The decibel level in the conference room on the top floor of the KFC Yum! Center kept getting louder as the moment approached for the announcement of a new head coach for the University of Louisville basketball team. The buzz reflected the level of anticipation, the sense that a long-awaited turning point was about to arrive for the UofL program.
Along with former coach Denny Crum and members of his staff were numerous former players, all of them eager to welcome the person they are confident will return the Cardinals back to the nation’s elite in college basketball again. There were numerous boosters, including leading business people from the community, along with the Governor, the Mayor, and other elected officials.
The moment had arrived to announce that Kenny Payne, a member of the 1986 national championship team, will take over the reins of the UofL basketball program. A magical atmosphere, radiating confidence, a sense of inevitability.
Interim Athletic Director Josh Heird describing the process through which he successfully secured Payne, noting that the New York Knicks really didn’t want to let their assistant coach leave the franchise. “But the Knicks’ organization and others understood that this was bigger than basketball,” he said. “The last piece of this puzzle was finding out from this man himself, ‘Are you ready to do this?’ ‘Are you humble enough to surround yourself with a staff that will challenge you, that will make you better, that will make this program better?’
“It was quickly apparent during the course of our conversations that he understood the magnitude of this job, that it wasn’t going to be easy. He made it clear that he was going to need help but was confident in his ability to create the greatness that so many of you have felt from this program, the same greatness that he achieved when he won a national title here. And just like those days in 1980 and 1986 and, yes, 2013, this is a day for the University of Louisville to celebrate, and to celebrate the future of this program.
“We should all be proud that we’re hiring the first black coach in the history of this program. We should be proud that we’re hiring an alumnus and a student athlete. But most of all, we should be proud that we’re hiring one of the best basketball coaches in the country. It’s a day to be extremely proud to be a Louisville Cardinal. With that in mind let me introduce the next head basketball coach at the University of Louisville!”
The conference room erupting into a chorus of cheers, whoops, whistles and a prolonged standing ovation.
“Thinking about this job is unbelievably emotional, evaluating this job I asked myself, ‘ Kenny Payne, Do you really want to do this?'” said Payne. “This job is much bigger than Kenny Payne. This is one of the main reasons I took this job. I go back to coming out of high school and the school I chose was this school. I had to have a father who turned out to be Wade Houston, and I had to have a great coach, not a good coach, but a great coach and that’s what I got in Denny Crum. Denny helped to make me a complete basketball player that was not only about himself but is about his teammates. And that is what I preach to my players today.”
Payne said he expects to be successful in recruiting great athletes to the University of Louisville, and his primary focus will be helping athletes to realize their full potential. “I also want coaches to have the same philosophy, putting athletes first. They have all the basketball knowledge in the world, but they must be invested in helping our athletes to be successful on the court, in their lives and in their careers. That approach will serve the University of Louisville.”
He also made it clear that he expects UofL basketball to be highly competitive on the national scene again. “But this is more than about the program, more than about me, it’s about the all of us being supportive of each other in the good and bad times,” he said. “I eager to get started, I can’t wait to begin this job.”