Louisville could save itself pain by offering job to alum Kenny Payne — but chasing a ‘big name’ seems irresistible

Where the search for the next Louisville basketball coach begins is largely up to those in charge of the university and its athletic department, at least temporarily. There is no permanent president. There is no permanent athletic director. Now, there is no permanent coach.

Where that search will end is probably with someone like Kenny Payne.

MORE: For Bruce Pearl to march from No. 1 Auburn to the head coaching job at Louisville would be madness

Chris Mack’s departure last week meant the Cardinals joined Maryland as a major basketball program in pursuit of someone new to chase NCAA Tournament and Final Four bids. As is common in such cases, the debate regarding who would replace Mack began with names known to all basketball fans — all of whom would be unlikely to accept the position if offered.

The people who are likely to accept such an offer are those whose present circumstances are not as enriching in terms of money or prestige. But mostly money. Payne is a Louisville alumnus working as an assistant coach with the NBA’s New York Knicks. He has an extensive background as a Division I assistant and was acknowledged as a wildly successful recruiter and elite position coach who helped broaden the talents of such Kentucky big men as Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns.

He checks pretty much every box of the ideal major-conference candidate, save for experience as a mid-major head coach.

There is a universal truth on the Division I basketball coaching carousel: All fans of all programs think their team’s job is better than it is. That’s right. Every one. Some think it’s a lot better, some just a little, but they all think it.

There is another nearly universal truth: Those in the media who have no stake in the outcome often suggest those programs involved in a search should “make the call” to a candidate who is almost certain to decline on the off chance the school might get lucky in a way almost no one ever has.

Who’s the last coach to leave a highly successful, opulently funded major-conference program to coach at another highly successful, opulently funded major-conference program? Gary Williams in 1989? He left Ohio State because his alma mater called, and he wanted to help resurrect Maryland basketball from a crisis. That happened so long ago that babies born that year are now a dozen years out of college. Roy Williams went from Kansas to North Carolina in 2003, after initially turning down the opportunity a few years earlier. Again, it was the call of a sagging alma mater that was the allure.

This has an effect on universities when they find themselves in position to hire a new coach. Because a perfectly reasonable hire, even an inspired one, often is viewed as disappointing. When UCLA was turned down by such coaches as John Calipari and Rick Barnes in 2019 and wound up hiring Mick Cronin from Cincinnati, Sports Illustrated wrote that the program’s coaching search “reveals a fall from college basketball’s elite.”

The Bruins were in the Final Four two years later.

Because in reality, UCLA did what elite programs do these days when they actually get around to hiring a coach: They presented the job to someone who had a lesser job but considerable promise, paid him far more money than he was making before, then introduced him at a news conference.

MORE: UCLA did everything wrong before hiring Mick Cronin — and still got it right

The idea that the best programs hire “big names” from major programs is mostly a media and message board concoction. It doesn’t happen in real life. If you’re hiring a Rick Pitino, it’s probably because he’s between gigs.

Louisville is among the rare group of programs that could convince a sitting coach at another major program to accept its job, but it would have to be a coach earning far less money, in a far less advantaged circumstance: someone in a position like Mack was at Xavier when Louisville called in 2018.

There have been three “blue blood” college basketball jobs open since Cronin landed in Westwood. North Carolina promoted one of its assistants, Hubert Davis. Indiana hired NBA assistant Mike Woodson. Duke appointed assistant Jon Scheyer. All three are alums of those universities.

In the past five years, I counted 38 openings in the six most prominent basketball leagues (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC). Of those, only six — 16 percent — went to the head coach at another high-major program. And even those were far from the scenario many Louisville fans (and reporters and analysts discussing potential candidates) had imagined.

Cuonzo Martin left financially strapped Cal for Missouri in 2016. Brad Underwood went to Illinois in 2017 because Oklahoma State tried to get by on the cheap, paying him $1 million for his season in Stillwater. A few months later, Chris Holtmann roughly tripled his salary upon departing Butler for Ohio State.

In 2019, Texas native Buzz Williams got the opportunity to return home from Virginia Tech for the Texas A&M job. Last year, Shaka Smart departed Texas for Marquette, just in case the Longhorns might have decided the issue for him a year later. His spot was filled by alumnus Chris Beard, who traded remote Texas Tech for red-hot Austin.

That’s it. There are some excellent coaches in that assortment, but whether any of them constituted a “big name” is debatable.

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Among those 38 coaches, there were far more Division I assistants hired (10), including Mike Hopkins at Washington, Micah Shrewsbury at Penn State and Jeff Capel at Pitt. There were more mid-major coaches (eight), including LaVall Jordan at Butler, Kermit Davis at Ole Miss, Earl Grant at Boston College and Mike Young at Virginia Tech.

There were six from what I call “fringe major” programs — leagues that are not elite but commonly produce multiple NCAA Tournament participants. Those included Cronin, T.J. Otzelberger (UNLV to Iowa State) and Will Wade (VCU to LSU).

There were nearly as many coaches hired who were between jobs (four), such as Mark Fox at Cal and Tom Crean at Georgia, as there were active big-time coaches.

What the current administration at Louisville thinks of Payne is anyone’s guess, but it’s a better guess they’ll sort through lots of “big names” who’ll ultimately decline the job before it becomes clear he’s one of the best candidates who’ll actually say yes.

Just remember: If the process goes as it usually does, with more and more “big names” using this opening to extend and enrich their contracts — well done, Bruce Pearl — before Louisville ultimately settles on Payne or Seton Hall’s Kevin Willard or Providence’s Ed Cooley, that will not mean the search was “a mess” and the Cardinals were demonstrated to be no longer part of college basketball’s “elite.”

They’ll just be completing the same course as most everyone else, hoping they finish this round with a better outcome than the last.

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