Lun. Abr 15th, 2024

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Saying a «change is needed» to help the Cardinals reach expectations, Louisville athletic director Josh Heird announced Wednesday that Kenny Payne had been fired as men’s basketball coach.

Payne finishes his Louisville career with a record of 12-52, with just one win away from home. The Cardinals’ season ended Tuesday with a 94-85 loss to NC State in the first round of the ACC tournament to wrap up an 8-24 campaign when they went 3-17 in conference play.

«Kenny has given a great deal to this university over a span of nearly 40 years, and he will always be a valued member of our Louisville family,» Heird said in a statement. «When we brought Kenny home in 2022, no one had a stronger belief than me in his potential success, but it’s become clear that a change is needed to help this program achieve what is expected and attainable. While it is always difficult to make a coaching transition, this is the right one for our program.»

Louisville is expected to owe Payne around $8 million, the buyout of what is remaining on the six-year contract he signed when he was hired, sources told ESPN.

The school said it would begin a national search for Payne’s replacement immediately. Heird is set to speak to reporters later Wednesday.

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.»

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, a 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 (2-18 ACC) for their most losses in a season in school history.

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 season 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. 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.

ESPN’s Jeff Borzello and Pete Thamel contributed to this report.

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