Sharing the stage for the first time as opposing men’s basketball coaches, University of Kentucky (UK)’s John Calipari and University of Louisville (UofL)’s Kenny Payne talked leadership and unity among other topics at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s 76th Annual Dinner Wednesday.
At UK, Payne worked under Calipari as an assistant coach from 2010-2014 and as associate head coach from 2014-2020, before taking an assistant job for the NBA’s New York Knicks. The two coaches have remained close friends throughout their respective careers, even after Payne accepted the head coaching job at UofL in March of 2022.
In a panel discussion moderated by KET’s Renee Shaw, the two friends took a few light jabs at each other before the crowd of nearly 800, but the majority of comments were complimentary in nature.
“He should’ve been a head coach long ago, folks, you all are lucky,” Calipari said of Payne. “Isn’t it funny how things work out? He gets to come back to his alma mater and coach at a place that is vital for our state.”
Payne emphasized the importance of having mentors that care throughout an individual’s career and said working with Calipari every day was an unbelievable experience that helped Payne learn to put the players first.
Both coaches talked about their leadership styles and what drives them to coach. They also provided the audience a unique look into the demanding career of a college coach at a major division-1 basketball program.
Additionally, they spoke to the storied UK/UofL rivalry and what to expect when the two teams face off later this year.
“UofL’s program is vital for our state. That program, in our biggest city, has to do things and you have the perfect person to bring people together. I will hate playing and coaching against him but I’m happy to see him in this role. It’s good for this state,” Calipari said about Payne. “With that said, I still want to win.”
“The one thing we have to remember is that it’s not on this man (Calipari) to bring the rivalry, it’s on us. It’s on the University of Louisville. Because the state is only going to be as good as we both are. And that’s one reason I took this job. We need the rivalry to be intense and competitive but also respectful so that we can have both schools and the state on top,” Payne said.
The two will coach against each other for the first time at Rupp Arena on December 31.
The conversation concluded with the coaches sharing their views on leadership at their respective universities and communities.
“I am in a position where I cannot just worry about basketball and my players,” Calipari said. “I have to worry about the university, the community, and the state. It’s more than just basketball. When I realized we’re in the business of helping families, my job just got a lot easier. It’s about the kids enjoying the game.”
“I really don’t understand politics, but when I started watching what was going on in this community, I knew they needed someone,” Payne said. “They needed a hero. I wanted to be a part of helping the community, helping the state.”