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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Pat Forde

It’s Time for Louisville to Get Its Men’s Basketball Coaching Hire Right

On a variety of levels, Kenny Payne was an understandable and defensible hire as the men’s basketball coach for the Louisville Cardinals in 2022. But on the only level that matters, it turned out to be a flaming disaster.

After another dismal loss, this one in the first round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament Tuesday, the disaster is over. When it becomes official is immaterial. Payne is out, and the worst competitive era in school history is over.

Louisville won just 12 games and lost 52 under Payne, an incomprehensible record. There were losses to the Bellarmine Knights, Wright State Raiders, Appalachian State Mountaineers, Chattanooga Mocs and Arkansas State Red Wolves. There were consecutive last-place finishes in the ACC. There were acres of empty seats at home games and hours of outrage on talk radio. There was no hope.

Louisville takes basketball very seriously. The Cardinals have won three national titles* and played in 10 Final Fours* (the 2012 and ’13 Final Fours and ’13 natty have been vacated by the NCAA). The arena seats 22,000. For a place that cares this much, the product has been completely unacceptable.

Payne was a former player from the Denny Crum era, a nostalgia hire with a championship ring who appealed to the Crum old guard that had felt marginalized after he was replaced by Rick Pitino in 2001. He was the first Black basketball coach in school history, at a school with a large Black fan base and a proud history of championing Black players. He was considered an ace recruiter from his time on John Calipari’s staff at Kentucky, when the Wildcats were constantly outflanking the Cardinals for top talent.

Payne arrived at Louisville with a reputation for being an ace recruiter, but failed to turn that skill into results with the Cardinals.

Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY Sports

Ultimately, none of those perceived attributes produced results. Payne was bad at every element of the job and took the program to new lows. (At least on the court. A place that has weathered multiple FBI investigations, extortion attempts, recruiting and sex scandals already was the industry leader in terms of extracurricular weirdness.) From debuting with an exhibition loss to a Division II opponent onward, there was never a smidge of evidence that he was the right man for the job.

Now, Louisville formally gets down to the business of finding—and hiring—the right man. It’s an elite job in the right hands.

The popular target among the fan base is Baylor’s Scott Drew. The avid bass fisherman would, himself, be a huge fish to land. He’s a relatively young (53) national champion who has won with astounding consistency at a place that historically never cared much about basketball. This is his 17th straight winning season, and it will end with his 12th NCAA bid.

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Would he take the job? I’d be surprised. It would take a massive offer—with a massive accompanying NIL package—and it’s unclear whether Louisville is in a position financially to swing that. If it’s big enough (like, Bill Self/Calipari money) Baylor would probably thank Drew for his tenure and let him go. The school isn’t going to spend $10 million a year for a basketball coach.

If it’s a competitive but not outlandish offer, I don’t see Drew leaving Waco. He’s established and beloved in a place his family likes. Baylor opened a dazzling new arena this season. He’s a recruiting force in Texas (although the current team only has a few Texans). It would be a lot to give up to start over.

Lastly regarding Drew: You know what almost never happens? A national championship men’s basketball coach voluntarily leaving for another college job. There have been a lot of retirements, a few firings and the occasional NBA jump. The only three in the last 60 years who departed the place where they won a title for another school were Tubby Smith (from Kentucky to Minnesota in 2007), Rollie Massimino (from Villanova to UNLV in 1992) and Norm Sloan (North Carolina State to Florida in 1980). And in all three cases, their national championships were more than five years old by the time of their departure.

A few people in Louisville are lighting candles and putting them in the windows for Chicago Bulls coach Billy Donovan, a two-time national champion with Florida in 2006 and ’07. He would, like Drew, be a whopper fish to land.

Related: Forde Minutes: Major-Conference Tournament Previews and Top Seed Line Questions

Maybe Donovan is ready for a return to college; maybe not. He signed a contract extension with the Bulls in 2022 that was reportedly for “at least four more years,” and if he’s not being fired, then Louisville seemingly would have a considerable buyout to pay—something the school is not excited about doing for college candidates. (Getting Donovan would probably require a different level of commitment.)

There assuredly would be other candidates, but an ideal Louisville short list could boil down to two guys in their late 40s who happen to be good friends: Florida Atlantic’s Dusty May and Indiana State’s Josh Schertz. Both could be great hires capable of restoring Louisville to annual NCAA tournament status—at least. (Louisville has the eighth-most NCAA appearances of all-time, but hasn’t been to the Big Dance since 2019 or won a tourney game since ’17.)

Operating under the current industry assumption that May is the top candidate for Ohio State, I expect Schertz to emerge as a focal point at Louisville. A fan base fixated on big names would hate it at first but could end up loving it when they see what he puts on the floor.

Schertz has a chance to be the basketball version of football coach Kalen DeBoer—a huge winner at a lower level who then succeeded in a mid-major spot and was ready for his shot at a big-time job. DeBoer won three NAIA national championships, won quickly with the Fresno State Bulldogs, then jumped to Washington and took the Huskies to the College Football Playoff championship game in his second season. Now, he’s the Alabama Crimson Tide coach.

Schertz has won at each of his collegiate coaching stops, most recently with Indiana State.

Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports

Schertz averaged 26 wins a year at Division II Lincoln Memorial, advancing to the Final Four three times. His 32–1 team in 2020 might have been national championship material when the tourney was canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

That landed him the job at Indiana State, considered a dead-end job at the time. After a difficult debut season, he’s gone 51–19. This season’s team is 28–6, won the Missouri Valley Conference regular season title for the first time since 2000 and is awaiting its NCAA tournament fate after losing a great game in the Arch Madness final to Drake. If you haven’t watched the Sycamores yet, they’re a treat—fast and skilled in a modern, positionless offense.

The Sycamores should be in the NCAA field if there is any justice in the world, which would give Louisville fans an opportunity to check out Schertz’s product. A fan base that had nearly 50 successive years of Crum and Pitino might lust for a bigger name, but winning the news conference counts much less than winning games—and Louisville has won almost none over the past couple of seasons.

And most coaches were not big-name hires at the time they started new jobs. The nature of the profession is to work your way up. Consider who nearly became the Louisville coach in 2001, when the Cardinals landed Pitino.

At the last minute, Pitino was waffling and considered going to the Michigan Wolverines instead. Former Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich, one of the all-time greats when it came to hiring coaches, was faced with firing a Hall of Famer and whiffing on another Hall of Famer—and his backup plan was the coach with the Hofstra Pride.

That guy’s name? Jay Wright, who went to Villanova instead. He turned out O.K.

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