cards are exceedingly young, though. The roster includes nine freshmen and sophomores. Payne’s team ranks 301st in the country in DI experience, averaging 1.19 years. The only other high-major programs with less experience are UCLA and Notre Dame.

It was a year late, but, even without an influx of five-stars, this is what Louisville theoretically signed up for with Payne. Accumulate young talent, go through some growing pains, rebuild the program and climb back to the top of the ACC in a few years.

Luke Hancock, the hero of Louisville’s 2013 national title and now an analyst for ACC Network, says he sees “some pieces of what could be a good team” and wonders, if this group stayed mostly intact, grew a year older, added a top recruit or two and a couple veteran transfers, what might that look like?

“It’s not that I’m grasping at straws here,” Hancock says. “There are real positives. It ​​could be dramatically better going into Year 3. But are Louisville fans going to give them enough time for all that to really come to fruition? It doesn’t seem like it.”

Therein lies the rub. In only 14 months, things went so bad, so fast, that few are willing to see where this will go. If this were Year 1, maybe some would be willing to ride things out.

But it is not Year 1.

Losing is one thing. Being embarrassed is another.

Koron Davis could be seen right out in the open. Some fans recognized the 6-foot-7 guard from the program’s annual preseason scrimmage. Now he was sitting in the Yum! stands.

Nothing made sense. Davis was recruited to bolster the Louisville backcourt. He played junior college ball at Paris (Texas) Community College and Los Angeles Southwest College, and committed to the Cards in January 2023 after Payne visited him in LA. He was considered a nice pickup and a potential contributor.

But Davis has never suited up for a game. Payne delivered cryptic explanations. He said Davis was not in trouble, and was still part of the team, but was told not to come to games. Rumors swirled that he’d been involved in a practice confrontation with Payne.

Things turned more bizarre on Dec. 13. Louisville issued a statement announcing Davis was transferring, marking an abrupt end to the saga. Except then Davis, who posted a picture of his first-semester report card on social media that same morning, refuted the tweet, saying, “I never asked to transfer.”

Louisville issued a second release, this time saying Davis was dismissed from the program.

So what went wrong? In an interview with The Athletic, Davis says the practice at the root of the matter occurred in mid-November. That day, in a post-practice huddle, Payne told the group Davis bad-mouthed the team. “He told my teammates: ‘Koron said f— all y’all.’” Davis says. “Things escalated from there, but never turned physical.”

In a separate interview with The Athletic, a current Louisville player, granted anonymity so as to corroborate events without facing repercussions from the program, confirmed Davis’ retelling of the event.

Davis’ status with the team was limited after that day, but he was still part of the program. He maintained access to facilities, remained enrolled, and conducted occasional individual workouts with coaches. Program sources push back on the idea of a single incident being at the root of Davis’ quasi-suspension, but what’s clear is no one understood the terms.

Teammates were confused. So were fans and media. And athletic department officials. In an already combustible equation of a coach on the hot seat and a team losing games, now came controversy.

“It was so weird how they handled it,” the current player says.

Davis requested a meeting with Heird and spoke to the Louisville AD on Dec. 6. Heird, who confirms this meeting, asked Davis if he wanted to remain at the school. Davis responded yes. Heird told Davis he would speak to Payne.

Soon after, according to the current Louisville team member, some players met with Payne and the coaching staff. They advocated for Davis to rejoin the team, saying he could be a valuable player. Moreover, they said the drama surrounding the situation was distracting and could be avoided if Davis was allowed to sit on the bench. According to the current player, coaches responded by again claiming that Davis had told them he didn’t care about the team and wanted to transfer.

Nothing was any clearer by the end of Dec. 13. Following the loss to Arkansas State, Payne offered no further explanation. Two Louisville players, Huntley-Hatfield and Clark, said they still speak to Davis and support him.

Associate athletic director Zach Greenwell said in a statement to The Athletic on Wednesday that the university would honor Davis’ scholarship.

