clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Case For and Against Kevin Stallings

New, 90 comments

Is Kevin Stallings on the hot seat? Probably not. Should he be? That question is why Anchor of Gold exists.

It could be worse.  We could be broadcasting games for the SEC Network.
It could be worse. We could be broadcasting games for the SEC Network.
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Stallings, with 306 wins since he became head basketball coach back in 1999, is Vanderbilt's all-time wins leader.  That's at least in part a function of longevity: he's in his 16th year as head coach, and only the great Roy Skinner has previously coached at Vanderbilt for that long (Skinner coached exactly sixteen years here, counting the year he subbed in for Bob Polk), and Stallings benefits over Skinner from a longer regular season as well as more postseason games (the SEC Tournament didn't exist during Skinner's tenure, and the NCAA Tournament was limited to the conference champ for all but his last couple of years -- even to get into the NIT, you had to have a very good year.)  Stallings is also respected within the coaching profession; most coaches (and also fans of opposing schools) seem to understand that he has less to work with than coaches at other programs and yet still manages to put a solid team out there most years.

All of that might seem to make it a little strange that we'd even be debating Stallings' future, but the past few seasons have been trying.  In 2013 and 2014, Vanderbilt had consecutive losing seasons for the first time since the 1980s, and while it doesn't look like we're headed for a third straight losing season, this season isn't exactly going to be one we'll tell the grandkids about, either.

This entire article comes with the caveat that it's pretty unlikely that the university will actually let Stallings go.  (It took them six years to decide that Jan van Breda Kolff had no business coaching in the SEC, after all.)  So, with that said, we're off...

Point Against: Stallings hasn't been that successful

Sure, Stallings is Vanderbilt's all-time winningest basketball coach.  Look deeper under the hood, though, and once again you notice that it's largely a function of longevity.  In fifteen seasons at Vanderbilt (not counting the current season), Stallings has had a winning record in the SEC just five times (2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012.)  He's made the NCAA Tournament six times (the five just mentioned plus 2004), he's made the NIT four times (2000, 2002, 2005, 2006), and he's won 20 games on seven occasions (the six NCAA seasons plus 2005.)  Basically, Stallings has had a few good years in which the team has won 20 games and made the NCAA Tournament, a few years of NIT teams, and a few bad years: a 15-15 team in 2001, an 11-18 team in 2003, and the two losing seasons in 2013 and 2014.  Vandy didn't make the NIT in 2009 in spite of going 19-12 and 8-8 in the SEC, but rules changes (specifically, the rule granting an automatic NIT bid to a conference regular season champion) made it harder for teams like Vanderbilt to get NIT bids -- in the 1990s, a 19-12 Vanderbilt team would have been a shoo-in for the NIT if they didn't make the NCAA Tournament.

About those NCAA bids, though... Stallings only has a 5-6 NCAA Tournament record at Vanderbilt.  And four of those wins came in his first two tournament appearances, 2004 and 2007, both of which resulted in Sweet 16 appearances.  Since 2007, Stallings has only won one NCAA Tournament game and hasn't reached the second weekend.  The 2010-12 teams were probably the best teams he's had, and those teams went 1-3 in the tournament.

Point For: That's basically par for the course

Except that, well, Stallings' tenure compares favorably to the state of Vanderbilt's program before he came along.

Compare Stallings' fifteen years to the eighteen years before he became the head coach -- 1982 through 1999, covering the tenures of C.M. Newton, Eddie Fogler, and Jan van Breda Kolff -- and Stallings actually looks pretty successful.

His immediate predecessor (van Breda Kolff) lasted six years before getting canned.  VBK had a winning record in SEC play twice: 1994 and 1997, and one of those was essentially the team he inherited from Eddie Fogler.  VBK's 1994 team started the season in the top 25 and went 16-10 in the regular season, lost to a horrendous Auburn team in the first round of the SEC Tournament, and missed the NCAA Tournament entirely (but did make a run to the NIT finals, giving him one of his two 20-win teams -- and ironically, neither of his 20-win teams made the NCAA Tournament.)  VBK made the NCAA Tournament just once, and also had two losing seasons (1995 and 1999.)  But hey, he did make the NIT three times -- of course, in the 1990s, you could get in the NIT just by having a winning record and a good-sized fan base.

