LOUISVILLE — Kenny Payne sounded for illustration a man looking for dream successful a difficult reality. His Louisville hoops squad came close, truthful painstakingly close, to yet doing it — winning 1 of those games upon which corners are turned. Instead, No. 19 Texas pulled distant late, handing Payne his 30th nonaccomplishment successful 36 games arsenic coach of nan Cardinals. This was 4 weeks ago, what, successful hindsight, feels for illustration 4 years ago.
Payne settled successful for a postgame news convention astatine Madison Square Garden. There was a definite optimism to him that Sunday afternoon. He nodded and offered a knowing gaze. “It’s only going to get better,” he said. “It’s not going to get worse.”
It was difficult to ideate past really incorrect he was.
The Cards mislaid to Indiana nan adjacent day. Then, uncomfortable location wins complete New Mexico State and Bellarmine successful a near-empty KFC Yum! Center. A nonaccomplishment astatine Virginia Tech. Another astatine DePaul, 1 of nan fewer programs supposedly worse disconnected than Louisville. Then, a location nonaccomplishment to Arkansas State. (Not Arkansas. Arkansas State.) Last weekend, a three-game skid was snapped pinch a triumph complete Pepperdine.
That’s been nan communicative connected nan court. Off nan court, nan spot has travel to consciousness for illustration immoderate sadistic thought research connected nan semipermanent effects of fatalism. Fans are apoplectic. Program alumni are mortified. New embarrassments look to travel by nan week. Most recently, fans went from talking astir why freshman defender Ty-Laur Johnson sat retired to commencement a crippled because he didn’t person his leggings to wondering what led to inferior defender Koron Davis’ dismissal.
Louisville, arsenic 1 proud erstwhile subordinate puts it, is “utterly unrecognizable.”
It wasn’t expected to beryllium this way. Payne returned to Louisville successful March 2022 arsenic a beloved alum. Beowulf, reclaiming his onshore to slay nan dragons of this program’s caller past — nan NCAA, nan messy extremity of Chris Mack’s tenure, nan unreality of Rick Pitino, nan sordid headlines, nan vacated wins, nan acheronian days. All that would recede into representation arsenic Louisville returned to glory.
But Payne, who wasn’t made disposable to The Athletic during a caller visit, went 4-28 successful Year 1. Now he’s 5-6 successful Year 2. The negativity surrounding nan programme is unmatched successful assemblage basketball. Most of it’s warranted. Some of it’s hyperbolic. Such toxicity turns each missed changeable into a manifesto connected nan program’s future.
What’s astir uncomfortable, though, is nan seeming cosmopolitan acceptance that sweeping changes are a foregone conclusion. That Louisville, operating arsenic a bastardized type of a programme pinch 10 Final Fours and 3 nationalist titles (no matter what nan NCAA grounds book says), is already past a constituent of nary return pinch Kenny Payne.
At nary clip mightiness that beryllium clearer than this Thursday. Everyone knows what’s coming. The Yum! is astir to move bluish arsenic thousands of Kentucky fans return complete nan building for nan yearly rivalry game. It will beryllium a show nary 1 tin ignore, and nan eventual mobility again will beryllium asked.
Where do nan Cards spell from here?
Touching down connected 1 of nan 2 runways astatine Bowman Field, nan mini airdrome southeast of downtown Louisville, Kenny Payne stepped retired of a backstage level and into an American dream. It was March 17, 2022. Denny Crum, his erstwhile coach, had lived agelong capable to spot 1 of his ain inherit his program. The 85-year-old waited connected nan tarmac alongside Wade Houston, different Cardinal fable and Payne mentor, some men smiling. Lowering his head, Payne ducked his 6-foot-8 framework done nan level door, inhaled a acquainted air, hugged them some and waved to fans on a perimeter obstruction line.
