With the departure of Chris Mack, one of the premier jobs in college basketball is open: head coach at Louisville. Plenty of names have been floated; this will be a massive decision for Josh Heird, who took over as interim AD six weeks ago. For the moment, it appears as though Kenny Payne has the inside track for the position.
Prior to his coaching career, the 6-foot-8 Payne played college ball at Louisville for Denny Crum (1985-89). Payne appeared in 34 games for the 1985-86 team, which of course defeated Duke to win the 1986 NCAA Championship. After his time at Louisville, Payne was drafted in the first round of the 1989 NBA Draft by Philadelphia; he went on to play four seasons for the Sixers.
Payne entered the college coaching ranks as an assistant for Ernie Kent at Oregon (2004-09). Starting in 2010, Payne joined John Calipari’s coaching staff at Kentucky. First, Payne served as an assistant coach (2010-14); he was then named associate head coach (2014-20).
Ahead of the 2020-21 season, Payne was hired to join Tom Thibodeau’s coaching staff with the New York Knicks. The Knicks, in terms of basketball operations, are run by Leon Rose, the team’s president, and senior vice president William Wesley — better known as “World Wide Wes.” Both Rose and Wesley are known for their connection to the Kentucky basketball program.
Beyond The Resume
Payne checks several important boxes as a coaching candidate — just in general. First off, Payne understands the importance of college hoops in the state of Kentucky. Given his time at Louisville and Kentucky, he’s uniquely capable of speaking on that subject matter.
More importantly, though, Payne is well thought of in terms of player development, which is a vital aspect of any sustainable college program.
One of Payne’s most recent success stories centers on current Charlotte Hornets forward/center PJ Washington. During Washington’s two seasons at Kentucky (2017-19), he morphed from a post-up-heavy center to an electric small-ball center with a beautiful 3-point stroke.
Now in his third NBA season, Washington is an even more dynamic 3-point shooter and a key to Charlotte’s small-ball offense.
In terms of recruiting, Payne was an ace for Calipari and Kentucky. During his time in Lexington, Payne helped land a plethora of big-name prospects, including current NBA players Jamal Murray, Bam Adebayo, De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Jarred Vanderbilt, Isaiah Jackson and Nick Richards. All of these guys were top-30 overall prospects — several were 5-star, top-15 prospects, too. Murray and Adebayo are two of the best basketball players in the world.
For whatever it’s worth, Louisville’s recruiting efforts, which are mostly still pretty good, could use a shot in the arm. With his bonafides and connections, Payne could do just that.