Okay, okay, so Jan van Breda Kolff isn't exactly a good comparison.  There's a reason he got fired, after all.  But Eddie Fogler and C.M. Newton are closer to what we think of when we think of successful Vanderbilt coaches.  Stallings doesn't compare favorably to Fogler's four-year tenure -- Fogler had two seasons with a winning record in SEC play (1991 and 1993), he made the NIT the other two years (again, see above caveats about the NIT selection process at that time), and also happened to win one of just three SEC regular season titles in Vanderbilt history (1993.)  But other than the 1993 season, Fogler's tenure was too short to draw any meaningful conclusions from.  The 1993 team was great, but the 1991 team (and the 1990 team, which won the NIT) mostly consisted of holdovers from C.M. Newton's tenure.  It's impossible to say how the rest of the 1990s would have gone if Fogler had stuck around.

As for C.M. Newton -- he's still remembered fondly, but did you know that in eight years at Vanderbilt, he only had a winning record in the SEC twice (1988 and 1989)?  Those two years also marked C.M.'s only two NCAA Tournament appearances, and the 1988 team was his only 20-win season.  C.M. made the NIT twice (1983 and 1987), but his first few years were pretty harsh -- including three straight losing seasons from 1984 to 1986.

So in the eighteen years before Stallings, Vanderbilt finished with a winning record in the SEC six times, made five NCAA appearances, and had five 20-win seasons.  They did make the postseason 12 times in total when you count the NIT appearances, but again, it was much easier for a power conference school with a good fan base to make the NIT in the 1980s and 1990s.  (Back then, the NIT's major concern was revenue from ticket sales, which made a school like Vanderbilt much more attractive than a good mid-major team with a band box gym or minimal fan support.)

But this comparison brings me to a point against Stallings...

Point Against: Stallings has a more forgiving administration

So Stallings does compare favorably to his predecessors in terms of success at Vanderbilt, but you're probably thinking that the Vanderbilt of today -- and, for that matter, the SEC of today -- isn't exactly the same as the environment under which Newton, Fogler, and even VBK were coaching.

Do you remember the last time a Stallings recruit was denied admission to the university?  You probably don't, because to my recollection, it hasn't happened.  But it did happen to Jan van Breda Kolff.  In 1995, Ron Mercer was all-everything: McDonald's All-American, one of the top recruits in the country.  He also just happened to be a Nashville native, and he wanted to go to Vanderbilt.  Except, well, reportedly Vanderbilt denied his application for admission.  Instead, Mercer went to Kentucky, where he averaged 8 ppg for a national championship team as a freshman before averaging 18.1 ppg as a sophomore for a team that went to the championship game.  It basically goes without saying that the van Breda Kolff era would have gone a lot differently if he'd had Mercer on the team, but that didn't happen.

Of course, the van Breda Kolff era might not have happened at all if the athletic department had paid Eddie Fogler.  Shortly after an SEC championship season and being named National Coach of the Year, Fogler left Vanderbilt for South Carolina for a reported $500,000 a year -- and Vanderbilt's athletic department simply decided to let Fogler walk rather than matching the offer and paying him what he was worth.  Earlier in his tenure (not so much now), Stallings was rumored as a candidate for virtually every job opening in the Big Ten, but nobody ever really questioned whether Vanderbilt would pay Stallings.

As for C.M. Newton, well, let's just say that in the 1980s LSU had a player whom other SEC fans dubbed "The Louisiana Purchase."  (I'll let you figure out how he got that moniker.)  Newton was coaching in the SEC during a time period when other schools in the conference were rumored to be let's say cutting a few corners.  If you think recruiting is a cesspool now, it's got nothing on the 1980s.

Point For: It's still not a level playing field

With all that said, Vanderbilt's administration is still not as forgiving as (fill in pretty much any other SEC school.)

