Calpari says he’s happy Payne will have opportunity to coach Cards


Keith Taylor

Former Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne is expected to take over the Louisville program.

By Keith Taylor, Kentucky Today

INDIANAPOLIS (KT) — John Calipari will be rooting for Kenny Payne when he returns to the collegiate ranks. The lone exception will be when his team plays Louisville once a year.

“I’ve said it for 13 years,” he said Wednesday. “They’ve been to national title (games) they’ve won national titles, Final Four, ready with what I’m gonna tell you? With different coaches. It’s not about the coach. That program is one of the programs. They deserve a coach like Kenny Payne.”

Payne, a former assistant for 10 seasons under Calipari at Kentucky, is expected to be hired as the next men’s basketball coach at the University of Louisville. Calipari endorsed the move Wednesday as his squad prepared for the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats, a No. 2 seed in the East Region, plays Saint Peter’s in the first round of the tournament Thursday in Indianapolis.

“First of all, he is a dear friend, and I will tell you that they could not hire anybody that will do a better job than Kenny Payne,” Calipari said. “Great coach, great human being, great husband, great father. Louisville graduate. I may say he should have been hired before there, but you know what, they get him, they got the best of the best.”

A former standout at Louisville, Payne won a national title as a member of the 1986 squad and has been considered a front-runner since the job became open when Chris Mack stepped down in December. The school also was reportedly pursuing UCLA’s Mick Cronin and Baylor coach Scott Drew.

Calipari spoke to Payne earlier this week, but the Kentucky coach said he hasn’t had a conversation with his longtime assistant coach since that time.

“I did leave mass and, I texted him and told him ‘I prayed for him today.’ Just so he would know I’m thinking about him, but I don’t want to be in the middle of his business, I’m just here if he needs me. And whether he does it or not, at some point he will let me know he did it, or here’s why I didn’t do it.”

Payne has spent the past two seasons with the New York Knicks and was considered a candidate for the opening four years ago before the Cardinals settled on Mack, who was at Xavier at the time.

“As a coach, as a man, as a husband, as a father, who is into basketball, he will be in the gym at 11 at night,” Calipari said. “If that’s who they name, they made the right choice. I wish they would have made it four years ago, you know, but you know what? He’s getting an opportunity, if he chooses to take it, at a great institution and in our state. State of Kentucky deserves to have both programs. And we played in the Final Four together.”

Calipari added if Payne is hired at Louisville, if it would hinder his relationship with his former assistant.

“(Tennessee coach) Rick Barnes and I have been friends for 40 years,” Calipari said. “I encouraged him to take the Tennessee job, and he and I have remained friends, even though they’ve beaten us a bunch. We’re friends. Kenny Payne, whatever happens with the games, we will be friends. It should lighten up their side our side.”

Keith Taylor is the sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at Keith.taylor@kentuckytodaycom and via Twitter at keithtaylor21.