Perception is not reality: Louisville basketball’s Kenny Payne is a great coach

Kenny Payne and interim athletic director Josh Heird tour the campus Saturday afternoon. March 19, 2022Paynetour 20
Kenny Payne and interim athletic director Josh Heird tour the campus Saturday afternoon. March 19, 2022Paynetour 20 /

Let’s travel back in time to March 2020. The University of Louisville was without a Men’s Head Basketball Coach, they had an interim Athletic Director and an interim President. Louisville filled one of those positions within the same month. Then interim Athletic Director, Josh Heird, hired Knicks assistant Kenny Payne as the Head Coach of the University of Louisville Men’s Basketball program.

Kenny Payne was renowned by the entire state of Kentucky and even beyond the Bluegrass borders as a home-run hire by the University of Louisville. In his introductory press conference, Kenny Payne mentioned that Kentucky Head Coach John Calipari and the Owner of Nike, Phil Knight, encouraged him to take this position, at his alma mater.

From his body language on the stage, you could see the weight of this endeavor was heavy on his shoulders. He knew what he was about to embark on would not be easy and it would be the definition of adversity, which is why he asked so politely for support from the university and the community when it was his time to speak.

"“I need this university to support me. Support is very critical, if you understand what I mean by support. It’s not when you’re doing good. Support is really when you’re doing bad. I need you…That’s to the university.To this community, I don’t have all the answers. But I know that I had to take this job and try to help build the answers.”"

Kenny Payne has always been synonymous with success. When he was playing for Denny Crum back in the 1980s, he achieved success by winning a National Championship. When it was time to be drafted into the NBA, he was drafted in the first round. When Adidas began sponsoring athletes, he was among the first six athletes to sign an endorsement deal with the three-stripe company.

When he became an assistant coach, he joined John Calipari’s staff and helped recruit and develop some of the top players in the country, including NBA All-Star Devin Booker. When it was time to move on, he accepted a position with the New York Knicks and helped establish a culture of success there.

Wherever Kenny Payne has gone, success has followed closely behind. So, when he accepted the Men’s Head Basketball Coach position with the University of Louisville, the university, the community, and Kenny Payne himself, all expected success.

However, the road to success does not happen overnight. It takes time, hard work, and dedication. Three things that Kenny Payne has been known for giving to the programs he’s been involved with. Hard work and dedication are celebrated when a program is winning, but when a program is losing, then the hard work and dedication are overlooked and replaced with an avalanche of criticism.

That is the case for Kenny Payne at the University of Louisville. His hard work and dedication to the university, the program, and the community have been completely overlooked and superseded by criticism. But, the situation he walked into was a situation not set up for success, meaning that no matter who walked into the situation would’ve had difficulty succeeding in their first year.

Let’s start with the climate of the program under Kenny Payne’s predecessor, Chris Mack.

Chris Mack accepted the Head Coach position at Louisville in March 2018, ending a six-month search by the Athletics Department following Rick Pitino’s departure from the program in October 2017. Rick Pitino was fired ‘for cause’ after the FBI commenced a probe into the university’s recruitment of five-star prospect Brian Bowen II.

Pitino maintained his innocence throughout the entire process and was vindicated by the Independent Accountability Resolution Process’ findings that were announced five years after the initial probe.

Within that five-year period, Chris Mack was expected to recruit players and maintain success at a highly respected Division I program while there was always the possibility that heavy sanctions could come down on Louisville. In his first year with the Cardinals, he did not sign any recruits out of high school. The roster from the 2017-2018 season largely stayed the same in the 2018-2019 season.

The only differences were that forward Lance Thomas transferred from Louisville to South Alabama, Quentin Snider and Anas Mahmoud graduated and entered the 2018 NBA Draft, and Ray Spalding and Deng Adel chose to enter the NBA Draft as well, foregoing their senior seasons. Without any high school recruits coming in, Chris Mack was forced to find help in the transfer portal.

He did have some success in the portal with former Louisville Cardinal, Akoy Agau, returning to the team as a graduate transfer, guard Christen Cunningham transferring in from Samford, and graduate transfer guard Khwan Fore from Richmond joining the team. Mack also added Pikeville High School’s Wyatt Battaile as a walk-on. Every other player on the roster stayed the same.

