By Derek DeBurger

There’s no hiding what has become of Louisville basketball these past few years. The product on the court is miles away from the standard that was set by Hall of Fame coaches Denny Crum and Rick Pitino, without a clear answer. No one is doubting the tough circumstances that head coach Kenny Payne was thrown into as a first-time head coach, but no one can doubt his failure to make the best of the circumstances either. Other coaches in similar or worse situations have made diamonds out of coal in almost no time at all.

Following a terrible two-week stretch topped off with a blowout loss to Kentucky at home, the heat was on and the word was out— Kenny Payne was likely to be let go and soon. When Athletic Director Josh Heird decided to retain coach Payne through the new year, he told WDRB’s Eric Crawford “I want this basketball team to be great, and it’s a long way from that right now. So absolutely I understand (fan) frustrations… And if you haven’t made some deposits in the bank, people aren’t going to give you the benefit of the doubt.”

A lack of deposits in the win column makes Payne’s seat comfortably hot, but it may also be the exact thing keeping him through the new year.

If Payne were to be relieved of his position any time before April, he would be owed $8 million. If Heird were able to wait until April 1st, the buyout would drop to $6 million. For an athletic department that brought in $146 million in revenue in 2022, $2 million sounds like a drop in the bucket—it’s only one percent of the department’s revenue. Regardless of the buyout amount, it likely won’t be paid in a lump sum but rather spread out in incremental payments over several years.

This is a great way to lessen the blow of having to let a coach go early, but you’re paying someone for years to not be associated with the university. If an athletic department gets too trigger-happy with firings, then they’re on the hook for multiple buyouts. That is exactly the predicament Louisville has found itself in. Since 2018, the University of Louisville Athletic Association (ULAA) has been contractually obligated to pay a total of $35.5 million in buyouts to several parties from 2018 until 2038.

This type of payment to a former employee is what’s known as “dead money”, and it is a major problem for college sports in general. From Jan. 2010 to Jan. 2021, over $533.6 million was spent on buyouts across all college athletics programs, and Auburn University topped the list, with $31.2 million in 11 years.

From May 2018 to Jan. 2025, Louisville is set to pay over $33.6 million in “dead money”. Before 2018, the largest buyout the ULAA had ever paid was $612,000 to former head football coach Steve Kragthorpe.

Why has the amount of dead money that Louisville owes skyrocketed in recent years?

Let’s break it down.

Bobby Petrino

As one of the winningest coaches in the history of Louisville football, then-head coach Bobby Petrino left the program in 2007 for the NFL and decided to reunite for a second stint in 2014. After leading the transition into a Power 5 conference, Petrino helped Lamar Jackson become the school’s first Heisman winner in 2016.

After Jackson left for the NFL, the downturn happened and it happened fast. Petrino won only two games in his final season as the Cardinals’ coach, fielding the worst defense in the history of college football before getting fired mid-season.

The once-elite coach earned a massive contract, which entailed a massive buyout of $14 million. After negotiations with former athletic director Vince Tyra, Petrino was set to get paid $14 million in quarterly settlements from 2018 to 2021 proving that the best job in academia is a fired football coach. The largest buyout in school history was half the amount of what it originally was after the athletic director who hired him twice was let go.

Tom Jurich

Serving as athletic director from 1997 to 2017, Jurich has arguably been the best AD in school history and the best in the country during his two-decade stint. He built nearly every program under the department with his acumen for coaching hires and his aggressive approach of spending money to make money.

After a 2017 FBI investigation connected Louisville to illegal payments in basketball recruiting, a Board of Trustees meeting was called. The board—newly appointed by former Gov. Matt Bevin—gave Jurich the ultimatum of either firing then-basketball coach Rick Pitino or getting fired himself. Jurich refused and was let go by the university.

After a months-long legal battle, it was determined that there was insufficient cause for his firing and that he would be owed his full buyout. Jurich was set to be paid a one-time payment of $4.5 million, $2.7 million in deferred monthly payments over 20 years, and full healthcare and medical coverage until he and his wife are eligible for Medicare. What often goes unmentioned is the court costs the ULAA had to pay in their legal battle with both Jurich and Pitino, the latter of which they were able to narrowly avoid paying an astronomical buyout for.

Chris Mack

In the wake of the Pitino firing, Xavier basketball head coach Chris Mack was the choice in 2018 to stabilize the program. Mack took Xavier to their only 1-seed in the NCAA tournament in program history and best-ever tournament finish. When Mack came to Louisville, he immediately improved upon the previous season with a tournament berth and coached the Cards to as high as the No. 1 ranking in the AP Poll in year two.

Mack’s downfall came with the COVID-19 pandemic, cutting his promising second year cut short when the tournament was canceled. The following season, Mack’s team—clearly tournament-caliber—was the first to miss the field as a mishandling of COVID protocols caused a middling 13-7 record. After firing two quality assistants, Mack and Louisville found themselves in another FBI investigation when it was found that assistant coach Dino Gaudio threatened to extort Mack over recruitment violations and misuse of graduate assistants. Due to Mack’s initial lying to the FBI in a statement about the extortion, he served a six-game suspension at the beginning of his fourth season. Once Mack returned, there was a strange dynamic between him and assistant coach Mike Pegues—who served as the interim coach during Mack’s suspension—as if the players didn’t know who to listen to.

The situation grew so toxic that Mack was almost certain to be let go at the end of the season. Instead of waiting until the end of the year to receive his $12 million buyout, Mack negotiated a buyout mid-season for $4.8 million. Per the negotiations, Mack will be paid $133.33 thousand at the end of each month through Jan 31, 2025, along with having received full healthcare until June 2023.

Papa John’s

When Louisville made the blockbuster hire of Howard Schnellenberger to be the head football coach in 1985, the football program seemed destined for upward mobility. When the winning seasons started rolling in during the early ‘90s—like any burgeoning program—it was time for a new stadium to look the part, too. With the Kentucky General Assembly unable, or unwilling, to provide funding for the stadium, the university needed to secure private funds to avoid being in stadium limbo. Enter Papa John’s.

The former Papa John’s CEO, John Schnatter, grew up a fan of U of L sports, and when his favorite football team was strapped for cash he was more than willing to foot the bill. In exchange for charitable donations from the company, Papa John’s won the naming rights to the stadium, and the deal was renewed in 2007 through 2040. Twenty years after the stadium was open to the public, Schnatter was ousted from Papa John’s after using a racial slur during a company conference call.

Louisville responded by prematurely terminating its naming rights contract with Papa John’s following the 2018 football season. The settlement reached between the two saw the ULAA paying $1.5 million to Papa John’s in 2019 immediately following the settlement, and $2 million every July through 2024.

This all brings us back to Coach Payne. I don’t have any insider information, but at this point in his tenure, it feels like the question is not if but when he’ll be fired.

Regardless of when it happens, it will undoubtedly put more strain on an athletic department that’s been cursed with bad luck, situations, and hires.

File Photo // Vinny Porco, The Louisville Cardinal