Even with all the improvements since the days when $500,000 a year was apparently too much money for a guy who had just won an SEC championship, Stallings doesn't quite get the same breaks that other coaches in the league are getting.  Stallings might not have to worry about a Ron Mercer situation any more, but he still has to deal with a Kedren Johnson situation, when the team's best player gets kicked out of school because of reasons (seriously, does anybody even know what Kedren did?)  Whatever it was, I think we can say for certain that it was something that the University of Memphis considers acceptable conduct.  Not that I want us to be Memphis -- there's a reason I wanted my degree to say Vanderbilt on it rather than Memphis -- but the administration is still far from the "anything goes in the name of winning" that seems to be the norm in major college sports.

Stallings also has to deal with Vanderbilt's rules concerning athletic scholarships, which basically consists of: no oversigning, and no running players off.  It's the right thing to do, of course, but it also means that Stallings is competing with one hand tied behind his back because if he misevaluates a player, he's got Shelby Moats taking up a roster spot for four years.  (Any one of the other 13 schools in the conference would have cut him loose after one or two years.)  If he has a player who might go to the NBA early or transfer out of the program, he can't sign someone as a contingency in case that player does, in fact, leave the program.  So if that happens, he's stuck with an empty chair on the bench or whoever he can find to fill the roster spot in April or May -- and if the late signee doesn't work out, he could be on the roster for four years anyway.

None of this is to say that we should be doing any of this, of course.  But it is something to consider when evaluating Stallings versus other SEC coaches -- or any other coach who we might have instead of him.  Ask yourself, would that coach still win if he had to play by Vanderbilt's rules?  And if the answer is "yes," would he even consider the Vanderbilt job?  As much as we like to think of our school, if we have a job opening, coaches aren't going to be beating down the door to come here.

Point Against: Stallings hasn't capitalized on success

One of the bigger complaints about Stallings is that since the success from 2010-12, he hasn't really been able to capitalize on the recruiting trail.  Here's how Stallings' recruiting classes have ranked in the SEC since 2003, according to 247 Sports.  (Note that they count Texas A&M and Missouri as SEC schools before they actually joined the league.)

Year Points Rank
2003 14.44 #14
2004 38.32 #9
2005 28.56 #11
2006 37.88 #6
2007 33.25 #11
2008 46.07 #6
2009 29.01 #12
2010 40.54 #10
2011 45.98 #6
2012 26.21 #14
2013 32.01 #10
2014 41.89 #6
2015 37.56 #8

As you can see above, Stallings' best recruiting class was the 2008 class -- big shock, considering that was the class that consisted of Jeffery Taylor, Brad Tinsley, Lance Goulbourne, and Steve Tchiengang.  That, along with the 1987 recruiting class (hell if I know who we recruited that year) and the 2009 class (low-rated because it consisted of one signee, John Jenkins) are the only ones in Vanderbilt history to play in three tournaments.

The 2011 recruiting class and the 2014 class are the only ones that even come close to the 2008 class in terms of recruiting rankings.  The 2011 class should be this year's seniors, but the only player remaining from that class is Shelby Moats.  (I'll let you figure out why that hasn't worked.)  The 2012 recruiting class did not look good at all on paper and none of the three players (Sheldon Jeter, Kevin Bright, and A.J. Astroth) are with the program any more.  But just based on recruiting rankings, whatever they're worth, Stallings hasn't even matched the 2008 class, much less exceeded it.  That lends credence to the argument that the Vanderbilt program has already peaked under Stallings.

Point For: Except that recruiting has been pretty good

The bitter aftertaste in your mouth seems to be mostly from the 2011 and 2012 recruiting classes.  The former was rated well, but the recruits didn't work out -- either because they fell out of favor with the program or because they're named Shelby Moats.

But the 2013 and 2014 recruiting classes have worked out well, in spite of not being that highly rated.  The 2013 class was ranked low because it consisted of just two players -- Damian Jones and Luke Kornet, the latter of whom wasn't really properly evaluated because of a late growth spurt (hell, the recruiting grades assumed he'd stay at 6'10", which didn't happen.)  That fact alone caused the class to be rated behind a Texas A&M class that consisted of, basically, four current benchwarmers and a fifth guy who's no longer in the program.  Recruiting rankings pegged the 2014 class as the sixth-best in the SEC, immediately behind the incoming classes at Missouri, Alabama, and Auburn.  But after almost a year in college, would you take any of those three schools' classes over ours?  Basically, winning at recruiting not only means landing the highest-ranked prospects, but it also means landing useful players -- regardless of whether they're rated highly.  And at least in 2013 and 2014, Stallings seems to be doing that.