Chris Mack went 20-14 in his first season with the Cardinals, which was not terrible considering the circumstances. He improved his record the next season, to 24-7. And the following season, in 2020-2021, he even led the Cardinals to an AP Poll No. 1 overall in Week 3 of the season.

It seemed like Louisville basketball was on the rise again, but the echoes of the IARP sanctions were still lingering in the background. And then the program started to go down in a spiral once again. In the 2021-2022 season, the Cardinals finished 13-19, following the scandal involving former assistant coach Dino Gaudio who was sentenced to probation and given a $10,000 fine for his attempt to extort Head Coach Chris Mack and the university.

"“During a Mar. 17 visit with Mack, after being informed that he would not have his contract renewed, Gaudio threatened to expose recruiting violations to the media if he did not receive a lump sum of 17 months salary – indicative of his pay through his anticipated retirement date of September 2022.”"

The University of Louisville basketball program was in the news again for negative reasons, and following the news of Dino Gaudio’s departure, Head Coach Chris Mack was suspended for 6 games of the 2021-2022 season for not following university guidelines during Gaudio’s attempt to extort him. He secretly taped a conversation between him and Gaudio that was ultimately the precipice of his suspension.

It was around this time that he lost the locker room. Via the Beef’s Beef Podcast, former Louisville standout guard Larry O’Bannon was asked about his thoughts on this very idea. Keep in mind that Larry O’Bannon and Chris Mack had been in contact throughout the years of his tenure as Head Coach, so his insight is not completely subjective.

His response as to why Chris Mack lost the locker room was as follows:

"“It’s hard to say…I think there were some things where maybe the leadership on the team may not have been the best. I think the suspension hurt him, being out for six games of the year. Having Coach Pegues coach, and then having Coach Mack coach, I think that may have stirred a little bit. You never really know the cause of it, but ultimately I think just not having the season go the way you want and you start streaking, having some losses, if you don’t have the tightest ship, then things can spiral out of control.The team really wasn’t bonding together. One thing I noticed when this team was playing: it didn’t seem like cohesion. Everybody was like ‘it’s my turn to shoot,’ ‘it’s my turn to shoot.’ And there was no understanding or no discipline.”"

A culture of selfishness and no discipline cannot be fixed overnight, especially when seven of those players returned to the Cardinals for Kenny Payne’s first season as Head Coach.

Three scandals in eight years marred the program beyond repair.

You can go all the way back to 2009 when the scandal involving then-Head Coach Rick Pitino and Karen Sypher broke the news. This was the tip of the iceberg for the University of Louisville heading in the wrong direction. Six years later, in 2015, then-Director of Basketball Operations Andre McGee organized parties with paid dancers and players on the team.

Via the Coffee & Company with Nick Coffey Bonus Segment with Chane Behanan, the former member of the 2013 National Championship squad shed some light on what people actually knew vs. what the media said people knew:

"“I never knew Andre, like I told the people who called me to ask me questions, ‘I just told them like to my involvement, I was just a regular ‘nother kickback. I didn’t see anything unusual going on. I would hope not in a room full of people in this little living room/kitchen.’"

Nick Coffey followed that answer up with this statement:

"“I talked to one of your teammates who told me this, ‘It was a party. We had no clue anybody was there under any circumstance. We’re just partying, hanging out, having fun and I hooked up a with a chick. I didn’t know she was there because somebody paid her to be there.”"

Nick Coffey would later follow that up with this question: “Andre McGee never said ‘I’m hiring girls to come party with you guys, correct?'”

"Chane Behanan responded, “No…I would just walk in and there would just be people chilling. I never really actually experienced it. I was an outside type of guy.”"

Behanan would continue on later saying that there’s no way it would have continued to happen on a consistent basis if Rick Pitino knew about it. But, regardless, the NCAA “determined” that he was not monitoring the program properly and thus suspended him for five games. This is the scandal behind the vacation of wins and the 2013 National Championship.

