Pat Kelsey wasn't Louisville's first or even second choice, but can still be successful as Cardinals coach

by 24USATVMarch 28, 2024, 3 a.m. 22
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Every Louisville coaching search of my lifetime hasn't turned out well -- evidence being that Louisville just had to conduct a coaching search two years after conducting another coaching search that came just four years after Louisville's previous coaching search concluded.

But every Louisville coaching search of my lifetime has more or less landed in an obvious place that excited the fanbase. The Cardinals have never shopped too far down their list of candidates.

After, or even before, Denny Crum retired in 2001, Louisville dreamed of Rick Pitino and landed him. After Pitino was fired in 2017, Louisville wanted Chris Mack and landed him. After Mack resigned in 2022, Louisville prioritized Kenny Payne and landed him. Did all of those things work out? Obviously not. But the point is that Louisville has forever been the type of place candidates have had a hard time turning down -- most notably Mack, who left his alma mater (Xavier) just weeks after securing a No. 1 seed in the 2018 NCAA Tournament because even he believed the Louisville job was too good of a job to turn down.

Things have clearly changed, though.

That's what the past few weeks have shown us.

Because on Thursday afternoon, on a campus that has celebrated three national championships, Louisville will introduce Pat Kelsey as its next basketball coach. To be clear, he might be great -- and I hope that he is. But I think even Pat Kelsey would tell you that he's not taking this job with anything close to the resumes Pitino and Mack brought to the table nor the fanfare that accompanied Payne's hiring, misguided as it was.

The Cardinals wanted Scott Drew -- but he instead wanted to stay at Baylor. The Cardinals wanted FAU coach Dusty May -- but he instead wanted to move to Michigan. Depending on the source, at least one or two or 20,000 other people directly or indirectly passed on the job before Louisville turned to Kelsey, who has been a Division I coach for 12 years but never won an NCAA Tournament game. Again, to be clear, that neither means this is a bad hire nor doomed to fail. Kelsey is a sharp guy with tons of energy and a big personality. I could easily see this working and working well.

But that's not the point.

The point is that the market just showed us that the Louisville job, for one reason or another, has slipped in stature dramatically since the school hired a Big East coach in March 2018 who'd just made eight NCAA Tournaments in a nine-year span and advanced to the Sweet 16 four different times. For one reason or another, Louisville couldn't sniff that kind of candidate this time around.

Is it because Payne ran the program further into the ground than anybody could've reasonably imagined? Or because of the uncertainty surrounding the future of the ACC? Or because Louisville's search was amateur-hour on full display in a way that made things more difficult than they should've been?

Either way, it doesn't matter now. Because, at Louisville, all that matters now is that the school and community give Kelsey the resources necessary to succeed. Rest assured, his work ethic will cheat nobody. If this goes well, it'll be because he was always built for this type of job. If this doesn't go well, it won't be because he neither understood the job he's taking nor how to attack it.

As always, we'll see.

It's just that -- and I guess this is my bottom line, but it's just that -- it's wild to think about Louisville going from a place that employed Naismith Memorial Hall of Famers and hired Big East champions to a place that's now hiring someone who might be equally great but doesn't come with anything close to the same kind of credentials. Pat Kelsey could be the perfect person to return the Cardinals to relevancy. Like I said, we'll see. But this entire situation should serve as a reminder to every other elite program in the sport that even you can slip significantly when bad decisions follow bad decisions.

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