Point Against: Now is an ideal time to make a coaching change

When making a coaching change, the last thing you want is a situation like Missouri last year or Mississippi State in 2012.  In both of those cases, because of personnel losses (either because the former players ran out of eligibility, left for the NBA, or transferred) the new coach came into a depleted roster and the program bottomed out in his first year.  That kind of situation makes it difficult for the new coach to build momentum for the program.

The more ideal situation for a coaching change is similar to Tennessee in 2005.  That year, Buzz Peterson got fired after going 14-17 -- with some freshman named Chris Lofton averaging 13.2 ppg.  Tennessee brought in Bruce Pearl, who took the talent on hand and promptly went 22-8 in his first year.  The excitement surrounding the program after that first year was enough that Pearl was able to build Tennessee into a consistent winner for the next few years.

Or, consider Texas A&M in 2004.  Melvin Watkins went 7-21 in his final season -- with a roster that had a sophomore (Antoine Wright) who had been a five-star recruit and a freshman (Acie Law) who would later play in the NBA.  Billy Gillispie, like Pearl, was able to parlay an instant turnaround (going 21-10 in his first year) into increased success on the recruiting trail.

The latter two situations seem to be much closer to Vanderbilt in 2015, with an eight-man rotation consisting of exactly one senior, two sophomores, and five freshmen.  Vanderbilt is built to win in 2015-16, and a new coach can build momentum on the recruiting trail with an "immediate turnaround."

Point For: But that assumes the roster stays together

Of course, a lot of the reason why Pearl and Gillispie could win right away was because the returning players stayed in the program.  Had Lofton (or other returning players) transferred out of the program when Buzz Peterson got fired, Tennessee might not have been so successful under Pearl.  Remember, Mississippi State was supposed to have Rodney Hood coming back in what would have been Rick Ray's first year.

The working assumption in the point above is that all of the freshmen and sophomores on the current team -- and all of the incoming freshmen next year -- are actually on the roster.  Now consider what happens if Stallings gets fired, and that's the nudge that Damian Jones needs to declare for the NBA Draft.  Riley LaChance has had a strong freshman year at Vanderbilt that might not have happened if his home state school (Wisconsin) had offered him a scholarship.  But surely Bo Ryan would take him now, and what if Riley decides to pull a Sheldon Jeter?  Take those two away, and suddenly the situation doesn't look so promising, and that's just two players.  What if there are others?  What if some of the recruits decide to ask out of their Letters of Intent if Stallings is no longer the coach?

Conclusion

In my mind, the main reason to keep Stallings is simple: He's a known quantity.  We know exactly what we're getting with Stallings, and while what we're getting may not exactly be what we want, it's better than the unknown.

The unknown at this point is this: we fire Stallings, half the roster leaves, and the new coach is a hot mid-major coach who turns out to be Darrin Horn, or a Mike Krzyzewski assistant (because of course it is) who's never been a head coach before.  The team goes 7-23 in 2015-16 with Nathan Watkins playing 25 minutes a night, and the new coach is doomed before his first year is over.

We know what we're getting with Stallings at this point, and the debate is over whether that's good enough or not.  Vanderbilt under Stallings is what it's basically always been: a program that more often than not has a losing record in the SEC, but never really a doormat and every now and then has a really good year.  We're not Kentucky, but we're also not Auburn or South Carolina (the latter of which hasn't won an NCAA Tournament game since 1973 -- yeah, really.)  A new coach probably isn't going to turn us into Kentucky, but he could easily turn us into South Carolina.

In any case, Stallings is 54 and probably won't be coaching that much longer in any case.  Let him spend his last few years here and then move on to a new coach, because right now we could certainly do worse.