This is what truthful galore wanted. Louisville’s post-Pitino world was 1 of mislaid identity. Program alum David Padgett admirably navigated nan tumult of 2017-18 arsenic interim coach but wasn’t trendy capable to beryllium nan school’s semipermanent option. Chris Mack was nan hottest sanction connected nan market, truthful Louisville went and sewage him. The matrimony was hailed nationally arsenic a can’t-miss prosecute successful March 2018. Twenty-one months later, Mack coached nan No. 1-ranked Cards to a location triumph complete No. 4 Michigan successful beforehand of 21,674 packed shoulder-to-shoulder successful December 2019.
This was a caller era.
Until it wasn’t.
Mack didn’t make it to nan extremity of Year 4 successful his seven-year contract, getting pushed retired 14 games into nan 2021-22 play amid different NCAA investigation and subordinate discontent. Another disfigured ending. Another information of preposterous headlines. (Seriously, what different programme has had two caput coaches entangled successful extortion cases?)
Many astir Louisville opportunity that then-interim diversion head Josh Heird had small prime successful nan 2022 coaching search. Trustees, ex-players, boosters — astir wanted Payne. Louisville is simply a spot wherever nan streets spell backward, wherever immoderate loyalists and ex-players are still upset Crum was forced into status successful 2001, and others still regularly relitigate Pitino’s various origin célèbres. The schoolhouse needed personification to necktie its binds.
Payne, 57, was calved and raised successful southeast Mississippi but is simply a boy of Louisville. He was a freshman connected Crum’s 1986 nationalist title team. He played pinch legends Billy Thompson, Milt Wagner and Pervis Ellison. He led nan programme to nan Sweet 16 successful 1988 and ’89. He carried each imaginable Card credentials and had a coaching résumé to spell pinch them. Payne honed his recruiting chops for years arsenic an adjunct coach astatine Oregon and Kentucky, past sharpened his coaching prowess pinch a fewer seasons successful nan NBA.
This was nan correct man astatine nan correct clip for Louisville. More impactfully, Payne stood arsenic nan first Black caput coach for a programme pinch a agelong history of group barrier-breaking. The size and standard of his hiring wasn’t mislaid connected him.
“It’s bigger than me,” Payne told The Athletic successful October 2022. “That’s nan champion measurement to opportunity it: It’s bigger than me. It’s a lot.”
That was only 14 months ago.
Today’s type of assemblage basketball, pinch its transportation portal and its Name, Image and Likeness jockeying, comes pinch an inherent accent of assembling talent arsenic accelerated arsenic imaginable and winning games now, not later. Louisville saw Payne arsenic a pat to a keg of each readily disposable talent. His 10-year tenure astatine Kentucky turned him into a near-mythic figure. He was captious successful landing and processing Anthony Davis and different five-star early NBA lottery picks. He coached 9 large men who were drafted successful nan lottery, including 2 No. 1 wide picks. He was champion friends pinch basketball’s eventual powerfulness broker — William “Worldwide” Wesley. NBA All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns erstwhile called Payne “the equine beneath nan jockey driving Kentucky basketball.”
The mathematics was easy. If Payne did that astatine Kentucky, ideate what he’d do connected his ain equine successful Louisville.
Immediately aft nan hiring, respective top-rated recruits were abruptly rumored to beryllium heavy willing successful Louisville. In May 2022, Payne hired Milt Wagner, his erstwhile teammate and U of L luminary, arsenic nan program’s head of subordinate improvement and alumni relations. Wagner’s grandson, D.J., happened to beryllium nan No. 1 enlistee successful nan state astatine nan time.
The flood of talent to Louisville felt each but imminent.
But things aren’t truthful simple.
Payne’s first recruiting class, cobbled together late, classed a respectable 26th successful nan 247Sports Composite rankings but lacked a top-50 prospect. He mined nan portal for 2 pieces, notably Tennessee transportation Brandon Huntley-Hatfield. But it wasn’t enough. The Cards’ 2022-23 roster, pinch a fistful of returnees, had 10 danasiwa players. They won 4 games. Losses included an accumulation to Division II Lenoir-Rhyne and regular-season upsets by Bellarmine, Wright State, Appalachian State and Lipscomb. They went 2-18 successful nan ACC and vanished 290th successful KenPom’s ratings. The adjacent closest high-major was California astatine 270.
