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A short history of Vanderbilt Basketball in the modern (64+ team tournament) era

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Early tournament exits in the last three appearances combined with uneven performances during this much anticipated season have led some to question CKS' job security. Others defend his record. Looking through the narrow lens of the last five seasons (and CKS' overall tenure), this defense is perplexing to those who see greener grass with a regime change. How could a man who's overall personality can been described as "dry" have such loyal defenders?

Perhaps a long look back will help inform us about how we got here and why CKS has managed to stick around for so long despite a rather unimpressive overall record. [Disclaimer: my first experience of VU basketball was watching the 1987 VU team play in my H.S. gym prior to the Maui Classic (which at that time was in Wailuku and not Lahaina) and my first live game was VU vs. UGA at Memorial on a December night in 1990 (anybody remember that one?) - this limits my pre-1990 descriptions, though they are important to the overall discussion.]

[I would be remiss if I neglected to credit both Bill Wade (not the former VU QB) and Brian Ward (yes, that Brian Ward) with fact-checking this post. Without their assistance, this would have been kind of a mess to read, and contained many more spelling and grammatical errors.]

The glory days of VU hoops were the 1960's, when Roy Skinner roamed the baseline. Skinner had some great teams but coached in an era when only 16 teams made the tournament, and that team was typically UK from the SEC. The 1965 team with All American Clyde Lee was probably his best team (or at least most accomplished), winning the SEC and making the NCAA quarterfinals before losing a nail biter to Michigan and falling just short of the Final Four. The 1974 team with VBK and the "F troop" won the SEC before losing to Marquette and Notre Dame in the NCAA's. Skinner retired after the 1975 season, having won 4 SEC COTY awards and compiling a 278-135 record.

Following Skinner, VU had two coaches, Wayne Dobbs and Richard Schmidt, who combined for very little success over 5 seasons. Schmidt left after a 14-15 season (7-11 SEC). There are still strong opinions about Schmidt, but I leave it to the old-timers to comment.

CM Newton took over in 1982. Although many remember the magical 1988 season that culminated with an OT tourney win over a highly ranked Pittsburgh, it took coach Newton 6 seasons to get to that point. It was not a smooth ride, as those six seasons included 3 losing seasons and 5 losing SEC records. But because Newton had previously turned around a moribund Alabama Program, fans were patient with him, and it paid off. Following the Sweet 16 season, the 1989 team led by Barry Booker, Barry Goheen and Frank Kornet was a tennis ball away from winning the SEC, but it was not to be and that team lost in the first round to Notre Dame. Newton took his two consecutive SEC COTY awards (note that going 10-8 in 1988 at VU was worthy of a SEC COTY award) and left to become AD of UK.

I'd like to add a few points about the 1960's-early 1990's era of SEC college basketball. This era was: 1) prior to the 1992 addition of USC and Arkansas (who was very good at the time) to the conference, 2) UK and VU were arguably the only programs that consistently cared about basketball, and 3) VU's traditional rivals were down during the last years of the era: UK went on probation, ineligible for the NCAA's for both 1990 and 1991, and with reduced scholarships during those seasons; their only legit NBA prospect during that time was Jamal Mashburn, who was a freshman in 1991. UT was horrible, having hired the inept Wade Houston mainly to get his son Allan to play for them. Florida was good, but nowhere near where they are now. LSU had tons of talent, but Dale Brown defined poor coaching (they had Chris Jackson, Shaq and Stanley Roberts on the same team and didn't make it out of the first weekend). This was definitely not the golden era of SEC basketball.

This ushered in the relatively brief tenure of Eddie Fogler. Fogler had seen success during a three year stint at Wichita State that pegged him as an up-and-comer in the coaching business. At VU, Fogler had decent success during his first season, getting hot at the right time to turn a .500 team into NIT champions, following a 7-11 SEC record. In 1991, I remember watching the season opener at Arkansas (then near their heyday with Todd Day and Lee Mayberry) and seeing VU destroyed by a far more athletic team. Our great wins that season were against an Shaq-led LSU team and a win over UK that may still be the reason UK fans complain so bitterly about Memorial (I'm pretty sure we shot at least 40 FTs). We were great at home but struggled away from Memorial. The team also faded down the stretch losing 2 of its last three SEC games, a home SEC tourney game (played in Memorial), and barely making the NCAA tourney as a 9 seed before bowing out to Mourning and Mutombo's Georgetown team. After his second season, Fogler's two best freshmen (both eventually played in the NBA) left the program for other schools. Unsurprisingly, Fogler's third season was disappointing, with a 6-10 SEC record and a first round home NIT loss to Rhode Island. The highlight of the seasons was another win against Shaq's LSU.