“All of our head coaches are empowered to make decisions related to their rosters that they believe are in the best interest of their programs as a whole,” he said. “If Koron Davis wishes to transition from being a student-athlete to a student at the University of Louisville, he is welcome to do so and his scholarship will be honored. Should he choose to continue his basketball career elsewhere, we will support his decision and wish him nothing but the best.”

Davis says he plans to remain enrolled at Louisville next semester, then decide where to play in 2024-25.

The handling of the situation — from Payne’s puzzling news conferences, to the poor messaging, to the confusion of Dec. 13 — was, according to an athletic department source, roundly seen as an unnecessary debacle. While some say Payne felt Davis’ long-term future wasn’t at Louisville and wanted to help him land somewhere as a transfer, they simultaneously acknowledge the ordeal could have been dealt with more deftly.

Some felt it marked the first time Payne’s tenure actually embarrassed the school. That this, in the big picture, was an exemplar of a program with broader issues.

It’s another game on another night in this very uncomfortable time to be a Louisville Cardinal. Attendance is announced at over 10,000, but fewer than 5,000 dour faces dot the 22,090-seat arena. That’s inside. Outside? You know it’s bad when barstools are empty in a city built on bourbon.

“We need a better team,” says the general manager of one neighboring establishment. “We have to get all the (bar) owners on the whole street together to start recruiting some guys.”

The GM doesn’t want his bar named here. Might be bad for business, he says, and business is bad enough. Real estate and operating costs near the downtown arena are priced to include 18 nights of 15,000-plus crowds coming downtown for Louisville men’s basketball. Right now, the numbers are off.

After years spent ranked among the most highly attended teams in college basketball, Louisville slipped to 22nd in average attendance last season. Average ticket sales were announced at 12,497 per game, per NCAA records. In 2019-20, the last time things were cooking around here, Louisville announced an average crowd of 16,658. That ranked seventh nationally.

But the real problem is, the Cards aren’t drawing anywhere near what’s being announced at games. According to university records requested by The Athletic, last year’s actual through-the-gates attendance averaged 6,557 per game. Only three games drew over 9,000. The Cards’ highly successful women’s program, riding a wave of five Elite Eights and two Final Four appearances since 2018, averaged 5,269 per game.

This year is worse for the men. The first three regular-season home dates drew 16,037, total. Or 5,435 per game. Season ticket sales have fallen from 10,501 to 9,099.

These are numbers that put bars out of business and leave hotel rooms empty.

They’re numbers that speak to a city missing part of its identity. Most places, a first-year homegrown football coach (Jeff Brohm) leading a program to its first-ever ACC Championship game appearance would occupy all the oxygen. Here, it’s a nice distraction. Louisville is a basketball town. It’s where this year the mayor displayed a replica 2013 national champion banner on Metro Hall to celebrate its 10th anniversary, since it can’t hang at Yum! Center because the NCAA vacated the title.

All that passion doesn’t disappear. It gets repurposed. A harsh shift has occurred from people supporting Kenny Payne as a person to people being so distraught by losing that it turns personal. Everything Payne says is seemingly subject to interpretation and attack. After this season opened with a 71-68 exhibition game loss to Kentucky Wesleyan, Payne said, “We can’t beat teams with talent. We’re never going to be the most talented team.” Payne meant his young team can’t simply show up and expect to win, but fans and media pounced on the quote.

After the loss to Indiana, when asked if he expected the Hoosiers to shift to a late zone defense, Payne said, “I did not. I knew (Mike Woodson) wouldn’t play zone — or I thought. He tricked me.” Again, the line scorched social media. Yet as of that day, Indiana had played, per Synergy, 27 possessions of zone defense and 5,781 in man-to-man in three years under Woodson. Twelve of those 27 zone possessions came in the final eight minutes against Louisville. Payne was justified to not prep for a zone. But all people heard was a struggling coach say he got tricked.