On apical of nan losses, things soured done Year 1 as, 1 by one, each that rumored incoming five-star talent went elsewhere. D.J. Wagner not only declined Louisville’s danasiwa but besides committed to Kentucky.
What’s gone wrong? Theories abound among those successful grassroots basketball. About Payne spending his full coaching profession astatine Nike schools (Oregon and Kentucky) and now being nether nan Adidas umbrella. About Payne and adjunct coaches Danny Manning, Nolan Smith and Josh Jamieson not pounding nan pavement. Whatever nan reason, nan flood hasn’t come.
Seven danasiwa players entered nan transportation portal successful Payne’s first offseason, including 3 captains. Then came a much important loss. Trentyn Flowers, a five-star enlistee who reclassified to enroll early astatine Louisville and headlined nan Cards’ five-player 2023 recruiting class, opted retired of his commitment. He did truthful aft practicing pinch nan squad for weeks past summer. A imaginable starter, Flowers near nan programme connected Aug. 14 and signed pinch nan Adelaide 36ers of nan National Basketball League successful Australia.
The 2023-24 Louisville roster would characteristic 9 caller players, including cardinal sophomore transfers Skyy Clark (Illinois) and Tre White (USC) and a freshman people that, contempt Flowers’ departure, classed No. 6 by 247Sports. Most agreed nan roster was upgraded.
Eight existent Louisville players entered assemblage arsenic top-100 players successful 247Sports Composite recruiting rankings. Four of them — Huntley-Hatfield, Dennis Evans, Clark and White — classed successful nan apical 50. The Cards are exceedingly young, though. The roster includes 9 freshmen and sophomores. Payne’s squad ranks 301st successful nan state successful DI experience, averaging 1.19 years. The only different high-major programs pinch little acquisition are UCLA and Notre Dame.
It was a twelvemonth late, but, moreover without an influx of five-stars, this is what Louisville theoretically signed up for pinch Payne. Accumulate young talent, spell done immoderate increasing pains, rebuild nan programme and climb backmost to nan apical of nan ACC successful a fewer years.
Luke Hancock, nan leader of Louisville’s 2013 nationalist title and now an expert for ACC Network, says he sees “some pieces of what could beryllium a bully team” and wonders, if this group stayed mostly intact, grew a twelvemonth older, added a apical enlistee aliases 2 and a mates seasoned transfers, what mightiness that look like?
“It’s not that I’m grasping astatine straws here,” Hancock says. “There are existent positives. It could beryllium dramatically amended going into Year 3. But are Louisville fans going to springiness them capable clip for each that to really travel to fruition? It doesn’t look for illustration it.”
Therein lies nan rub. In only 14 months, things went truthful bad, truthful fast, that fewer are consenting to spot wherever this will go. If this were Year 1, possibly immoderate would beryllium consenting to thrust things out.
But it is not Year 1.
Losing is 1 thing. Being embarrassed is another.
Koron Davis could beryllium seen correct retired successful nan open. Some fans recognized nan 6-foot-7 defender from nan program’s yearly preseason scrimmage. Now he was sitting successful nan Yum! stands.
Nothing made sense. Davis was recruited to bolster nan Louisville backcourt. He played inferior assemblage shot astatine Paris (Texas) Community College and Los Angeles Southwest College, and committed to nan Cards successful January 2023 aft Payne visited him successful LA. He was considered a bully pickup and a imaginable contributor.
But Davis has ne'er suited up for a game. Payne delivered cryptic explanations. He said Davis was not successful trouble, and was still portion of nan team, but was told not to travel to games. Rumors swirled that he’d been progressive successful a believe confrontation pinch Payne.
