Louisville fires men's hoops coach Kenny Payne, begins a search

Saying “change is needed” to help the Cardinals reach expectations, Louisville athletic director Josh Hurd announced Wednesday that Kenny Payne has been fired as men's basketball coach.

Payne finished his Louisville career with a 12-52 record, with just one away win. The Cardinals' season ended Tuesday with a 94-85 loss to N.C. 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 so much to this university over nearly 40 years, and he will always remain a valued member of our Louisville family,” Hurd said in a statement. “When we brought Kenny home in 2022, no one had a stronger belief in his potential success than I, but it became clear that change was needed to help this program achieve what is expected and achievable. While it is always difficult to make change.” “Coaching transition, this is the right fit for our program.”

Sources told ESPN that Louisville is expected to owe Payne about $8 million, which is a buyout of the remainder of the six-year contract he signed when he was hired.

The school said it would begin a national search for Payne's replacement immediately. Hurd is scheduled to speak to reporters later Wednesday.

After Tuesday's loss, Payne was asked about his performance as Louisville's coach and whether he deserves a third year.

“For me, I'm going back to day one,” he said. “When I entered the program as the new head coach, I talked about I needed everyone on the same page. We kind of forgot that. I talked about I'm not going to let you blame me. I'm not 'standing here alone.' I need all of Louisville with me. We kind of forgot about that. I talked about it, it will take some time, and I will watch and see who jumped on the Titanic and got off. We're kind of like, “I forgot about that. I gave a specific amount of time. I said three or four years. And I'm good with that. That's what I believed at the time, and that's what I still believe it takes to fix this program.”

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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 head coach after the 2021-22 season. As one of college basketball's elite recruiters during his tenure as an assistant at Kentucky and Oregon, Payne was expected to land high-level recruits and bring excitement to Louisville's KFC Yum! center.

However, the Mississippi native ran into problems once he took office. Payne hired Milt Wagner, the former Louisville star and his then-grandfather. 1 recruited DJ Wagner, as program director of player development and alumni relations, just to watch Wagner commit to Kentucky. Wagner's high school and grassroots teammate, Aaron Bradshaw, joined him with the Wildcats, and another popular teammate, Mackenzie Mgbako, committed to Duke before his recruitment reopened and he ended up at Indiana. These three players were among Payne's top targets in the 2023 class.

The struggles continued on the field. Louisville started last season with a home 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 eventually finished 4-28 overall (2-18 ACC) for the most losses in a single season in school history.

There were other personnel problems. Five-star Trentyn Flowers left the program in August to play professionally in Australia. The Cardinals then fired junior guard Coron Davis in mid-December, hours after he announced he intended to transfer — and after Davis announced on social media that he had not requested the transfer, calling it “discouraging and sad.”

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This season has seen more of the same issues, including another home exhibition loss, this time to Division II Kentucky Wesleyan, which went 3-12 on the road last season and was picked eighth in the league in the preseason.

Louisville took steps forward, starting the season 4-3, but three straight losses — including a 1-7 loss to DePaul and a home loss to Arkansas State — nearly sealed Payne's fate in December. The Cardinals rallied to win their first road game under Payne on Jan. 10, against Miami, but would go 2-15 the rest of the way.

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

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