Padgett and the Cards making the best of an unfair situation
By Howie Lindsey of 790 KRD
To borrow a line from the legendary Whitney Houston, “It’s not right, but it’s OK….”
David Padgett and the Cardinals are going to make it anyway.
The situation Padgett and the Cardinals were handed wasn’t right – in fact it was extremely wrong: A 32-year old assistant coach being thrust into the head coaching spot, alone, at one of the most powerful programs in the nation? And the Cardinals were just days away from starting full-time practice for the season?
Oh, and by the way, he didn’t have a single other assistant coach for a week and didn’t have a full coaching staff until just a couple of weeks before the first game.
Padgett flew back to Louisville from an Orlando recruiting visit the day the scandal broke. He had to deal with coaching the team, talking to the press, encouraging his team during one of the most frustrating moments of their lives and trying to figure out who would help him moving forward. He did all this while trying to figure out the details of an unfolding FBI investigation that seemed to suggest a large portion of college basketball has a pay-for-play system.
With so much thrown on his plate, Padgett’s first thought had to be just get through the end of the day. He called on seniors Anas Mahmoud and Quentin Snider to help. The pair unfortunately had been through a scandal before.
“Unfortunately, they have experience dealing with adverse situations,” Padgett said. “… These guys have the unbelievable ability to not worry about what doesn’t really concern them. It’s amazing to see. It really is. Their concern is coming to practice and working and games.”
Padgett and the Cardinals focused on what they could control: themselves. In fact, the day after the FBI mess came down, the day that Rick Pitino was suspended, you might find it surprising that the team had a workout. But that’s what they did.
“Those were the toughest days,” Mahmoud told Courier Journal (formerly known as The Courier-Journal). “The first week overall was really tough for us to handle. You hear a lot of stuff from outsiders, and then you have to face what you know and what you think you know. … You read all the stories and you don’t know what’s true or not.”
Padgett focused the players in those early days after the scandal. He told them to work on their game. He established the Yum! Center practice facility on campus as a safe place where they could be sequestered from the cameras and reporters.
“Basketball is our escape,” Snider said.
“The way they’ve handled this whole thing has been unbelievable,” Padgett said. “I have a special group here. They want to work. They want to be good. I always tell them: I’m not going to get on you guys unless you give me a reason to. I just coach them according to how they’re playing that day.”
The team made it through those early days by sticking together. They started practicing, added a veteran coach to the staff in Trent Johnson and focused on their work. New assistants Greg Paulus and R.J. Evans were added about a week later and the routine of games helped bring some normalcy.
After Padgett and the Cardinals survived those first few weeks, they faced their first road test: a showdown at notoriously tough Mackey Arena vs. Top 25 Purdue. And it was brutal.
The team took the court for warm-ups as a crew of students in FBI t-shirts shouted jeers. The student section screamed insults about hookers and strippers and bags of money throughout the next three hours.
Louisville didn’t get a win at Purdue – too much foul trouble assured that, but they survived. And they went back to work. They won some home games, dropped a tough game to Seton Hall, but then they won their next road test vs. Memphis in Madison Square Garden.
And along the way, Padgett and the Cardinals shifted from survival mode to having fun again.
Padgett explained, “However long the season is, I want our players to enjoy it more than anything. Because I remember being a college basketball player; you only get however many years: four, sometimes five. You need to enjoy your season. This one, obviously, got off to a bit of a rocky start, but I just want to be sure they enjoy it however they can.”
And a funny thing happened to Padgett along the way. He found his voice as a coach.
Padgett joked early on that he couldn’t hack the acerbic, cutting style of Pitino. The players talked about him being more laid back, more fun in practice.
But about mid-December, Padgett told Paul Rogers, the play-by-play voice of the Cardinals, that he is more “intense” than he ever thought he would be. And Rogers confirmed that he and broadcast partner Bob Valvano started to see Padgett evolve from an assistant to an intense head coach as Louisville pushed through its December schedule.
Padgett, who even in late December was telling media he had no thoughts about trying to win the Louisville head coaching job long-term, was becoming his own style of coach.
“I mean, Coach Pitino’s one of a kind,” Padgett said. “And his style was obviously extremely successful, but with that being said, there’s more than one way to coach a basketball team, and I just need to coach this team the best way I see fit. Now, does that mean I’m going to be their best friend and Mr. Nice Guy every day? No, not even close. If I don’t think they’re doing what I expect or I demand, I’m going to let them know about it. And that’s been the biggest transition so far, me just going from the assistant coach, good-guy role to all of a sudden now, you know, and I don’t like the cliche ‘good-cop, bad-cop,’ but now, I’m not going to be their best friend every day anymore, because that’s what the assistant coaches are for.”
As Padgett found his style, the Cardinals found a new motivation in the doubts of others. They still believe they can be a great team.
“There’s nothing wrong with us,” Mahmoud told ESPN’s Jeff Borzello. “We lost our coach. I completely understand that people don’t know how good our team is going to be. It’s motivation for us to show people this team is still a national championship contender.”
To get there, Louisville will need to survive one of the toughest conference slates in Louisville history. The ACC could have eight, nine or even 10 teams in the NCAA Tournament this season.
But the good news is that perhaps no team in recent Louisville memory has had more potential than this one. Deng Adel could become every bit the star his former roommate Donovan Mitchell became last season. Ray Spalding has the potential to be a first-round draft pick with his incredible athleticism and length. Anas Mahmoud’s agility for a center of his height is incredible. And VJ King and Quentin Snider have the ability to score on every possession. And that’s not to mention the vast potential of Louisville’s strong freshman class.
We don’t know yet how good this Louisville team will be. But we do know that it is extraordinary that they are still together after all the grief, scandal and upheaval they have been through.
It’s not right, but it’s OK.
These Cardinals believe they are going to make it any way.
IN FACT, THE DAY AFTER THE FBI MESS CAME DOWN, THE DAY THAT RICK PITINO WAS SUSPENDED, YOU MIGHT FIND IT SURPRISING THAT THE TEAM HAD A WORKOUT. BUT THAT’S WHAT THEY DID.