After all the drama, the scandals and the unexpected failure that was Chris Mack, Louisville basketball has an easy answer to its complicated problems.
Hire Kenny Payne as its head coach.
He’s the guy, right? He has to be. He checks the appropriate boxes.
Box 1: Payne is a former Louisville player popular with his fellow former players.
Box 2: As a former Cardinal, and as the school’s first Black head basketball coach, he could unite a fractured and disheartened fan base and get fannies back in the Yum Center seats.
Box 3: He was an excellent recruiter and assistant coach for John Calipari for 10 years at Kentucky.
Box 4: He now has two years of NBA experience as an assistant under Tom Thibodeau with the New York Knicks.
True, Payne is 55 years old and never been a college head coach. Neither had Denny Crum when he took over at Louisville in 1971, or Roy Williams at Kansas in 1988 or Mark Few at Gonzaga in 1999. They did OK. Prior head coaching experience is preferable, not essential.
Moreover, Payne has earned the reputation of a coach who owns a terrific rapport with players, with the ability to teach them, as well. Talk to any of the former Wildcats who played for Payne at UK and you’ll hear exuberant endorsements of “Coach P” for his skills both on and off the court.
It’s that sort of likability that, for whatever reason, Mack seemed to lack. As the Cardinals slid into mediocrity and chaos, the former Xavier coach grew defensive, prickly, sarcastic. His epic mishandling of his staff shake-up at the end of last season — especially the extortion mess with Dino Gaudio — gave the impression of a coach unsure of his footing. It set the tone for what has been a disappointing campaign — 11-9 overall, 5-5 in the ACC. The exit agreement announced Wednesday was inevitable. Both sides agreed sooner was better than later.
Despite the program’s lingering turmoil, Louisville is still a top-self job. Even the lack of a permanent school president or athletic director won’t deter interest from recognizable names.
Speculation says — hopes? — Bruce Pearl is one such name. I can’t see it. Pearl has it going and then some at Auburn, where he’s made one Final Four and could be headed for another. He turns 62 in March. He has also served an NCAA show-cause penalty. That might not sit well with the committee members currently deciding Louisville’s NCAA fate concerning more rules violations.
In hiring Mack in 2018, then U of L Athletics Director Vince Tyra went outside the Cardinal family, hiring a coach who had engineered a successful stint two hours up the road. For whatever reason, the Mack tenure did not work to the point where it did not work badly.
This time, the Cardinals need a coach that can put the pieces back together, a coach Cardinal Nation can rally around.
The answer is Kenny Payne.
This story was originally published January 26, 2022 3:03 PM.