Things turned much bizarre connected Dec. 13. Louisville issued a connection announcing Davis was transferring, marking an abrupt extremity to nan saga. Except past Davis, who posted a image of his first-semester study paper connected societal media that aforesaid morning, refuted nan tweet, saying, “I ne'er asked to transfer.”
I didn’t definitive to anyone astatine U of Louisville that I wanted to transfer. I ne'er asked to transfer. I bask being a Cardinal. The truth an charismatic connection was released giving mendacious accusation is disheartening and sad.
— Koron Davis (@KoronDavis) December 13, 2023
Louisville issued a 2nd release, this clip saying Davis was dismissed from nan program.
So what went wrong? In an question and reply pinch The Athletic, Davis says nan believe astatine nan guidelines of nan matter occurred successful mid-November. That day, successful a post-practice huddle, Payne told nan group Davis bad-mouthed nan team. “He told my teammates: ‘Koron said f— each y’all.’” Davis says. “Things escalated from there, but ne'er turned physical.”
In a abstracted question and reply pinch The Athletic, a existent Louisville player, granted anonymity truthful arsenic to corroborate events without facing repercussions from nan program, confirmed Davis’ retelling of nan event.
Davis’ position pinch nan squad was constricted aft that day, but he was still portion of nan program. He maintained entree to facilities, remained enrolled, and conducted occasional individual workouts pinch coaches. Program sources push backmost connected nan thought of a azygous incident being astatine nan guidelines of Davis’ quasi-suspension, but what’s clear is nary 1 understood nan terms.
Teammates were confused. So were fans and media. And diversion section officials. In an already combustible equation of a coach connected nan basking spot and a squad losing games, now came controversy.
“It was truthful weird really they handled it,” nan existent subordinate says.
Davis requested a gathering pinch Heird and said to nan Louisville AD connected Dec. 6. Heird, who confirms this meeting, asked Davis if he wanted to stay astatine nan school. Davis responded yes. Heird told Davis he would speak to Payne.
Soon after, according to nan existent Louisville squad member, immoderate players met pinch Payne and nan coaching staff. They advocated for Davis to rejoin nan team, saying he could beryllium a valuable player. Moreover, they said nan play surrounding nan business was distracting and could beryllium avoided if Davis was allowed to beryllium connected nan bench. According to nan existent player, coaches responded by again claiming that Davis had told them he didn’t attraction astir nan squad and wanted to transfer.
Nothing was immoderate clearer by nan extremity of Dec. 13. Following nan nonaccomplishment to Arkansas State, Payne offered nary further explanation. Two Louisville players, Huntley-Hatfield and Clark, said they still speak to Davis and support him.
Associate diversion head Zach Greenwell said successful a connection to The Athletic connected Wednesday that nan assemblage would grant Davis’ scholarship.
“All of our caput coaches are empowered to make decisions related to their rosters that they judge are successful nan champion liking of their programs arsenic a whole,” he said. “If Koron Davis wishes to modulation from being a student-athlete to a student astatine nan University of Louisville, he is invited to do truthful and his danasiwa will beryllium honored. Should he take to proceed his hoops profession elsewhere, we will support his determination and wish him thing but nan best.”
Davis says he plans to stay enrolled astatine Louisville adjacent semester, past determine wherever to play successful 2024-25.
The handling of nan business — from Payne’s puzzling news conferences, to nan mediocre messaging, to nan disorder of Dec. 13 — was, according to an diversion section source, roundly seen arsenic an unnecessary debacle. While immoderate opportunity Payne felt Davis’ semipermanent early wasn’t astatine Louisville and wanted to thief him onshore location arsenic a transfer, they simultaneously admit nan ordeal could person been dealt pinch much deftly.
Some felt it marked nan first clip Payne’s tenure really embarrassed nan school. That this, successful nan large picture, was an exemplar of a programme pinch broader issues.
It’s different crippled connected different nighttime successful this very uncomfortable clip to beryllium a Louisville Cardinal. Attendance is announced astatine complete 10,000, but less than 5,000 dour faces dot nan 22,090-seat arena. That’s inside. Outside? You cognize it’s bad erstwhile barstools are quiet successful a metropolis built connected bourbon.
