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Meet The New Boss: What does Pitt have in new basketball coach Kevin Stallings?

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Was the unanimously negative response of Pitt fans and college basketball experts to the hiring of Kevin Stallings an over-reaction?

When the University of Pittsburgh parted ways with football head coach Paul Chryst after the 2014 season, many wondered if the athletic department was going to find someone to reshape the middle of the pack ACC program into a top-tier contender.

The hiring of former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi may have done just that, ushering in a new era of confidence and high expectations for the Panthers.

Things did not happen so smoothly for the basketball team.

When Jamie Dixon accepted the head coaching position at TCU, his departure was greeted by many Pitt fans as a positive. A large portion of the Pitt fan base wished Dixon well, but wanted a fresh start in the form of a young up-and-coming coach.

Instead, what they got was Kevin Stallings - a 17-year veteran of Vanderbilt University and a coach who had accumulated a 138-142 conference record, with one SEC regular season title, and seven NCAA Tournament appearances over that span.

The hire was almost universally criticized by fans and media alike. In the month that followed, Stallings convinced all three Pitt recruits to honor their commitments to the Panthers and not one player has decided to transfer -- highly unusual in today's era even without a coaching change.

So, was the unanimously negative reaction from experts and fans a bit of an over-reaction?

“The mistake that some Pitt fans made was to miss on the fact that they just exited the greatest era in the history of their program,” said Hall-of-Fame basketball writer Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News. “Instead of building a statue for Jamie Dixon, they basically opened the door for him to leave.”

Dixon was the main catalyst in vaulting the Panthers into an upper-tier program in the Big East. But as unjust as it may have been for fans to want a change so desperately, it may have been just as unfair to bury the new coach before he even led one practice.

“I don’t believe in the idea of a hire being bad or good before a game has been played,” said Vanderbilt beat writer Adam Sparks, who covered Vanderbilt for The Tennessean. “Some of the most successful coaches lost the press conference, so to speak.

“Rest assured, Stallings can coach. He will coach up a bad team to respectability, and he’s known as an excellent X’s and O’s offensive coach.”
Pitt Kevin Stallings
Stallings outstayed his welcome at Vandy, for sure. Seventeen years is a long time to be at one program, especially if the high-water marks were two appearances in the Sweet 16.

Sparks noted that there was no “newness or surprises” after so many years for Stallings' program, so it felt like it was time for both parties to go their separate ways.

Sound familiar?

Dixon took over the head coaching duties at Pitt in 2003. That adds up to 13 years running the team, plus four seasons prior to that serving as an assistant under coach Ben Howland. In total, he spent his past 17 years with the Panthers, leading them to 11 NCAA Tournament appearances and one trip to the Elite Eight in 2009.

Not many thought he was a bad coach; it was simply time to move on -- from the university’s and coach’s standpoints.

“It’s really usually not that hard to find the bad coaches,” DeCourcy said. “They’re the ones who lose all the time. Generally, good coaches find a way to win some.”

Stallings didn’t make as many trips to the Big Dance as Dixon, nor did he make as many “deep” runs into March. He had a lower winning percentage than Dixon, including a losing record in SEC play.

But Vanderbilt has traditionally been a difficult place to win, and Stallings won his fair share.

He also gets the most out of his players, whether they like him or not.

“Stallings is hard-nosed, disciplined (and) fiery,” Sparks said. “He can be abrasive with some, tough love with others. He’s never been accused of coddling players. Players appreciate his honesty, but some get worn down by him over time. For what it’s worth, his Vanderbilt players were upset to see him go.”

In terms of pure coaching ability, Stallings can outwit the best as a tactician. He is well-regarded by opposing coaches for his offensive mind, according to Sparks -- in particular, the in-bounds plays Stallings draws up. 

He also has one seemingly unappreciated skill to his credit. Something that helps assemble a roster full of talent in all facets of the game: scouting.

“He clearly has an eye for talent,” DeCourcy said. “That’s one of the most underrated skills a college coach can have -- being a good scout. He sees the guys that can blossom, and I think that he sees these guys better than a lot of people do.”

Just this previous season, Stallings coached two NBA prospects in Wade Baldwin and Damian Jones. Though, the Commodores still got bounced in the First Four of the NCAA Tournament by Wichita State.

And that may be the drawback to an otherwise perfectly suitable coach for a program like Pitt. Stallings has consistently disappointed in postseason play, even when he had more than enough talent to make a run.

If Pitt fans wanted one thing, it was to get a coach who could get their program deep into the NCAA tourney on a consistent basis. Even Dixon was not able to do that; that’s partly why fans grew tired of him.

So, in that regard, Stallings has a long way to go to equal the success of his predecessor.

Pitt Kevin Stallings and Scott Barnes“He hasn’t been able to -- in any circumstance -- exceed (expectations),” said DeCourcy. “Vanderbilt’s good seasons were good, they were never extraordinary. And there were times when he had enough talent that extraordinary should have been possible, within reach.”

If the Panthers want to have any hope of contending in the upper echelon of the ACC, Stallings will have to start exceeding the increasingly high expectations laid before him.

And his leash will be short, so it has to be soon, if not right away.

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