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Kenny Payne returns to University of Louisville men’s basketball program as head coach

Kenny Payne is the University of Louisville new men's basketball head coach.
Kenny Payne is the University of Louisville new men's basketball head coach.

Kenny Payne is officially the new University of Louisville men’s basketball team head coach. 

Payne’s appointment marks his return to the city and the university. He played for the Cardinals from 1985 through 1989. He was part of the 1986 NCAA championship team.

He was then drafted to the NBA, where he played for the Philadelphia 76ers for several seasons. Payne has coached at the collegiate and professional level.

He coached at the University of Kentucky from 2010 until 2020, where he served as an assistant coach and assistant head coach. He comes most recently from an assistant coaching position with the New York Knicks, where he’d been since 2020.

Payne is the program’s first Black head coach.

His contract goes through March 31, 2028. He's slated to receive a base annual salary of $3.5 million. He will receive bonuses and pay increases for NCAA appearances and wins. 

As a former player, Payne described U of L’s program as a community. 

“This is surreal, this above me, bigger than me,” Payne said. “It’s bigger than Kenny Payne, this is one of the main reasons I took this job.”

Payne reiterated that he sees success as a literal team effort. 

“It’s never gonna be Kenny Payne, it’s always gonna be the ‘the kids did it',” Payne said.

He plans to lean heavily on the city for support.

“This community has to be with me, this state has to be with me,” Payne said. “And ‘with me’ isn’t when it’s good, I’m gonna say that again, it’s when it’s bad.”

He says his role goes beyond head coach. He sees himself as a role model. 

“This is a big deal for all young people who have aspirations of one day sitting and standing where I am right now,” Payne said.

The new Cardinal coach says he expects his players to be good on and off the court.

“Real success is surrounding young people and having an environment that is conducive to winning, so that these men win in life, not just a basketball game,” Payne said.

Payne plans to ensure that his entire coaching staff shares that ideal. He said he'll take his time in hiring to make sure that his players are surrounded by good people.

The U of L men’s team had endured a difficult couple of seasons when former head coach Chris Mack exited the program in January. Interim athletic director Josh Heird was tasked with filling the role and getting the program back on track.

“There were certain characteristics that were non-negotiables for me: integrity, character, work ethic, the drive to always do the right thing,” Heird said. 

He said he didn't entertain prospects with “a track record of shortcuts” or whose “character had been called into question” during their coaching career. 

The U of L men’s basketball program has had NCAA sanctions in the past. It’s currently under investigation by the college sports association. 

According to Heird, he was hard-pressed to find someone with something bad to say about Payne.

“I worked extremely hard to talk to people who could give me an objective opinion about this job and this man,” Heird said. 

Heird hopes that Payne will act as a connector of communities in the city. Payne’s coaching announcement brought out several former U of L players, including Darrell Griffith, and several Kentucky politicians.

Gov. Andy Beshear was in attendance and expressed his approval.

“Kenny Payne is a man of integrity, he’s a great recruiter, a great developer of players and a great coach in the game,” Beshear said. 

Payne’s first official day on the job is March 21. 

Breya Jones is the Arts & Culture Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.

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