May 07, 2014

Kenny Payne Kenny Payne is now the top-paid assistant coach in college basketball, earning $500,000 per year. (File/Getty)

Kentucky evidently wants to convince its assistant coaches that being a head coach anywhere else might represent a step down. On Wednesday it announced new contracts for two of John Calipari's assistants, Kenny Payne and John Robic. Robic received a two-year deal worth $375,000 per year, the same money that recently hired assistant Barry Rohrssen got. Payne's payday is the eye-opener, though: Also a two-year contract, but worth $1 million overall.

Put in perspective: Payne's $500,000 salary means he'll earn more than at least 16 head coaches of 2014 NCAA tournament teams made last year, per USA Today's coaching salary database. (There was no information available on 10 of the schools in the field, including Mercer, American, Mt. St. Mary's and Delaware, so Payne's pay could outpace even more coaches.)

"There’s not a better partner to work with to help these young men achieve their dreams,” Calipari said of Payne in a statement announcing the new deals. “His feel for the game and ability to develop players is second to none. I have all the confidence in the world that Kenny will make a great head coach someday, but we're ecstatic to have him as a part of our staff as associate head coach for the near future.”

It's the smart move to make -- if you have the resources  -- on several levels. Continuity always helps, and Kentucky has made the Final Four three of the past four seasons. And though there is oppressive pressure to win in Lexington, few assistant coaching spots offer a greater profile. It's arguable plenty of head coaching jobs can't match it. Compensating assistants handsomely allows Kentucky to keep them for longer, as they're more picky about which head coaching jobs they'll take.

Not to be ignored is the satisfaction it offers Calipari. He's better off at the college level, but giving him all available resources to maintain his staff gives him one more reason to ignore any calls from the NBA. If Kentucky wants its head coach to stick around, paying the assistants is an indirect way to encourage that as well. (Given that neither Payne nor Robic dominated the coaching carousel rumor mill -- at least publicly, anyway -- their windfalls might be something Calipari leveraged thanks to reported interest from the Lakers.) As Calipari noted, assistants will leave eventually. The raises suggest they'll linger until finding a really good reason to do so. Orlando Antigua moved on to South Florida this offseason, and while no one will mistake that program for a thriving powerhouse, it's in a decent conference (the AAC) and in a state that featured 10 of's top 150 prospects for the Class of 2014. It's not Kentucky, but it's not a backwoods job in need of a gut rehab, either. Antigua was able wait for what he felt was the right opportunity. The school has ensured, quite literally, that the remaining assistants can afford to do the same.

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