The immediate reaction when Pitt was said to be considering Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings for its head men's basketball coaching job wasn't a good one. Things worsened when, a short time after that, Stallings was considered to be the potential pick. The level of panic remained high and hopes of a potential WWE-like swerve were desired when Pitt was said to be negotiating with him. However, by Sunday, it became official:
At complete risk of burying the lede here, allow me to elaborate on the hire for a while before I address the title of this article.
I purposefully stayed mostly away from the reactionary stuff on Sunday. It was clear the fanbase was enraged after visions of Andy Enfield or Bryce Drew had been in their systems. Writing an op-ed in the heat of the moment when reactions were high just didn't seem all that responsible, so I took some time to gather my thoughts.
Let me say this so there's no confusion - I am not a fan of the hire. I think that Pitt could have done better and/or made a bigger push to keep Jamie Dixon here and happy if there was even a remote chance of this being the end game. In my mind, a young up-and-coming coach could have provided more upside and if Stallings comes here and only keeps the status quo, I'm not sure I really see the point. But with that out of the way, let me delve a little deeper.
My initial thought when Stallings was said to be close to getting the job was largely one of bewilderment. Pitt had reportedly pursued Sean Miller, who quickly denounced any interest and reports are that his brother Archie and former Pitt coach Ben Howland weren't interested, either. By all accounts, the Panthers had done their due diligence in at least exploring those options, so I've got no beef there.
Similarly, I had no problem with assistant Brandin Knight not getting the job. As I wrote earlier, his situation was a far different one when Jamie Dixon landed the job as an assistant and not only did I understand the rationale for him not getting the gig, I thought it was probably the right move.
Next up in line were the aforementioned Enfield and Drew, who Paul Zeise of the Post-Gazette cited as getting interviews. Why Pitt didn't go in that direction isn't confirmed, but a myriad of things could have happened there. Perhaps they weren't enamored with the job to take it. Perhaps Pitt wasn't sold. For whatever the reason, neither guy ended up here despite reports linking them to the job. But the Panthers at least, by all accounts, considered several options here and this wasn't a situation of Stallings being 'the guy.'
By all indications, they settled on Stallings.
Stallings' record on paper isn't perfect or even very good. In seven of his 17 years with Vanderbilt, he reached the NCAA Tournament. But as I pointed out elsewhere, in five years, they didn't even reach the NIT. Stallings has made it to the Sweet 16 on two occasions but hasn't been there in nearly a decade, last reaching that milestone back in 2007. In the official release, athletics director Scott Barnes cited Pitt's desire to get to a Final Four, stating Stallings was on board with that goal. But in reality, not only has Stallings fallen short of that goal, he's never even been all that close.
Fans have also pointed to an incident in Stallings' career last season when he cursed at one of his players, citing it as an example that he's not fit for the Panthers' job. But while I wholeheartedly don't condone what he did, it was also done in response to his player taunting an opponent. Stallings did it, in part, to keep his own house in order. Again, I'm not condoning how he did it, but the whole situation has to be taken in context here.
Ultimately, while I don't see this as a great hire, it has more the look of a stale and uninspiring one than one that is the worst of all time. Stallings' career has been utterly mediocre by Pitt standards, but he also isn't a total unknown and it seems far more reasonable to suggest that Pitt will hover around the middle of the ACC under his watch than sink straight to the bottom. And guess what? The chance even exists that his teams overachieve and do better than that. Stallings' hiring was met with pitchforks but the reality is that he's had some success recruiting, he's won at what has traditionally been a very average/below average program, and he's known as a sound coach. This is much more of a mediocre pick than the ZOMGBURNEVERYTHING!!!!1111 one that it was made out to be on Twitter.
There was also the search firm conspiracy, which has been brought up quite a bit, so let's get that out of the way. The tl;dr is that the search firm Pitt used to find Stallings is now headed by Vanderbilt's former athletics director and the very guy that hired Stallings there. Compounding the issue is that Barnes actually worked under said guy (Todd Turner) at Washington, so there was a relationship there. In short, the idea is that Turner could have pushed Stallings on Barnes before Stallings was fired by Vanderbilt, thus allowing them to avoid paying his buyout. Barnes, in turn, would presumably be owed a favor from Turner if/when he needs his next job.
While I see the conflicts of interest that lie in such scenarios, I'm not convinced it necessarily applies here. At the end of the day, I find it difficult to wrap my head around the possibility that Barnes would purposefully hire a substandard coach that could easily come in and fail, putting his own job in jeopardy - all to gain a favor from a search firm to help him down the road should he need it. While in theory that sounds all great and X-Files-like, this is Barnes' first major hire. Would he really put his own job in jeopardy with a bad hire merely in the hopes of getting a favor from a search firm down the road? That doesn't even take into account that should he ever be fired from Pitt, it would be even harder to land a better job as it is, anyway.
Again, I get the connections and I don't even doubt that Stallings could have been suggested here in part because of them. But I don't believe that this is a situation of the search firm asking Barnes to do them a favor and him complying while hiring a coach he has no interest in.
So back to that lede thing.
Stallings is not a popular pick, especially in light of the Panthers losing Jamie Dixon to get him. The interesting thing to me is that not only has the fanbase responded with confusion, even national media members have piled on. Stallings is a veteran coach like Dixon that has had some success but at the end of the day, he's not accomplished nearly as much. To be angry at this hire is to some degree warranted and it makes little sense to sit here now with Stallings in place of Dixon and say the program is better off.
But here's the thing - this isn't Stallings' fault. Is it really worth burying a guy for simply being hired? Or to mock his personal appearance for cheap gags? Or to blame him for being the next in line to replace Jamie Dixon simply because he's the one that happened to be chosen?
If you're angry at his hiring, your energy should be focused on Barnes' decision for bringing him in. But that still shouldn't affect how you feel about Stallings or your willingness to give him a chance. And at the end of the day, he's still in charge of the program we've all supported over the years and he's done nothing to not be given the courtesy of support as he gets settled in.
If Stallings flames out and Pitt is still stuck in this glut of mediocrity after a few seasons, have at it. But just as was the case at the time of the disastrous Michael Haywood hire, which I wasn't a fan of, at the very least he deserves a chance to prove he knows what he's doing. Stallings, who was in the mix for a four-star point guard while at Vanderbilt for the Class of 2017, is already on the ball there, offering him at Pitt before he's even had his official press conference. He's recruited more NBA talent than Dixon has as a head coach. And as Zeise said after the hiring, he's known as a good Xs and Os guy, and has plenty of experience working as a head coach and also under Roy Williams and Gene Keady.
There's something there to work with and while I'm not trying to tell you that this is a great hire, it doesn't look quite like that tragic one many people think it is. It could very well end up that way, but again, it doesn't look like it. Again - let me be clear ... I'm not a fan of the hire. But I also find it far too early to make the reactionary statements of being among the worst ever.
Stallings may not be the right guy for Pitt and to be fair here, I remain perplexed as to why the Panthers needed to give him a six-year contract, which was in my estimation, probably two too long. His postseason track record doesn't suggest that the Panthers are going to be Final Four or even Elite Eight bound under his watch. But we'll never know unless he at least gets the chance to prove he's the guy and he deserves no less than that.
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