Two years later, in 2017, the Adidas recruiting scandal happened with Rick Pitino’s assistant, Kenny Johnson, who was allegedly paying five-star forward Brian Bowen to come play for the University of Louisville. At the time, Rick Pitino took the brunt of the fall for this incident because there was still a meteoric mess of a paper trail to uncover. Pitino was subsequently let go by the University, marking the end of one of the greatest coaching eras in Louisville basketball history.

Once the IARP completed their ruling, albeit five years later, Pitino was washed of all his allegations and it was determined that Kenny Johnson spearheaded the illegal recruitment of Bowen. As a result, Johnson, who is now an assistant at the University of Rhode Island, would not be able to recruit for his program in the April and July live recruiting events over the course of the next two years, so through 2024.

After three massive scandals in eight years, a once historic program was marred beyond repair and the culture was in shambles. As a result, Chris Mack came into the program following Rick Pitino and could not recruit well because of the cloud hanging over the program from the IARP.

Chris Mack tried to build the program back up, but could only do so much because of the metaphorical shadow over the program. A program that was once a beacon of light in the competitive basketball world was clouded by darkness with all tangible hope seemingly out of reach.

light. Also. Louisville receives IARP ruling

Enter Kenny Payne.

The man, who was lauded as a home run hire with humans from all across the United States pleading with him to fill the vacancy left by Head Coach Chris Mack.

"“Today is a really good day for the University of Louisville. Actually, I think today is a great day for the University of Louisville. Today U of L takes a really good step, and my belief is that there are many better days ahead for this university and that is because Kenny Payne is home.”  — Governor Andy Beshear at Kenny Payne’s Introductory Press Conference"

Hired in March 2022, Kenny Payne was tasked with filling out his coaching staff and establishing his roster for the upcoming 2022-2023 season all while the IARP cloud continues to linger as if it is an indefinite suspension. (However, that was not the intent of it, but based on circumstances outside of the University’s control, the ruling did not come until five years after the initial start of the investigation.)

Already, the weight of what Louisville has undergone is heavy on Kenny Payne’s shoulders. “Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” and at this point, Kenny Payne is now the face of a program that has been viewed in perpetual negativity for nearly a decade.

In Kenny Payne’s opening press conference, while he was still being introduced, then-interim athletic director Josh Heird expressed these words: “When Louisville basketball wins games, it changes the mood of this town. When Louisville basketball loses a game, it changes the mood of this town.

One could argue no truer words have been spoken. And for a program that had gone a perfect .500 (26-26) over the previous two seasons, it was no secret why the city of Louisville was filled with angst. The University of Louisville had success programmed into its DNA after decades of Denny Crum and Rick Pitino on the sidelines. Between the two of them, they shared a combined record of 1,091-438.

From 1971-2017, Louisville was synonymous with success. So, success is what the city of Louisville expects. When Louisville goes 26-26 over two seasons, the climate of the city starts to change and everyone is not used to the losses matching the wins.

Kenny Payne warned us that it would be hard before it got better. Any proper rebuild involves tearing down before a new foundation is built up. Once he was in front of the microphone at his press conference, he pleaded with the city of Louisville for support:

"“This community has to be with me. This state has to be with me. And with me, isn’t when it’s good. I’m gonna say that again. It’s when it’s bad. There is gonna be days where we go through adversity. I need you with me. Don’t jump on me when it’s good and then jump off the bandwagon when it’s bad. I need you when it’s bad.”"

At that time, the IARP sanctions had not been reigned down on the program yet, which heavily affected Kenny Payne’s access to players in the transfer portal.

"“I know that I can’t lie to a mother and a father. I know that I have to have high-character young men. I have to have a family buy into what I’m doing.”"

That is why he was not able to get certain players out of the transfer portal, and it has been confirmed by a source close to the situation. Kenny Payne could not live with himself if he brought someone into this program without being 100% honest with them about what they could potentially be getting themselves into.

Therefore, the only two transfers he landed in the 2022 offseason were Xavier transfer Hercy Miller and Tennessee transfer Brandon Huntley-Hatfield. And the only three recruits he landed were Kamari Lands, Devin Ree, and Fabio Basili.

