When Kiara Rinfrow heard who was the new girls basketball coach at Western, the junior forward went straight to Google.
Search: Phillip Payne.
“I was like, ‘Wow, our coach went to the NFL,’ ” Rinfrow recalled. “I’ve never had a person who went so far in their life coach us. It’s a life-changing experience.”
Payne was a standout wide receiver for UNLV from 2008 to 2011, and the local product remains one of the Rebels’ most popular players of the past decade.
With his playing career finished, Payne has transitioned into coaching and hopes to use his experience to make a difference at Western, his high school alma mater.
“I always wanted to come back, but I never thought it would be in this aspect,” Payne said. “This is where it essentially started for me, so to be able to jump-start something for these kids is a great thing to me. I can push them to do great things.”
Payne departed UNLV as the school’s all-time leader in touchdown catches (26), and he is best known for his one-handed grab while falling backward in the end zone to help the Rebels upset Arizona State during his freshman year.
Payne signed with the San Diego Chargers as an undrafted free agent in 2012 and also spent time in the Arena Football League. When his playing days ended, Payne’s best friend, Guillermo Bonnet-Laboy, encouraged him to pursue coaching.
Payne enrolled in the Clark County School District’s Alternative Routes to Licensure (ARL) Program and last year was an assistant for Western’s JV boys basketball team. When the girls job opened up for this season, Payne was asked to take over.
“I figured it would be entertaining having a coach like him, knowing all his past experiences,” sophomore guard Adrianna Jones said. “He knows how to have fun, but he also wants us to push ourselves to do our best.”
During his junior season at UNLV, Payne was suspended two games for criticizing first-year Rebels coach Bobby Hauck on Twitter. Payne, who turns 27 next month, said that incident helps him relate to his current players.
“I actually had a kid that clashed with me in that same manner, and instead of pushing it away, we brought it together, brought it to light,” Payne said. “It gives me that understanding of where they come from.”
Western is tied for third place in the Class 3A Sunset League with six league games remaining. The top four teams make the postseason. The Warriors (7-8, 2-2 Sunset League) have no seniors and only three juniors on their 13-player roster.
“I just think the journey with them is the greatest thing,” Payne said. “We started at a low point just getting familiar with me, what I expect. And we’re continually getting better every day.”
Payne said he initially wanted to become a football coach after his playing days were finished and would not rule out becoming involved with the Warriors’ struggling football program.
For now, though, Payne plans to build the girls basketball program into a contender for the 3A state title.
“I always want to at least have a hand with Western, just because I feel like this is home,” Payne said. “Everybody that’s gone through Western appreciates Western for what it is. I want to bring back that sense of tradition here, at least in whatever way I can.”
Contact reporter David Schoen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-5203. Follow @DavidSchoenLVRJ on Twitter.