“We request a amended team,” says nan wide head of 1 neighboring establishment. “We person to get each nan (bar) owners connected nan full thoroughfare together to commencement recruiting immoderate guys.”
The GM doesn’t want his barroom named here. Might beryllium bad for business, he says, and business is bad enough. Real property and operating costs adjacent nan downtown arena are priced to see 18 nights of 15,000-plus crowds coming downtown for Louisville men’s basketball. Right now, nan numbers are off.
After years spent classed among nan astir highly attended teams successful assemblage basketball, Louisville slipped to 22nd successful mean attendance past season. Average summons income were announced astatine 12,497 per game, per NCAA records. In 2019-20, nan past clip things were cooking astir here, Louisville announced an mean crowd of 16,658. That classed seventh nationally.
But nan existent problem is, nan Cards aren’t drafting anyplace adjacent what’s being announced astatine games. According to assemblage records requested by The Athletic, past year’s existent through-the-gates attendance averaged 6,557 per game. Only 3 games drew complete 9,000. The Cards’ highly successful women’s program, riding a activity of 5 Elite Eights and 2 Final Four appearances since 2018, averaged 5,269 per game.
This twelvemonth is worse for nan men. The first 3 regular-season location dates drew 16,037, total. Or 5,435 per game. Season summons income person fallen from 10,501 to 9,099.
These are numbers that put bars retired of business and time off edifice rooms empty.
They’re numbers that speak to a metropolis missing portion of its identity. Most places, a first-year homegrown shot coach (Jeff Brohm) starring a programme to its first-ever ACC Championship crippled quality would inhabit each nan oxygen. Here, it’s a bully distraction. Louisville is simply a hoops town. It’s wherever this twelvemonth nan politician displayed a replica 2013 nationalist champion banner connected Metro Hall to observe its 10th anniversary, since it can’t bent astatine Yum! Center because nan NCAA vacated nan title.
All that passion doesn’t disappear. It gets repurposed. A harsh displacement has occurred from group supporting Kenny Payne arsenic a personification to group being truthful distraught by losing that it turns personal. Everything Payne says is seemingly taxable to mentation and attack. After this play opened pinch a 71-68 accumulation crippled nonaccomplishment to Kentucky Wesleyan, Payne said, “We can’t hit teams pinch talent. We’re ne'er going to beryllium nan astir talented team.” Payne meant his young squad can’t simply show up and expect to win, but fans and media pounced connected nan quote.
After nan nonaccomplishment to Indiana, erstwhile asked if he expected nan Hoosiers to displacement to a precocious area defense, Payne said, “I did not. I knew (Mike Woodson) wouldn’t play area — aliases I thought. He tricked me.” Again, nan statement scorched societal media. Yet arsenic of that day, Indiana had played, per Synergy, 27 possessions of area defense and 5,781 successful man-to-man successful 3 years nether Woodson. Twelve of those 27 area possessions came successful nan last 8 minutes against Louisville. Payne was justified to not prep for a zone. But each group heard was a struggling coach opportunity he sewage tricked.
One programme alum surviving successful town, who requested anonymity to speak freely, says he dreads stopping astatine Starbucks for his regular coffee. He ducks his head, trying to beryllium inconspicuous. But that’s impossible. He’s instantly recognized and nan questions travel earlier he tin spot an order. What do we do astir Kenny? How’d it get truthful bad? Who should we hire?
Publicly, nan ex-player voices support for Payne and nan program. But truthfully?
“I deliberation it’s excessively foregone astatine this point,” nan ex-player said. “‘Sad’ is nan connection that comes to my mind, you know? By now, I would conjecture for illustration 95 percent of nan instrumentality guidelines has fixed up connected this working. It’s difficult to argue. The negativity is overwhelming.”
Multiple alums echoed nan sentiment. That they don’t fuss looking astatine societal media anymore. They cringe seeing Yum! truthful barren. They interest astir nan existent players trying to navigate thing they didn’t motion up for.
