Basketball · Pitt Basketball

The Curious Kevin Stallings Hire

Less than a week after Jamie Dixon departed for TCU, Pitt basketball has a new head coach. Athletic Director Scott Barnes has hired Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings to fill the position in what should be considered a dubious decision at best. The move to bring in Stallings makes little sense on any level. It has been publically bashed by the general fan base and college basketball analysts alike.

Upon Dixon’s exit, Barnes preached of bringing on an exciting new hire capable of revitalizing the program. Stallings simply doesn’t fit the bill. On the surface it looks bad. Pitt let a far more successful coach in Jamie Dixon walk away then brought in the underwhelming Stallings.

Where discord existed among Pitt fans and boosters was with Dixon’s inability to make extended runs in March Madness, Stallings has fared worse. Dixon at least made an Elite Eight appearance in 2009. Stallings never advanced past the Sweet 16 in 17 years at Vanderbilt. Just getting his teams into the tournament was far from a lock for Stallings. At Pitt Jamie Dixon’s Panthers made 11 NCAA Tournament appearances in 13 seasons. Comparatively, under Stallings watch Vanderbilt made the tournament only seven times in those 17 years.

Pitt’s inability to hit the mark as a top competitor in the ACC, only two years in, was another knock on Dixon’s regime. Kevin Stallings is coming from a weaker basketball conference in the SEC, according to both RPI and BPI ratings. Even in Nashville, he wasn’t setting the world on fire with a career record in SEC play of 138-142, and he failed to win a single SEC regular season title.

The timing of the hiring is bizarre. Stallings isn’t exactly a hot commodity. Vanderbilt didn’t make the NCAA Tournament for three consecutive seasons before narrowly getting in the field as a play in team this year. Slotted in the top 25 preseason, the Commodores badly underachieved finishing a disappointing 19-14. Their season ended in particularly embarrassing fashion. Vanderbilt lost its first SEC Tournament game to a 15-19 Tennessee team playing without its leading scorer Kevin Punter and then got shellacked by Wichita State in one of the four NCAA play-in games, losing by 20 points.

Stallings wasn’t even a guarantee to return for another season at Vanderbilt. There was a ground swell of anti-Stallings sentiment around the program and a distinct possibility of him being removed as head coach. The fact that Pitt AD Scott Barnes agreed to pay Vanderbilt a buyout for a coach they were debating on dumping is irresponsible and borderline negligent.

An added factor to the debacle is the strange nature by which Stallings name came to the forefront. In the initial stages of the search Stallings wasn’t even on Pitt’s radar. That changed when Scott Barnes enlisted the services of sports staffing firm Collegiate Sports Associates. The man who runs the firm, Todd Turner, has history with both Stallings and Barnes.

While serving as Athletic Director at Vanderbilt, Turner was the man who directly hired Kevin Stallings as head coach. In his next stop at the University of Washington, Turner brought on Barnes to serve as his assistant. It’s not difficult to imagine Turner pitching his guy as opposed to the best guy, and using his connections to both men as a way to push a subpar candidate onto his buddy’s hands at Pitt.

In fact why use an agency at all? Before Barnes arrival at Pitt last year, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher conducted his own search to fill the vacant head coaching position for Pitt’s football team. Gallagher made a stupendous hire snagging Pat Narduzzi, a young up-and-coming coach whose mentality and tenacious attitude were a perfect match for the city of Pittsburgh and the University itself . In Narduzzi’s first season a revived Panthers team notched its highest win total in five years and has a distinctly positive outlook moving forward. It is baffling to me that Scott Barnes would dismiss a formula that just produced Pitt’s best major sports hire in recent memory.

An added consequence of the Stallings hire, Scott Barnes has not only endangered Pitt’s long-term wellbeing, but alienated the current roster. Key Pitt reserve Sheldon Jeter started his college career at Vanderbilt playing for Stallings. After his freshman season Jeter expressed a desire to transfer so that he could play closer to home. Stallings refused to grant Jeter his release, forcing him to attend junior college for a year before being allowed to play for Pitt. I would be more surprised if Jeter returned to Pitt for his senior season than if he chose to leave. I’d be flat out shocked if Jeter had any positive sentiment to share with his teammates about a coach who kept him in limbo for a year of his life because of a grudge.

In summary, this looks like a tenuous hire, no matter how you spin it. Barnes failed in both process and resolution. His inability to peg what the program desperately needed in its new head coach proved he is either out of touch with those around him or doesn’t understand the landscape of an ACC. The biggest shame of it all is that Barnes had a real opportunity to pick a coach capable of raising the bar for Pitt. Instead, it appears he dropped the bar even lower.

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