One program alum living in town, who requested anonymity to speak freely, says he dreads stopping at Starbucks for his daily coffee. He ducks his head, trying to be inconspicuous. But that’s impossible. He’s instantly recognized and the questions come before he can place an order. What do we do about Kenny? How’d it get so bad? Who should we hire?

Publicly, the ex-player voices support for Payne and the program. But truthfully?

“I think it’s too foregone at this point,” the ex-player said. “‘Sad’ is the word that comes to my mind, you know? By now, I would guess like 95 percent of the fan base has given up on this working. It’s hard to argue. The negativity is overwhelming.”

Multiple alums echoed the sentiment. That they don’t bother looking at social media anymore. They cringe seeing Yum! so barren. They worry about the current players trying to navigate something they didn’t sign up for.

As Peyton Siva puts it, playing college ball in a town like Louisville is “a gift and a curse.”

“When it’s going good, it’s so great. They show you love,” Siva says. “When it’s going bad, man, there are some people who make it tough.”

Louisville lost at home to Arkansas State 75-63 on Dec. 13. (Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

Heird, the Louisville athletic director, is sitting in an empty practice gym connected to the Yum! Center. Groans are audible from the arena. Asked how it’s come to this, he admits that he, too, is trying to understand.

“I think that’s the most difficult part of being an athletic director,” he says. “Everything can align to say, ‘This is the one.’ Right? ‘A can’t-miss (hire).’ The example I always use is Scott Frost. Name one person in the country, when he was at UCF, that thought that wasn’t going to work at Nebraska.”

Heird pauses, waiting for an answer that doesn’t come.

“There wasn’t one,” he concludes.

Whatever happens next at Louisville will ultimately be in Heird’s hands. He’s not a native, but he knows the place. He spent 2006 to 2017 in the department, as it expanded and improved wildly under former AD Tom Jurich, before spending three years at Villanova. Heird returned as deputy AD under Vince Tyra in 2019, before ascending to the top seat. Now he oversees a department that is winning in every sport except the one that matters the most.

Heird knows all the rumors. That he’s supposedly going to fire Payne if he loses this game or that game. Heird counters that he would never treat a single result as a line of demarcation.

“That’s unrealistic to put on any coach,” he says.

Instead, Heird says, he looks for progress. Even if it is gradual. Is there progress?

That probably depends on how hard one is willing to look.

It was Heird and Louisville that decided to hire a first-time head coach for one of the most prominent jobs in college basketball. As one ex-player put it: “They hired KP and got KP. Don’t you have to give him a chance to figure this out?”

Asked if Payne has been given any degree of grace as a first-time head coach, Heird draws a long pause.

“No, but I didn’t expect him to, and he didn’t, either,” Heird says. “You’re the head coach of Louisville men’s basketball. Nobody cares that you’re a first-time head coach, you know? Nobody cares.”

Heird says he hasn’t discussed with Payne any assurance that he’ll make it to the end of this season. It’s on Heird to decide whether the program can afford to give Payne a chance at a third season or pay an $8 million buyout to remove him before March 31. The buyout drops to $6 million after that date.

Some see an in-season move as an inevitability. That, though, would come with its own complications. What is there to realistically be saved? Who would be a viable interim coach? What’s the harm in giving Payne a chance to salvage … something?

Louisville fans, meanwhile, who’ve seen 13 losses to sub-150 KenPom opponents over the last 34 games, will continue to wait for what’s next. They’ll talk about Mick Cronin or Bruce Pearl or Andy Enfield; or Randy Bennett, Sean Miller, Dennis Gates, Chris Beard. Some will dream the ultimate dreams — Billy Donovan or Jay Wright. Still, some other Card fans, albeit a few, will hold out hope that the answer is still right in front of them.

As for Payne, he told reporters last week that he doesn’t spend time thinking about his job security. He coaches for the players and the community, he said, not himself.

“I learned at an early age,” Payne said, “that if you’re motivated by the critics, or if you’re motivated by praise, you’ll set yourself up to be heartbroken.”

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photo: Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

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