But the 1993 season was the absolute height of the program during the modern era. Following the disappointing season in 1992, Fogler returned most of his players and added critical talent - Chris Lawson, a big transfer from Indiana, freshmen Frank Seckar, and most importantly, Billy McCaffrey, named to the an all-Final Four team while a sophomore at Duke. Perhaps the most important coaching decision by Fogler that season was to start 6'-4" Kevin Anglin at SF and 6'-5" Bruce Elder at PF. Anglin had started the season prior at PG and Elder (a Davidson transfer) was the starting SF. With Lawson, a very large but athletically limited center and Ronnie McMahan at SG, VU essentially started three guards and had four good ball-handlers and passers in the lineup. That team went on a tear, beating everybody at home and winning the games they should have on the road (with a couple of exceptions). McCaffrey was brilliant, shooting over 50% from three for the season and 87% from the line while leading the team in assists. The team won the SEC by splitting with UK, and getting a bit of a gift from UT, which handed UK a 3rd conference loss despite winning just four games in conference that season. Although the team lost to LSU in the SEC tourney, they reached the sweet 16 as a #3 seed before succumbing to the #7 seed Temple.

A few comments on the SEC in 1992-93: it was not particularly strong that season, but was top heavy, with three very good teams in Arkansas, UK and VU, and several very bad teams (UT, Ole Miss, USC and MSU) that finished with losing overall records. VU had the fortune of playing almost all of the most difficult games at Memorial (which was much louder in the 90's before the bare cinder block walls and open rafters were dampened with drapes. Our best wins by far that season were UK, Arkansas and Louisville, all at home. Against NCAA tournament teams on the road that season, we were not very good, losing to Illinois, Temple, LSU, UK, and Memphis, while beating LSU during the regular season and Boise St. and Illinois in the NCAA's. The team again struggled down the stretch, needing OT at home against a very weak UT team, barely beating a terrible USC squad on the road, losing by 10 to LSU in the SEC tourney prior to overmatching Boise St. team and handling a 19 win Illinois team before losing to Temple, a team which had finished 8-6 in the A-10. Don't get me wrong, it was a historic season because VU beat some very good to excellent teams at home and won the SEC, but we played in a weak league, and given that we had a very nice path to the elite 8 with Arizona getting upset in the 1st round of the tournament, it was a disappointing ending. But in retrospect we were at best a slightly-above-average team away from Memorial, really only beating two good teams on road/neutral courts.

Fogler left after the 1993 season due to a contract dispute, and VU hired Jan Van Breda Kolff who had done a decent job at Cornell but had been there for only two seasons. No doubt Kirkland Hall was hoping that VBK had inherited a coaching pedigree from his father and his ABA career, but they also entertained the thought that as an alum, VBK would prove loyal to the school. VBK inherited a deep and talented squad, with McCaffrey, Lawson, McMahan, Seckar, Woods, Evans and Hall; consequently 1993-1994 was the last time Vandy was ranked in the preseason prior to this season. But the team played a tougher schedule, went 1-6 against ranked teams, with the only victory occurring at home vs. #16 UF. VU ended up missing the NCAA's and had a run to the NIT finals before succumbing to a Kerry Kittles led Villanova team. With Ronnie McMahan, Seckar, Woods, Evans and a young Drew Maddux in 1995, VU finished with a losing overall record, missing the postseason altogether. The following season a 7-9 SEC record took VU to the NIT, where we lost to USC in the second round. The 1997 season was supposed to be the one for VBK, as he had many of his recruits in the program. The team barely made the NCAA tournament as a 10 seed before losing in the first round to Xavier by 12. The following season (1997-98) saw another NIT berth following a 7-9 SEC season as a farewell to VBK's first four year seniors. By that time VBK's recruiting had dried up pretty well, and the writing became visible on the wall. VBK played out the string to a losing record in 1998-99, his 5th consecutive 2nd division finish to close out his tenure.

It was a down time for VU basketball despite the decent overall records. VBK inherited a program that was close to an all time high, having made 4 tournaments in the previous 6 seasons, had a returning All-American plus another player who was the #2 all-time scorer at the school when he graduated. With this solid base of talent, VBK led the program backwards nearly every season. Avoiding the Ron Mercer fiasco would have only delayed the inevitable.
The leading candidate in the aftermath of the VBK era was Mike Brey, who had done some nice things at Delaware. But Brey turned us down, opting to wait a season until the Notre Dame job opened when coach Doherty was inexplicably promoted to the UNC job. The next candidate in line was widely believed to be Bob Bender, who had compiled an 85-84 record at Washington in six seasons, with a single tournament appearance (sweet 16). Another rumored candidate was Rice's Willis Wilson, though he was "irked" that he never received an offer (which was understandable, given his 98-98 record with zero NCAA appearances). Things didn't look promising, to say the least.