But, none of them proved to be what he thought they were and as a result, were encouraged to leave the program after just one season. Kamari Lands is the only one of those three who transferred to a Power Five school, Arizona State. Devin Ree ended up at Louisiana Tech and Fabio Basili ended up at the University of Texas-Arlington.

If you watched or attended Louisville Live last fall, then you may have noticed one thing about Fabio Basili. He was on his phone for a good portion of the event and seemingly in his own world. It was that kind of mindset that found him in hot water academically.

In February of this year, he did not make the trip with the team to Miami, Florida for one specific reason, he was “a little bit behind academically.” Kenny Payne reiterated that these players are student-athletes first and foremost, so if “you’ve got something that you need to do, take care of that first.”

This could have been the wake-up call Fabio needed because he finished the season as a member of the All-ACC Academic Team, alongside teammates Mike James, Hercy Miller, Zan Payne, and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield.

It is impressive and important that he picked up his grades, but his basketball IQ was not to the level required for a Division I program.

"“(Basili) has to know the plays,” Payne said. “He has to know exactly what we’re running, when we’re running, where each player on the court is. It can’t just be, ‘You just out there playing.’ That’s not going to work. It’s just not. He’s confident. He works hard. But he has to have a certain knowledge of what we’re doing with concepts and structure and what’s going on on the court.”"

The 2022 offseason was a time when Kenny Payne was recruiting without the ability to land top-tier transfers or top-tier high school prospects. After the IARP was lifted in November 2022, the floodgates were ready to open.

However, the team was in the middle of a 4-28 season, so there was not a whole lot of hope to grasp onto, in terms of the on-the-court product. But, hope can be instilled in Kenny Payne, the person, and the coach.

Kenny Payne is an amazing coach and an amazing human being.

In a recent interview with Danilo Jovanovich’s AAU Coach, Antonio Curro, he shed some light on the kind of person Kenny Payne is. If you haven’t read that article, here is what he said,

"“Those like me that are heavily in the basketball arena (for nearly two decades) – Kenny is one of the most respected human beings and developers of talent that there is – he’s exceptional for Louisville, just had to go through last year,” he says."

Antonio’s perspective seems to be consistent across the board, especially with Kenny Payne’s former players. In an article in The Athletic, published in 2019, when Kenny Payne was still an assistant at the University of Kentucky, several of his former players sang his praises:

"Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns on Kenny Payne: “KP is one of the best development coaches in the world,” Towns says. “KP is the horse beneath the jockey driving Kentucky basketball.” Anthony Davis on Kenny Payne: “We [AD and KP] would work it and work it [spin move into a right-handed jump hook]. He’d push me around with these big pads and we’d drill it all day and all night until I got it right. KP is why I’m able to play so well in the paint now.”Devin Booker on Kenny Payne: “He’s a hidden gem in Kentucky basketball,” says Suns star Devin Booker. “When people talk about the program, maybe you don’t hear about KP. But if you know, you know.”"

All three of those players had what it takes to play elite basketball at the next level. And the kind of talent that composed Louisville’s roster last season was not up to those same standards. In an article by Rick Bozich, he is quoted as saying these words:

"“Louisville needed nearly a complete roster reset. The players needed a fresh start in a new environment they did not associate with failure. Payne and his coaching staff needed a fresh set of players who won’t need around-the-clock reminders about what is required to win — and win big — at the high major levels.”"

Based on that description, it makes sense as to why the gap between Kenny Payne and his players was so wide. He couldn’t convince them to give it all to the game, which is what he requires and what the tradition of Louisville basketball requires.

Now, nine new faces are coming into the University of Louisville basketball program and one term that has defined them all is high-character. Kenny Payne has been very intentional with who he brings in, while at the same time making these athletes feel comfortable enough to commit to him. Those guys are Skyy Clark, Dennis Evans, Trentyn Flowers, Koron Davis, Curtis Williams Jr., Kaleb Glenn, Ty-Laur Johnson, Tre White, and Danilo Jovanovich.

Big Red Louie has had the opportunity to speak with two of their AAU coaches and Koron Davis’ JUCO coach and all of those coaches have emphasized what good human beings their former players are. That is the trend among all nine of them and now that Kenny Payne has the kind of players he wants, the trajectory for the Louisville basketball program is ready to take off.