Kenny Payne knew what he was signing up for when he agreed to take the Louisville coaching job last spring.

At least he thought he did.

It only took 1 game into his rookie season for him to get an inkling into how difficult a job restoring the Cardinals to respectability, much less their past glory, would be.

His team didn’t just get beat by a Division II team in an exhibition game at the KFC Yum! Center. It lost to Lenoir-Rhyne by double digits in a game that saw Louisville turn the ball over 16 times, shoot less than 30% and muster only 19 points in the 2nd half.

Things have only gotten worse from there.

Losses to the likes of Bellarmine, Wright State and Lipscomb, along with a paltry 38-point performance against Texas Tech, preceded an ACC schedule that has seen the Cardinals get off to an 0-7 start heading into Wednesday’s game at Pittsburgh.

It’s tough enough for a first-timer like Jon Scheyer at Duke, who was groomed at the side of the winningest coach in the history of the game and handed a roster full of 5-star talent, to step right in and run his own team without any growing pains.

But for Payne, taking over a program soiled by multiple scandals and gutted by the mass exodus of players after the mid-season firing of Chris Mack last year. … 

The results speak for themselves.

“It’s been difficult, of course,” Payne said earlier this week on the ACC’s coaches video conference. “It’s been a challenge just trying to get these guys to understand that we don’t have wiggle room. They’ve done a good job and they’ve gotten better. We just haven’t done quite enough to get wins yet.”

The only 2 they’ve gotten thus far came in consecutive games in mid-December. They beat Western Kentucky 94-83, then posted a 61-55 triumph against Florida A&M.

Their 9-game losing streak prior to those wins was an ACC record at the start of a season. Their 4 losses by 25 points or more are already the most in school history.

Louisville currently ranks No. 337 out of 353 Division I teams in the NCAA’s NET rankings.

And rock bottom could still potentially be weeks away.

It’s a shocking and sad state of affairs for a program that was once considered among the college basketball elite. One that claimed a national championship in 2013 – on the court, at least – and finished only a game out of 1st place in the ACC as recently as 2020.

The Cardinals’ dramatic decline has been painful to watch, even for those without a connection to the program. Imagine then what it’s like for Payne.

As a forward who played on the 1986 national title team and helped Louisville to 3 Sweet 16s in a 4-year playing career, this isn’t just a job. It’s personal.

He’s more than just the coach of the Louisville Cardinals.

He is a Louisville Cardinal.

“It’s easy for people that are critics or that don’t understand. I have an emotional tie here,” Payne said. “I came from this place. My foundation was started here. So I feel an obligation to do everything in my power to make sure this program is where it needs to be.

“Do I doubt that we’ll get there? Not at all. I know in my heart that we’re going to turn this thing around. But the process we have to go through is difficult.”

It’s even more difficult when you’re going through it for the 1st time. 

Although Payne spent time as an assistant at Oregon and Kentucky, where served as associate head coach under John Calipari before moving to the NBA and the New York Knicks, he is as inexperienced in his role as the majority of his players are in theirs.

And it showed during the offseason.

While many other coaches were filling holes in their roster through the transfer portal, Payne brought in only 1 experienced newcomer, Brandon Huntley-Hatfield from Tennessee. Of the 3 freshmen he signed, only Kamari Landis has made any kind of meaningful contribution.

He did inherit at least a couple of keepers. El Ellis is the ACC’s 3rd-leading scorer at 17.7 points per game. Mike James, a rapidly improving redshirt freshman who missed last season with an Achilles’ tear and, has hit for double figures in 4 of his past 6 games.

But the roster is a mismatched set. Too many frontcourt players, not enough guards. 

It’s a situation that going to change until Payne and his staff begin to make inroads on the recruiting trail. Their best hope is for the players they currently have to stay engaged enough to avoid becoming the first ACC team since Boston College in 2016 – and the first in a 20-game schedule – to go winless in the conference.

“I can relate to it,” said Pittsburgh coach Jeff Capel, whose team is the next to try and avoid becoming the Cardinals’ 1st victim. “It’s tough because you want to do well so bad. You work hard at it. You invest a lot of time. And when you don’t see the results, it can be very frustrating.”

Capel, a former Duke point guard and assistant, went 3-15 in the ACC in Year 1 with the Panthers in 2018-19. Four seasons and 4 more losing records later, he is finally starting to see the fruits of his labor rewarded. His team comes into Wednesday’s game at 12-6 (5-2 ACC).

Payne can only hope that his reclamation project doesn’t take as long.

With the cloud of NCAA violations no longer hanging over the program’s head, a stable administration finally in place and the tradition that comes with the name “Louisville” stitched across the front of a red jersey, all the elements are there for the Cardinals to begin their climb back up from rock bottom.

Especially now that their coach has a full understanding of just how difficult the task at hand really is.