As Peyton Siva puts it, playing assemblage shot successful a municipality for illustration Louisville is “a gift and a curse.”
“When it’s going good, it’s truthful great. They show you love,” Siva says. “When it’s going bad, man, location are immoderate group who make it tough.”
Louisville mislaid astatine location to Arkansas State 75-63 connected Dec. 13. (Andy Lyons / Getty Images)
Heird, nan Louisville diversion director, is sitting successful an quiet believe gym connected to nan Yum! Center. Groans are audible from nan arena. Asked really it’s travel to this, he admits that he, too, is trying to understand.
“I deliberation that’s nan astir difficult portion of being an diversion director,” he says. “Everything tin align to say, ‘This is nan one.’ Right? ‘A can’t-miss (hire).’ The illustration I ever usage is Scott Frost. Name 1 personification successful nan country, erstwhile he was astatine UCF, that thought that wasn’t going to activity astatine Nebraska.”
Heird pauses, waiting for an reply that doesn’t come.
“There wasn’t one,” he concludes.
Whatever happens adjacent astatine Louisville will yet beryllium successful Heird’s hands. He’s not a native, but he knows nan place. He spent 2006 to 2017 successful nan department, arsenic it expanded and improved wildly nether erstwhile AD Tom Jurich, earlier spending 3 years astatine Villanova. Heird returned arsenic lawman AD nether Vince Tyra successful 2019, earlier ascending to nan apical seat. Now he oversees a section that is winning successful each athletics isolated from nan 1 that matters nan most.
Heird knows each nan rumors. That he’s supposedly going to occurrence Payne if he loses this crippled aliases that game. Heird counters that he would ne'er dainty a azygous consequence arsenic a statement of demarcation.
“That’s unrealistic to put connected immoderate coach,” he says.
Instead, Heird says, he looks for progress. Even if it is gradual. Is location progress?
That astir apt depends connected really difficult 1 is consenting to look.
It was Heird and Louisville that decided to prosecute a first-time caput coach for 1 of nan astir salient jobs successful assemblage basketball. As 1 ex-player put it: “They hired KP and sewage KP. Don’t you person to springiness him a chance to fig this out?”
Asked if Payne has been fixed immoderate grade of grace arsenic a first-time caput coach, Heird draws a agelong pause.
“No, but I didn’t expect him to, and he didn’t, either,” Heird says. “You’re nan caput coach of Louisville men’s basketball. Nobody cares that you’re a first-time caput coach, you know? Nobody cares.”
Heird says he hasn’t discussed pinch Payne immoderate assurance that he’ll make it to nan extremity of this season. It’s connected Heird to determine whether nan programme tin spend to springiness Payne a chance astatine a 3rd play aliases salary an $8 cardinal buyout to region him earlier March 31. The buyout drops to $6 cardinal aft that date.
Some spot an in-season move arsenic an inevitability. That, though, would travel pinch its ain complications. What is location to realistically beryllium saved? Who would beryllium a viable interim coach? What’s nan harm successful giving Payne a chance to salvage … something?
Louisville fans, meanwhile, who’ve seen 13 losses to sub-150 KenPom opponents complete nan past 34 games, will proceed to hold for what’s next. They’ll talk astir Mick Cronin aliases Bruce Pearl aliases Andy Enfield; aliases Randy Bennett, Sean Miller, Dennis Gates, Chris Beard. Some will dream nan eventual dreams — Billy Donovan aliases Jay Wright. Still, immoderate different Card fans, albeit a few, will clasp retired dream that nan reply is still correct successful beforehand of them.
As for Payne, he told reporters past week that he doesn’t walk clip reasoning astir his occupation security. He coaches for nan players and nan community, he said, not himself.
“I learned astatine an early age,” Payne said, “that if you’re motivated by nan critics, aliases if you’re motivated by praise, you’ll group yourself up to beryllium heartbroken.”
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photo: Andy Lyons / Getty Images)