Nevertheless, when CKS was hired from Illinois State, it surprised many people who assumed that he wasn't interested in a non-Purdue job, having turned down several previous offers, including UT's. CKS was coming off of an impressive 123-63 record at ISU (ironically taking over from Bender, who went 60-57 there), where he had taken the Redbirds to four consecutive post season tourneys, including back-to-back MVC championships and NCAA tourney invitations in 1997 and 1998, the second of which featured an upset win over UT. In a bit of luck, CKS expressed interest in the job before he was on our radar, and we were able to land him.

For the 1999-2000 season, VU had some upperclassmen talent, but a hollowed-out sophomore class that included only Sam Howard and project Darius Coulibaly, and only one Stallings recruit due to the lateness of his hiring. Little was expected of the team given the back troubles of C Greg LaPointe, and overall lack of inside talent or depth (the starting C and PF were listed at 6'-10" and 6'-7", with a combined vertical leap of perhaps 20"). CKS probably did as well with that team as anyone could have, given these limitations. VU went 19-11, knocking off four ranked teams, including a UF team that went to the National Championship game as well as a sweep of UT. The three seniors in Langhi, Strong and Prater all had career seasons under CKS, and the team was clearly screwed out of a NCAA berth given its final resume.

The following season, 2000-01, saw VU lose the three key players from the previous season (Langhi won SEC POTY) and the departure of two freshmen for different reasons. That left four players from the VBK era by CKS' second season - a gimpy Greg LaPointe, Anthony Williams, Sam Howard and Darius Coulibaly. Of the 9 man rotation that season, four were freshmen and the entire PG minutes were split between Billy Richmond and Russell Lakey. VU faced 8 ranked teams that season and got beat a lot, but managed to win at #8 Florida and beat #17 Bama.

The 2001-02 squad consisted almost entirely made up of CKS recruits, with the exception of Howard and Coulibaly. There was minor progress made as VU beat three more ranked teams including the first win over UK since the 1993 season. The 9 ranked teams VU beat exceeded the number of ranked teams beaten by VBK in 6 seasons, and it was accomplished with far less talent than VBK inherited.

But 2002-03 was a disaster, with team chemistry issues that started with Brendan Plavich transferring for more PT. Brian Thornton, who had had a fantastic freshman season decided that he didn't want to play for CKS, and the team collapsed psychologically, with CKS completely unable to right the ship. The bottom was hit during a 62 point loss to UK, where the team simply gave up. CKS' job was definitely in jeopardy, but AD Todd Turner gave him one more season to attempt to turn it around with his first class of seniors.

2004 was the turning point of the program under Stallings, as Seniors Freije, Lakey, Hundley, and Schnedlitz willed the team to its first tournament since 1997, and then beat a very good NC State team with a miracle finish, coming back from double digits in the final three minutes by scoring on 7 consecutive possessions to finish the game (season record: 23-10 overall, 8-8 SEC). The 2004-05 just missed a repeat trip to the NCAA's (Season record 20-14, 8-8 SEC) and made way for the next great freshman class. And while 2005-06 was a disappointment (Season record 17-13 overall, 7-9 SEC; first round NIT loss), 2006-07 saw the first of four tournament appearances in 5 seasons, with one sweet 16

I cut CKS a bit of slack for his 2nd and 3rd season "slumps" because he inherited two consecutive classes that had a grand total of 1 SEC caliber player. The class of 2002 had Sam Howard and the "class of 2003" - due to the late recruiting start - was Rick Jones, a small SG who promptly got himself booted out of school. From this complete nadir, CKS has built a program that pretty much expects to make the tournament every season, with a jaded fan base that gets mad when the team loses to top 10 teams on the road. This is not to say that he is without faults - but there has to be some perspective here.

It took 7 seasons for CM Newton to build the program up to a level that was a bit below where it is now. Eddie Fogler had a magical season and bolted, and VBK slowly drained the program of the life it had to the point of irrelevancy. It took CKS 7 seasons to build it up to the point where it currently sits, so it seems pretty clear that this is no easy task.

I realize that this was a long post, but it makes me cringe when I see posters lumping seasons together and omitting crucial details, in order to force comparisons between coaches, their eras and histories. No doubt I've left out information and have inaccuracies here and there, but nothing truly crucial I hope (and in any case this is the best I can do in a night's worth of typing and internet searching).