Sources: L'ville to inform Payne he's out as coach

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Louisville officials expect to inform Kenny Payne within the next 24 hours that he will not return as men’s basketball coach, sources told ESPN on Tuesday.

Payne had yet to speak with athletic director Josh Heird by Tuesday night since losing in the ACC tournament earlier in the day. Louisville’s season ended with a 94-85 loss to NC State, as the Cardinals finished 8-24 overall and 3-17 in ACC play.

Louisville is expected to owe Payne around $8 million, the buyout of what’s remaining on the six-year contract he signed when he was hired, sources told ESPN. He finishes his Louisville career with an overall record of 12-52, with just one win away from home.

Following Tuesday’s loss, Payne was asked about his performance as Louisville coach and whether he deserved a third year.

“For me, I go back to day one,” he said. “When I walked into the program as the new head coach, I talked about, I needed everybody on the same page. We sort of forgot that. I talked about how I’m not going to let you blame me. I’m not standing up here by myself. I need all of Louisville with me. We sort of forgot that. I talked about, it’s going to take time, and I’m going to watch and see who jumped on and off the Titanic. We sort of forgot that. I gave a specific time. I said three or four years. And I’m good with that. That’s what I believed at that time, and that’s what I still believe it takes to fix this program.

“With guys like this, you have a foundation. Brandon [Huntley-]Hatfield, Mike James, JJ Traynor, the young guys we have, we have a foundation. Whether I’m the coach or not, I can look in the mirror and say I gave it everything I had to help this program.”

Payne, who played at Louisville and won a national championship with the Cardinals in 1986 before being selected in the first round of the 1989 NBA draft, was named the program’s coach following the 2021-22 season. As one of the elite recruiters in college basketball during his time as an assistant at Kentucky and Oregon, Payne was expected to sign highly ranked recruits and bring excitement to Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center.

The Mississippi native ran into issues almost as soon as he took over, however. Payne hired Milt Wagner, former Louisville star and the grandfather of then-No. 1 recruit D.J. Wagner, as the program’s director of player development and alumni relations, only to watch as Wagner committed to Kentucky. Wagner’s high school and grassroots teammate Aaron Bradshaw joined him with the Wildcats, and another grassroots teammate, Mackenzie Mgbako, committed to Duke before reopening his recruitment and ending up at Indiana. Those three players were among Payne’s top targets in the 2023 class.

On the court, the struggles continued. Louisville began last season with a home exhibition loss to Lenoir-Rhyne then dropped the first nine official games of Payne’s tenure, the program’s worst start in more than 80 years. The Cardinals ultimately finished 4-28 overall and 2-18 in ACC play.

There were further personnel problems. Five-star prospect Trentyn Flowers left the program in August to play professionally in Australia. The Cardinals then dismissed junior guard Koron Davis in mid-December, hours after announcing he had planned to transfer — and after Davis announced on social media that he didn’t ask to transfer, calling it “disheartening and sad.”

This season saw more of the same issues, including another home exhibition loss, this time to Division II Kentucky Wesleyan, which went 3-12 away from home last season and was picked eighth in its league in the preseason.

Louisville did take steps forward, starting the campaign 4-3, but three straight defeats — including a loss at 1-7 at DePaul and a home loss to Arkansas State — nearly sealed Payne’s fate in December.

Amid speculation about an imminent coaching change following a 95-76 loss to Kentucky on Dec. 22, Heird told local Louisville television station WDRB that Payne was staying on into the new year.

The Cardinals broke through to win their first road game under Payne on Jan. 10, against Miami, but they would go 2-15 the rest of the way.

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