Kenny Payne is going nowhere fast. Those calling for the Louisville men’s basketball coach to be dismissed after a dismal first season — or sooner, if possible — are destined for disappointment.
U of L’s finances, fundamental fairness and, undeniably, local racial politics, all argue for a longer look. Payne inherited a mess multiple years in the making and a roster replete with not-ready-for-big-time-players. Lingering clouds have at long last lifted after five years of NCAA scrutiny, but not before they crushed Cardinals’ recruiting and sapped the spirit of a beleaguered fan base.
This was never going to be a quick fix, no matter what you may have heard about the talent transfusions available through the transfer portal and made more attainable through Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) inducements. So long as the threat of an NCAA Tournament ban hovered over the program, prospects with decent alternatives were going to be awfully tough to tempt.
“We knew this was going to be a really hard year,” U of L athletic director Josh Heird said. “We knew this was going to be a fairly difficult season, and it is. I think the most difficult piece in all of this is fans want hope. At the end of the day, fans want hope, and we have to do something to provide it.
“That’s the hard part. Because everybody wants to see things change today, tomorrow. And it’s not going to change today or tomorrow. This is going to be a process. And that’s where I have confidence in knowing that Kenny understood that, (and) does understand that. And that process is going to lead to good results. I believe that.”
U of L was 2-19 when Heird said that — the Cards improved to 3-19 with Wednesday’s win over Georgia Tech — and the school’s signature sport has not known a lower ebb since, well, ever. Consequently, it is hard to imagine how much matters would have to deteriorate for Heird to decide his first-year coach should be one-and-done at the cost of another multi-million-dollar buyout or, indeed, whether it was even possible to descend further from Rock Bottom.
This is not to say Payne’s job is safe indefinitely, or that his bosses will continue to indulge sustained ineptitude from a historically prestigious program that was long the most profitable in college basketball. Simply stated, there’s too much riding on the success of U of L hoops to tolerate epic futility for a second season.
Payne is going nowhere fast, but he needs to start moving in the right direction and soon.
“At the end of the day, it’s about wins and losses,” Heird said. “We can say it’s about something other than that, but we’d be kidding ourselves. . .So we’ve got to be better.
“I can promise you we’re going to fight like hell to be better. Kenny and his staff are going to do that. I’m going to do that. We’re going to give them every resource that we possibly can to be one of the elite basketball programs in the country. Cause that’s what our fans expect. And what they should expect.”
Payne will need to supplement his two early signees, Kaleb Glenn (the No. 71 high school recruit according to 247sports) and Curtis Williams Jr. (No. 104), with players capable of immediate impact. (Read: transfers). And, at least in the opinion of Jerry Eaves, the former U of L star and perpetual provocateur, he needs to settle on a strategy.
“He needs to truly get a style of play that he wants to stick with offensively and defensively,” Eaves said. “If you’ve noticed, sometimes we play zone, sometimes we play man, sometimes we press, sometimes we half-court trap. He’s got to make the decision on who he wants to be. And he’s got to be that.”
Wednesday’s win was Payne’s first in an Atlantic Coast Conference game (after 10 losses) and was made easier by the absence of Tech’s regular point guard, Deivon Smith. Still, it was a discernible step forward after so many setbacks, a ray of hope in a season of despair.
“I pray to God every day that we can get this back on track and I know that we will,” Payne said. “I know God didn’t take me through this journey to come back here and lose every game. So we’re going to be all right. We’re going to figure it out. We’re going to get this program back.”
Kenny Payne is going nowhere fast. At least not immediately. He deserves, and will surely get, at least another year to revive Louisville basketball.
“Next year will be better,” Payne promised. “I don’t know how it could be any worse.”