Louisville could save itself from pain by offering jobs 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 sports director. Now there is no permanent coach.

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

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

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

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

There’s a universal truth about the Division I basketball coaching carousel: All fans of all programs think their team’s job is better than it is. It is true. All. Some think it’s much better, some just a little, but they all think so.

There is another almost universal truth: Those in the media who have no share in the outcome often suggest that the programs involved in a search should “call” a candidate who is almost certain to thank no, if the school can be lucky in a way that almost no one has ever done.

Who is the last coach who left a very successful, lavishly funded grand conference program to coach at another very successful, lavishly funded grand conference program? Gary Williams in 1989? He left Ohio State because his alma mater called and he wanted to help revive Maryland basketball from a crisis. It happened so long ago that babies born that year are now a dozen years out of college.

This has an effect on universities when they are able to hire a new coach. Because a perfectly reasonable employment, even an inspired one, is often perceived as disappointing. When UCLA was rejected by such coaches as John Calipari and Rick Barnes in 2019 and ended up hiring Mick Cronin of Cincinnati, Sports Illustrated wrote that the program’s coaching increase “reveals a decline from the college basketball 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 hiring a coach: They presented the job to someone who had a smaller job but a significant promise, paid him far more money than he served before, and then introduced the job. him at a press conference.

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

The idea that the best programs employ “big names” from big programs is mostly a media and bulletin board merger. It does not happen in real life. If you’re hiring a Rick Pitino, it’s probably because he’s in between concerts.

Louisville is among the rare group of programs that could convince a sitting coach at another major program to accept his job, but it should be a coach who makes far less money, in a far less advantageous circumstance: a person in a position as Mack was with 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. The Duke appointed Assistant Jon Scheyer. All three are alumni from these universities.

In the last five years, I have 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 level. And even they were far from the scenario many Louisville fans (and journalists and analysts discussing potential candidates) had imagined.

Cuonzo Martin left financially tense Cal for Missouri in 2016. Brad Underwood moved to Illinois in 2017 because Oklahoma State was trying to make ends meet cheaply and paid him $ 1 million for his season in Stillwater. A few months later, Chris Holtmann roughly tripled his salary as he traveled from Butler to Ohio State.

In 2019, Texas native Buzz Williams was given the opportunity to return home from Virginia Tech to the Texas A&M job. Last year, Shaka Smart left Texas for Marquette, just in case Longhorns could have settled the issue for him a year later. His place was occupied by alumni Chris Beard, who swapped remote Texas Tech for red-hot Austin.

That is it. There are some excellent coaches in that range, but whether any of them made up a “big name” is doubtful.

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Among the 38 coaches were employed far more Division I assistants (10), including Mike Hopkins in Washington, Micah Shrewsbury in Penn State and Jeff Capel in Pitt. There were several mid-sized 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 usually produce more NCAA tournament participants. These included Cronin, TJ Otzelberger (UNLV to Iowa State) and Will Wade (VCU to LSU).

There were almost as many coaches employed who were between jobs (four), such as Mark Fox at Cal and Tom Crean in Georgia, as there were active great coaches.

What the current Louisville administration thinks about Payne is someone’s guess, but it’s a better guess that they will sort through lots of “big names” who will eventually say no to the job before it becomes clear that he is one of the best candidates who will 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 eventually settles on Payne or Seton Hall’s Kevin Willard or Providence’s Ed Cooley, that does not mean the search was “a mess” and the Cardinals were no longer shown to be part of the “elite” of college basketball.

They will just complete the same course as most others, hoping to finish this round with a better result than last.

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