UofL Chooses Charleston's Pat Kelsey To Lead Louisville Men's Basketball Team

Pat Kelsey's record of wins greater than Kenny Payne's losses.

Mar 27, 2024 at 6:57 pm
UofL Hires Charleston's Coach Pat Kelsey
UofL Hires Charleston's Coach Pat Kelsey cofcsports.com

Louisville would have had no trouble hiring a Hall of Fame coach. Before its serpentine search for someone to resuscitate its flatlining basketball program ended with the hiring of the College of Charleston’s Pat Kelsey, Bob Huggins had publicly applied for the job Wednesday morning on Jerry Eaves’ radio show.

Claiming the position “fits me perfectly,” and professing his affection for a fan base that has lately been feeling unloved, the 70-year-old Huggins painted his highly publicized alcohol problems as an increasingly distant memory and declared, “There’s absolutely no reason I can’t come into Louisville and make it what it was before.”

Eaves said he had also been in contact with emissaries from former McNeese State coach Will Wade, formerly of LSU, whose career path has been complicated by an FBI wiretap that caught him commenting on the “strong-ass offer” he had made to a recruit and the resulting NCAA show-cause penalty that still has more than a year to run.

Were U of L athletic director Josh Heird willing to take on significant personal baggage, he surely could have hired one of several successful coaches eager to rehabilitate their reputations. Huggins has won 935 games, mostly at Cincinnati and West Virginia, and was inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2022. Wade has won nearly 70% of his games and regular season titles in three different conferences. 

Either man would likely have been willing to meet Heird’s criteria and “crawl” to Louisville to take the job. Yet neither one rated serious consideration.

So while a segment of U of L fans viewed Kelsey’s hiring as a sign of how far the program has fallen, citing Heird’s failure to land at least three other candidates, it was also evidence of Heird’s ability to resist temptation in defense of the university’s brand. Though Pat Kelsey is unlikely to cause an immediate stampede at the box office, he is far less likely to go on the radio, as Huggins did last year, and launch a homophobic tirade about another school.

“I never met a better man than (former Xavier and Wake Forest coach) Skip Prosser and I’m going to tell you this: Pat Kelsey is of the same ilk,” said Dino Gaudio, the former Louisville assistant who worked with Kelsey at Xavier and Wake Forest. “He’s as good a person as you’re ever going to find.”

Though Gaudio’s post-firing extortion attempt of Chris Mack made for a hugely embarrassing exit from Louisville, he can easily appreciate the university’s desire to distance itself from scandal and says Kelsey will “always take the high road.”  

At the risk of indulging in high-horse rhetoric, a university is more than its basketball program and its image must take precedence over transitory competitive concerns. Judging by social media traffic and radio call-in campaigns advocating the hiring of Wade and other dubious characters, this concept has yet to be embraced by some of the school’s most rabid fans.      

That said, Kelsey’s credentials go far beyond merit badges. He has won more games during the past two seasons (58) than Kenny Payne lost (52) during his disastrous two-year tenure at U of L. Kelsey’s four NCAA Tournament first-round losses – two at Winthrop, two at Charleston — have all been against teams seeded at least seven spots higher.

Whether his mid-major methods can work in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and how quickly, will depend on how well he can wield NIL money in recruiting, which U of L players can be convinced to stay and, presumably, which Charleston Cougars follow him here.

Charleston’s top four scorers – guards Reyne Smith and Kobe Rodgers, forwards Ante Brzovic and Ben Burnham – are all juniors. All but Rodgers have scored at least 971 points during their college careers. Granted, the Coastal Athletic Association is a few levels lower than the Power Five, but Charleston was able to put up 62 points in the second half of its season-ending loss to Alabama. 

These people have some firepower.

“I’m unbelievably bullish and excited about what’s coming back next year and for the future of our program,” Kelsey told Charleston’s Post and Courier last week. 

His immediate challenge will be to imbue Louisville fans with similar enthusiasm after a decade of steep decline, to sell a vision that can revive the flagging faith of a community beaten down by scandals, interminable investigations and chronic defeat.  On top of that, Kelsey will have to overcome the perception he was hired as a consolation prize after Heird whiffed on Scott Drew, Dusty May, Josh Schertz and possibly others. He may want to show that he has branched out from Chris Mack’s coaching tree and developed his own style and philosophy.

According to Gaudio, Kelsey was and is a “crazy, high-energy guy” and a “bulldog,” a characterization he illustrated with a scene from a Wake Forest practice when Kelsey was an assistant coach pressed into playing in a short-handed scrimmage.

“My first year as the head coach, we played at (Boston College) and they beat the heck out of us,” Gaudio recalled. “From there, we go to Maryland and we’re having one of those knock-down, drag-out practices. Pat jumps in on the scout team and there’s a loose ball and Pat’s on the floor with another player, wrestling for this ball. And Pat isn’t giving it up. As the head coach, I’m nervous. I must have blown the whistle to stop play 10 times. And of course he comes out of it with the ball.”

Kelsey should not need to win any loose ball battles here, but he needs to start instilling some hope, and soon. More than 46% of tickets distributed to Louisville home games went unused during the 2023-24 season. Persuading disaffected fans to renew their season tickets amid dwindling demand will require strong salesmanship and rapid progress.

Hiring a Hall of Fame coach might have made that job easier. Hiring Pat Kelsey has the benefit of no baggage.