CFB: Kenny Payne returns to Louisville as a Wildcat
AP Sports Writer
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) – Kenny Payne’s visits to Louisville in the two decades since he played for the Cardinals have typically been celebrations, a chance for the former small forward and his teammates on the 1986 national championship team to be cheered one more time.
Things will likely be different on Friday. Very different.
When Payne walks onto the floor at the KFC Yum! Center on New Year’s Eve he won’t be wearing Louisville red, but guiding the players in Kentucky blue. Payne, now one of John Calipari’s assistant coaches, will be on bench with the 11th-ranked Wildcats when they play the 22nd-ranked Cardinals.
“Am I nervous they’re going to boo me?” Payne said with a laugh, “yeah.”
He’s hoping it’s only temporary, pointing out his former teammates didn’t exactly protest when he accepted an offer to join Calipari’s staff after leaving Oregon over the summer.
Pervis Ellison even sent Payne some Kentucky gear. Former Louisville coach Denny Crum called to offer congratulations. Payne figures if they can deal with his move to the school “up the road” then the Louisville faithful can handle it too, though he allows this kind of cross-pollination among rivals isn’t acceptable behavior in other places.
Yet it is common practice in the Bluegrass. Louisville is coached by Rick Pitino, who won a national title with the Wildcats in 1996. Assistant coach Steve Masiello played for Pitino at Kentucky, while director of operations Ralph Willard sat alongside Pitino as an assistant during Pitino’s tumultuous first season on the bench with the Wildcats.
“You don’t see Duke guys on the Carolina bench. You don’t see Carolina guys on the Duke bench,” said Payne, a reserve sophomore forward when the Cardinals beat the Blue Devils in the 1986 final. “But I think the fact coach Pitino brought in the Kentucky guys and Cal has me, it’s a unique situation. Thank God for it or I wouldn’t be here. It’s different because there’s a major rivalry. But I think in the end I think people will still embrace their own.”
Just maybe not on Friday, and Payne has no problem with that. He doesn’t view his decision to join Calipari as an affront to his alma mater, he simply felt he owed it to Calipari when an opportunity became available.
It was Calipari and longtime NBA coach Larry Brown, after all, who urged the former first round NBA pick to return to school and finish his degree after his playing career ended in 2000.
Payne attended a coaches clinic Brown and Calipari were running looking for some guidance on what to do next. Calipari urged Payne to go back to school and promised him opportunities would follow once he had his degree in hand.
He collected his bachelor’s in sports administration from Louisville in 2003. Shortly thereafter he found a job on Ernie Kent’s staff at Oregon, where he quickly developed a reputation as a top-notch recruiter.
Payne views his unusual path to coaching as a story that resonates with players. He freely admits he didn’t pay too much attention in class until he was a 35-year-old sitting next to kids 15 years his junior.
While he was able to carve out a career playing professionally across the globe for a decade, he wasn’t prepared for life after basketball. It’s a message he pounds home on the recruiting trail.
“The decision to not take it as serious as a college student, then 20 years later to go to back to school and start from scratch, it was tough,” he said. “But I approached my education, my schooling as this is my last opportunity to do something positive. I cannot mess this up.”
Payne’s burgeoning reputation as a recruiting ace with deep West Coast connections made him a wanted commodity. Yet he turned down several offers to leave Oregon for higher profile programs, including a chance to return to Louisville or join Calipari’s staff at Memphis.
“He was really loyal to Oregon because they gave him an opportunity,” Calipari said.
Things changed when Kent was fired last spring and Kentucky assistant Rod Strickland was moved to director of basketball operations. This time, Payne didn’t say ‘no’ when Calipari called.
“I always told everybody, if I ever left Oregon, I would come to one person, and that’s John Calipari,” he said. “I promised him that. I’m a man of my word. I want to see Coach Cal win it all.”
Even if it comes at the expense of his alma mater. It’s not personal, just business.
To win a national championship at the University of Louisville, people still talk about it,” he said. “So my love for the school is always going to be there.”
It just might not show on Friday.