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Louisville fires Payne after going 12-52 in two seasons, saying 'change is needed'

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Besides proven success and experience, Louisville athletic director Josh Heird made clear that the Cardinals' next men's basketball coach must have an intense passion for a job he considers one of the sport's best.

“More important than anything else, we’ve got to have somebody who is dying to coach this basketball program," Heird said. "I mean, they will crawl here to coach this basketball program because that’s how much it means to him.”

Louisville fired Kenny Payne on Wednesday after going 12-52 in two seasons that marked the worst consecutive finishes in the storied program's history, with Heird saying “a change is needed” to reach expectations. The move came a day after the Cardinals’ 94-85 first-round loss to North Carolina State in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, their eighth consecutive defeat.

Heird said he was a strong believer in Payne's potential when he hired him nearly two years ago to lead his alma mater. Louisville doubled last season's four-win total but didn't meet the high bar of expectations, and the season-ending slide suggested a regression.

“You had the Miami game, you had the Florida State game and it’s like, ‘can this be sustained?’" Heird said of two ACC wins. "And then you take a look back, you reflect and say, ‘Hey, I just didn’t see enough of that.’ And so we made the decision that we made.”

Payne was informed after the team returned from Washington on Wednesday. The 57-year-old is set to receive an $8 million buyout under terms of a six-year contract through 2028. That deal paid a base annual salary of $3.35 million plus incentives.

Louisville finished 8-24 (3-17 ACC) in a season that was expected to be the start of a climb back after a 4-28 campaign. The loss total was a program record. Louisville’s January win at Miami was its lone ACC road victory in two seasons under the homegrown Payne, who scored 1,083 points from 1985-89 and won the 1986 NCAA national championship while playing under Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum.

Speculation now shifts to Payne’s successor, who is expected to be more experienced and with a higher profile than Payne. Possible candidates include Baylor’s Scott Drew, who guided the Bears to the national championship in 2021, Florida Atlantic’s Dusty May and Indiana State’s Josh Schertz.

All three are expected to be busy amid March Madness, and Heird said there was no timetable for hiring a coach.

“I have no doubt that we will find the right coach to bring the storied program back to national prominence," he said.

Whoever Louisville chooses faces a monumental task of lifting the program from its worst stretch ever to on-court relevancy, and quickly.

Despite the current losing stretch, Louisville is still considered one of the nation’s most attractive destinations because of a rich tradition highlighted by three NCAA championships won on the court. (The NCAA vacated its 2013 NCAA title and 2012 Final Four appearance in 2017 as punishment for an embarrassing sex scandal.) Louisville’s next coach will be its third permanent hire and fifth overall since firing Hall of Famer Rick Pitino in October 2017.

For Heird — who as interim AD tapped Payne for his first head coaching job in March 2022 — that means finding a better fit for Louisville’s highest-profile athletic program.

Based on legacy alone, Payne and the Cardinals seemed to be a logical match.

The Mississippi native had overwhelming support to succeed Chris Mack and interim coach Mike Pegues because of his Louisville connections. His hiring also was viewed as a potential reconnection with the community, particularly among African Americans in the aftermath of protests over the death of Breonna Taylor during a botched raid by Louisville police four years ago.

Payne’s introductory news conference featured Crum — who died last May 9 at 86 — and numerous Cardinals alumni including Darrell Griffith and Milt Wagner, both of whom were hired in outreach and administrative roles. Payne arrived fresh off two-plus seasons with the NBA’s New York Knicks, which followed 10 years as an assistant under Hall of Famer John Calipari at archrival Kentucky. Known for developing front players along with his recruiting skills, he was expected to lead Louisville back to respectability.

Doubling the win total did not offset a series of head-scratching losses, some of which Louisville led at halftime. In Tuesday’s finale against the Wolfpack, a 46-45 lead at the break quickly turned into a double-digit deficit, though the Cardinals regrouped to tie the game late before falling behind again and effectively sealing Payne’s fate.

Payne hit back at some of the scrutiny of his players afterward, calling it “unfair” and saying they deserved better. He closed by saying that makes his job “impossible,” the latest episode where his postgame comments drew fire.

The question is how much will remain from a Louisville roster that played shorthanded for much of the season because of injuries. The puzzling dismissal of Koron Davis last fall and Trentyn Flowers’ decision to play overseas didn’t help the Cardinals’ depth.

The Cardinals showed they could score but were often outmanned defensively. Several members from a recruiting class rated in the top six showed promise under Payne, but the challenge is avoiding a mass exit via the transfer portal.

A new coach could make changes anyway, to which Louisville has become accustomed.

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