John Clay

Stallings’ Vandy departure means more new blood for SEC basketball

Kevin Stallings speaks at an introductory news conference as the new head coach for the Pittsburgh basketball team on Monday, March 28, 2016, in Pittsburgh.
Kevin Stallings speaks at an introductory news conference as the new head coach for the Pittsburgh basketball team on Monday, March 28, 2016, in Pittsburgh. The Associated Press

Kentucky fans won’t have Kevin Stallings to kick around anymore.

You’ve probably heard. Vanderbilt’s head basketball coach has left his unique baseline seat. After 17 years of whistling in Music City — boy could Stallings whistle whenever he wanted someone’s attention at the other end of the Memorial Gym floor — the 55-year-old jumped before Vandy pushed, and he landed as the new head coach at Pittsburgh, succeeding Jamie Dixon, who left the Panthers for TCU.

Stallings’ hire has not been met with universal applause, mind you.

The Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy , who grew up in the Steel City, called it a “comically poor decision.”

Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo wrote a post titled “Kevin Stallings unlikely to be the right choice to help Pitt ascend.”

You get the drift.

Stallings is a good coach, just not a great one. He went just 138-142 in the SEC, not the strongest of basketball leagues. Only seven of his teams made the NCAA Tournament. None advanced past the Sweet 16. The Commodores were notable underachievers this season, finishing 19-13 after being ranked 18th in the Associated Press’s preseason poll. They sneaked into the NCAA Tournament, only to lose to Wichita State by 20 points in the First Four.

Along the way, Stallings found ways to get under the Big Blue Nation’s skin. Maybe it was the way he vigorously protested calls in Rupp Arena. Maybe it was the fuss he caused in 2012 when he complained that UK was the only league school that didn’t have to play a conference game on a Thursday night followed by a game Saturday. Maybe it was his 12 wins over the Cats, compared to 23 losses.

Still, it will be odd not having Stallings around. Mississippi’s Andy Kennedy is now the dean of SEC coaches. Kennedy has been at Oxford for 10 seasons. Next comes Kentucky’s John Calipari and Georgia’s Mark Fox, who have been at their respective schools for seven years each. You can see Calipari shaking his head at that right now.

There has been plenty of new blood in the league recently — Rick Barnes to Tennessee, Ben Howland to Mississippi State, Avery Johnson to Alabama, Michael White to Florida just in the past year — without yielding much in the way of results. Just three SEC teams made this year’s Big Dance. Only Texas A&M reached the Sweet 16.

Now Vanderbilt has its chance at a fresh start. There’s plenty to like. True, the school has high academic standards, but recent athletic allowances have helped in that regard. Vanderbilt’s baseball team won the 2014 national title and made the championship game again last season. The NFL’s Titans and NHL’s Predators have taken a bite out of the Nashville sports entertainment dollar, but Vandy still has a loyal basketball fan base that has shown it will support a winning team.

Nashville native Will Wade, the 33-year-old head coach at VCU, was thought to be the front-runner until he reportedly agreed to a lengthy contract extension with the Richmond, Va., school on Tuesday. Rick Byrd, the long-time and very successful coach at Belmont in Nashville, undoubtedly will receive support. But Byrd is 62 and, despite his 639 wins at Belmont, unlikely to create the splash the Commodores might want in a new coach.

The logical choice would seem to be 47-year-old King Rice, who was an assistant at Vanderbilt under Stallings from 2006 through 2011. He’s been the coach at Monmouth for the past five seasons, leading the Hawks to a 28-8 record and a 17-3 Metro Atlantic record this season.

There’s another connection in Rice’s favor: Former Vanderbilt coach Eddie Fogler is helping with the search. Like Rice, Fogler played his college basketball at North Carolina under Dean Smith.

Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, the new coach surely will be adjusting to his new surroundings. At the Peterson Events Center, the benches are on the sidelines. There’ll be an adjustment period in the SEC, as well. It’ll be odd seeing someone other than Kevin Stallings standing in front of the Vanderbilt bench.

SEC basketball coaches by years at current school

  • Andy Kennedy, Mississippi, 10
  • John Calipari, Kentucky, 7
  • Mark Fox, Georgia, 7
  • Mike Anderson, Arkansas, 5
  • Billy Kennedy, Texas A&M, 5
  • Johnny Jones, LSU, 4
  • Frank Martin, South Carolina, 4
  • Kim Anderson, Missouri, 2
  • Bruce Pearl, Auburn, 2
  • Rick Barnes, Tennessee, 1
  • Ben Howland, Mississippi State, 1
  • Avery Johnson, Alabama, 1
  • Michael White, Florida, 1
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