BOZICH | Former Cards, Larry Brown see Kenny Payne as perfect fit for Louisville
A group of former Louisville players from the 80s are backing former Cardinal Kenny Payne for the school's next basketball coach. Hall of Famer Larry Brown also endorses Payne.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Games like the one the University of Louisville lost to Kentucky by 29 points Friday do more than affect the Cardinals’ won-loss projections.
Lose a rivalry game by 29, and people talk. They talk about the path of the program. They talk about 2019, 2020, 2021…
For a prominent collection of former Cardinals’ players, that talk starts with a sincere discussion about the guy they want to serve as the next Louisville basketball coach.
A group of former Louisville players from the 1980s have made their decision:
Their guy is Kenny Payne, the former U of L star who has been an assistant to John Calipari at Kentucky since the 2010-11 season.
“Hiring Kenny would bring the players, the fans and the city together again,” said Billy Thompson, one of the stars of Louisville’s 1986 NCAA title run. “People would look at Louisville and say, ‘They’ve got it going on again.'"
“It’s not even a tough call,” former Cardinal Pervis Ellison said. “If they hire Kenny to step into that job, there won’t be any letdown. The program will go immediately to the top, because Kenny understands how to create and build relationships.
“He’s paid his dues. He’s been through the grind. He’s ready for this opportunity.”
To Thompson and Ellison, you can add the names of Milt Wagner, Rodney and Scooter McCray, Jerry Eaves and Butch Beard to the list supporting Payne, who played for Denny Crum here from 1985-89.
“Kenny has proven himself to be a developer of talent as well as a great recruiter,” McCray said. “Louisville is his alma mater. It’s where he won a championship.
“The opportunity for him to come back to solidify and restore some of the luster that has been lost with the program would be huge.”
One more renowned basketball personality called me to deliver strong praise – Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, who has worked with Payne through their connections to Kentucky coach John Calipari.
“I go to Kentucky practices all the time and see what Kenny does,” Brown said. “He relates so well with kids because he’s not about Kenny, he’s about them. I think I have a pretty good idea of what it takes to be a good coach, and I can’t think of anybody better than Kenny.
“He’s a great teacher who knows how to be hard on his guys but still maintain their respect. He has a unique ability to relate to all of them one-on-one where you can tell how much they love and respect him.
“Honestly, I don’t understand why somebody hasn’t already hired him as a head coach. But with his connections to the Louisville program and the state, it’s a perfect fit to me.”
Another program has not hired Payne because the fit has not been perfect, and Payne has one of the best assistant coaching jobs in America at Kentucky. Payne, 51, is no dummy. He’s been in no rush to leave UK.
Payne declined to be interviewed for this story, but I’ve talked to him regularly through the years. Kentucky pays him well. Calipari trusts him with extensive responsibilities. No reason to risk turning his career upside down by taking a bad job.
Louisville is different. Payne was a freshman reserve on the 1986 title team as well as a 1,000-point scorer and first-round NBA Draft pick.
Louisville is the place where Payne did not do all of the academic work that he should have done during his playing years. Payne was more than a year-and-a-half short of his degree when his eligibility ended. His parents, especially his father, were not pleased.
After more than a decade of professional basketball (mostly overseas), Payne did not have to finish his undergraduate work at U of L. A degree is not required to work on an NBA staff.
But Payne chose to do the work – at Louisville. Sometimes he attended practice at Louisville. Sometimes he drove to Detroit to watch Brown work with the Pistons. Sometimes he traveled to Memphis to learn from Calipari.
Degree secure, Payne started his coaching odyssey at Oregon. From Eugene, Payne jumped to Kentucky in 2010 after Calipari’s first season, and his contributions to the UK program have been considerable and consistent.
Ask Anthony Davis. Ask Karl-Anthony Towns. Ask Devin Booker. Ask Tyler Ulis. Ask a string of Kentucky players who have maintained strong relationships with Payne after leaving for the NBA.
“That tells you those guys trust him and relate to him so well,” Brown said. “So many kids are asked to do things they aren’t capable of doing. That’s not Kenny. He doesn’t do that. Those guys all know he’s on their side.”
“KP is a listener,” Thompson said. “Milt and I learned that about him when we took him out on his recruiting visit. He didn’t say much. He listened and learned.
“That’s how he was as player. When he was at Louisville, he kept clean and listened to coach (Denny) Crum and did what he was supposed to do. The same way that coach Crum learned and listened to (former UCLA coach John) Wooden, Kenny listened to coach Crum, coach Cal and coach Brown. Think about it: He’s learned from three Hall of Fame coaches.”
There is one obvious gap in Payne’s resume: No head coaching experience.
“There have been other guys who have succeeded in their first head coaching jobs,” Ellison said.
Indeed there have been. Tom Izzo had zero head coaching experience before taking over at Michigan State. Denny Crum had run a junior college program, not a Division I program, before he replaced John Dromo at U of L in 1971.
“Kenny has been under the tutelage of Coach Crum and Coach Cal,” Ellison said. “He understands how to win at all the levels. Kenny crosses all the Ts and dots all the Is in my mind. He’s got my total support.”
Critics will argue that Louisville and the ACC are not the place for a guy to learn the details of moving over one seat and mastering the details of a Top-10 program. But the uncertainty of the NCAA situation around the Louisville program has altered the Louisville job to one that some proven coaches will likely avoid – unless the dollars are extra-generous and the terms extra-long.
Payne’s former teammates and friends are convinced that he would embrace the call to come home. They are also convinced that Payne is ready.
“If you have it, you have it,” Brown said. “And Kenny has it.
“Having a willingness to learn and get better trumps everything. It’s really about getting kids to believe and trust in you and if you spend any time around Kenny, you know he can do that. That’s obvious.
“Kenny will surround himself with bright and hard-working people. He has a thirst to learn and grow that will make him great. I’ll help Kenny in any way that I can. I think he would be an amazing fit at Louisville.”
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