LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - David Padgett suspected his tenure as the head basketball coach at the University of Louisville would be short-lived, so when the almost inevitable news was delivered Wednesday in the office of interim athletics director Vince Tyra, it came as no surprise.
"Unless we did something magical, it was probably going to be a little bit of a longshot for me to retain this," Padgett said Wednesday afternoon, about two hours after Tyra informed him he was being released from his one-year contract and 16 hours after U of L's season ended with a 79-56 loss to Mississippi State in the quarterfinals of the NIT.
It probably would have taken Lance Burton to work something magical with this imperfect group of Cardinals, who finished with a 22-14 record, including a 9-9 mark in the Atlantic Coast Conference and failed to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
"I'd love to be the head coach here for the rest of my life, that's how important this place is to me," Padgett said. "But I don't live in a fairy tale world. I'm not on social media, but I also don't live in a bubble. I know the chatter about what's going on. So it wasn't a surprise.
"It wasn't a situation where I was like, 'Oh my God, I can't believe they're not keeping me. What do I have to do?’ I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I understand how this whole thing works. It was pretty cut and dried."
The Cards didn't do badly under Padgett's direction; they just didn't do quite good enough. They were 37th in the Ken Pomeroy power rankings, racked up a few memorable victories, and only one coach in UofL history has won more games in his first season – Denny Crum, who won 26 in 1970-71.
Padgett was asked if he thought he could have kept the job if U of L had gone to the NCAAs.
"Not making the tournament, I think. . .I don't think you could say, 'if you guys made the tournament you would have had a chance,'" he said. "I don't think you can play that game, and there's no point in playing that game. I told Vince that the only regret I have is that I didn't get the seniors a chance to play in the tournament."
Padgett, at the time the third-youngest head coach in Division I at 32, took over under unprecedented circumstances after Hall of Famer Rick Pitino was fired in the wake of his program’s involvement in an FBI investigation into college basketball corruption.
The changeover came as practice got underway for the 2017-18 season. Padgett had no assistants to help him run practice or any other aspect of the program, which would have been burden enough for a veteran coach, let alone a rookie. He was finally able to hire three assistants, and then he continued to undergo on-the-job training, admitting to mistakes as he went.
“We all owe a great debt of gratitude to David for his leadership and poise this season," Tyra said in a statement. "He took over during incredible circumstances and has handled himself respectfully throughout the season and I believe he has a bright future in coaching."
Padgett had been an assistant since 2014, had developed a close relationship with the older players and they lobbied university administration for him to get the job when Pitino was fired. The bond only drew closer during the season.
“I don’t think anyone else could’ve done in this situation what Coach Padgett did,” freshman Jordan Nwora said after Tuesday's game. “He did everything anyone could have asked of him in a really difficult situation.”
Said junior Ray Spalding: “Nothing but love and respect for David Padgett. He’s been like a father figure to me, more of a role model. I wouldn’t have wanted anyone else to come into this situation.”
After the late-night loss to Mississippi State, Padgett said he went home, sat down, had a couple glasses of cabernet sauvignon wine, reflected on the whirlwind of the past six months and started thinking about his future.
"It was a learning experience. From a personal standpoint, from a professional standpoint, from a coaching standpoint, for a lot of reasons," Padgett said. "And all things considered, I think it went really well. Did I learn a lot? Of course, I did. Did I learn when I needed to call timeouts better? Yes. Substitutions, all kinds of stuff.
"More than anything, I learned that I have confidence to know I can do this moving forward and I hope somebody out there will give me a chance to be a head coach somewhere else because it's something I really want to do. I want to be in this profession for a long time; it's something I really enjoy. Hopefully, I can be successful at another place."
Padgett said although he wants to land a head coaching job, he realizes he might have to settle for an assistant's position next season if that's the only option because "you don't want to be left without a chair when the music stops."
As soon as he was let go, he went to Minardi Hall to inform his players before they could find out from social media.
"I don't think anybody was overly surprised," Padgett said. "We have a great relationship and I just wanted them to hear it from me first. I thought that was important. I told them, 'If you guys ever need anything don't ever hesitate.'"
Padgett handled his dismissal the way he handled the head coaching job the past six months - with dignity, grace and class. U of L sports information director Kenny Klein was set to distribute a release on the development, but Padgett told him he wanted to talk to the local media one last time.
In doing so, he thanked a long list of people that included his family, players, staff, fans, Klein, the media and Pitino. And perhaps for the 100th time, he praised his players for the way they overcame a bad situation.
"I don't think this is bad," Padgett said near the end. "It's a weird feeling, but it's not a feeling of sadness or anything like that. The circumstances we dealt with were like none other that have ever happened in college basketball, or college sports for that matter. So we just tried to deal with it the best we could and I think we handled it really well.
"You know it's coming. Until you actually hear it, it's hard to sink in. But I'm going to walk out of this room with my head held high because I gave this program and these players every single ounce of energy I had and they did the same in return."
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.