A Farewell to Kevin Stallings

Eli Horowitz | Medium Talk Co-Creator

On Sunday morning, Jeff Goodman of ESPN announced that ex-Vanderbilt Head Coach Kevin Stallings accepted a six-year deal to become the new Head Coach at Pittsburgh. As an active participant in the “Fire Kevin Stallings” Facebook group and someone who wrote multiple pieces slamming the team this year, the news came as a sigh of relief. While fans are certainly excited to start a new era, a straight-up firing would have been ugly. While Stallings was a flawed and disappointing coach, there is no doubt he was the most successful coach in Vanderbilt history.

It’s a bit of a head-scratcher for Pitt to go from Jamie Dixon to Kevin Stallings. Not only does this seem like a downgrade from a resume standpoint, but Pitt senior Sheldon Jeter transferred from Vanderbilt his freshmen year in dramatic fashion. But as in any industry, nepotism and connections trump logic and merit. Pitt Athletic Director Scott Barnes employed the consultants from Collegiate Sports Associates to help with their search. Todd Turner, the former Vanderbilt AD who hired Stallings in 1999, is the President of that firm. What is Pitt paying Athletic Director Scott Barnes for again?

For Vanderbilt, they lose a coach with a 332-220 record, seven NCAA appearances, and a couple of Sweet Sixteen campaigns. These are notable accomplishments for a private school in the SEC. But when you factor in that it was a 17-year stint and that the Commodores had a losing record in SEC play over that span, the legacy is muddled.

When you look back at recruitment, it’s difficult to evaluate Stallings’ success. One on hand, Stallings got players like Shan Foster, Derrick Byars, A.J. Ogilvy, Jeffery Taylor, Festus Ezeli, John Jenkins, Damian Jones, Wade Baldwin IV, and Luke Kornet to the Nashville campus. But he also gave SEC DI scholarships to Josh Henderson and Shelby Moats. He also banked on players like Rod Odom and Riley LaChance who regressed. I think recruitment had two main problems: (1) Stallings couldn’t fill out an entire roster. The years he had NBA talent such as this season and the Ezeli/Taylor/Jenkins years, he also relied heavily on subpar complementary players; (2) Talented players didn’t develop under Stallings.

What hurts Stallings’ legacy the most are the NCAA tournament losses to #13 Siena (2008), #13 Murray State (2010), and #12 Richmond (2011). To lose three times in four years to double-digit seeds is a trend. While the nature of a single elimination tournament isn’t fair to head coaches in many ways, Stallings couldn’t get players mentally prepared for these big games. The same types of issues plagued these early-upset teams: giving up offensive rebounds, turnovers, and a lack of timely play-making from the so-called stars. Overall, Vanderbilt teams under Kevin Stallings lacked toughness.

NCAA analysts laud Kevin Stallings X’s and O’s ability. They might be right. But I don’t find that impressive. Learning X’s and O’s is like learning a language: while it is certainly not easy, anyone willing to put in the time and practice can figure it out. You can read books, watch videos, talk to coaches, and pick up all the tricks of the trade. I think what separates decent coaches from the best is the ability to develop relationships with players and motivate guys to play like every game is game 7 of the NBA finals. You see that with any team Shaka Smart coaches. You see that with any team Brad Stevens or Greg Marshall coaches. The list goes on.

There also appeared to be a disconnect between coaches and players. Players didn’t dap up the coach when subbing out of the game. Players were yelled at constantly. Emotion only came out in the form of negativity. Players were blamed for losses. Excuses were made in interviews. Overall, Kevin Stallings wasn’t able to establish a positive culture that could transcend the highs and lows of one great game or one bad loss.

This changing of the guard is probably three to five years too late, but nevertheless, it’s here. Everything you’ll read online will suggest replacements such as Will Wade (VCU), King Rice (Monmouth), Tommy Amaker (Harvard), James Jones (Yale), and Rick Byrd (Belmont). What Vanderbilt needs is someone who emphasizes and preaches mental toughness. A coach who demands rebounding, defense, and ball security more than offensive flow, shooting, or pace. To win in March, when one bad shooting night can derail your entire season, you have to be tough. That starts with the Head Coach. Will Wade seems like the right choice based on the eye-test of his teams. He also seems like someone who would simply use Vanderbilt to get a better job. Either way, Vanderbilt Athletic Director David Williams must be able to understand the shortcomings of Kevin Stallings and find a coach who represents the exact opposite.

I’ll end with this:

Best Win: 2012, Vanderbilt beat Kentucky in the SEC tournament championship. I was driving back from my senior cruise and stopped at a Buffalo Wild Wings in rural ________ (some state between Louisiana and Tennessee…I honestly don’t remember). The generic Southern fans at the bar were rooting for Kentucky. It was epic. A fitting note is that the hero of the game, Kedren Johnson, showed the type of mental toughness lacking on Vanderbilt teams. He transferred.

Worst Loss: 2012, Vanderbilt loses in the second-round to Wisconsin. Vanderbilt has three NBA players on the roster. Wisconsin has…well… a culture of winning.