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The slow grind of mediocrity

I thought we’d have a definite answer by now. We don’t.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt lost 69-53 to Kentucky on Tuesday night, their fourteenth consecutive loss to the Wildcats. That’s not the longest losing streak that Vanderbilt has ever had against Kentucky — Vanderbilt lost 18 in a row to the Wildcats from 1993-2002 — but it’s quite possibly the dumbest, because Kentucky’s worst team in that stretch finished the season ranked 16th in the country. Vanderbilt couldn’t even solve the 9-16 pandemic year Kentucky team.

Vanderbilt’s also lost eleven straight to Tennessee, and that is the longest losing streak we’ve ever had against the school to the east, just narrowly surpassing the 10 straight we lost to them during the Kevin Nash years.

Which all brings me back to a question parlagi asked in the comments the other day, because guess who Vanderbilt’s coach was during a big chunk of that 18-game losing streak against Kentucky:

Is anyone else getting a VBK feel about it all? There’s enough going that you can’t ever see a collapse into Bolivian, but the ceiling is maybe a first round NCAA exit.

Come to think of it, did tail-end Stallings turn into VBK?

And yeah. Nail, meet head. (As to the second question, in fact I explicitly argued in 2016 that tail-end Stallings was actually worse than VBK. Granted, that was before 2016 Stallings beat Kentucky, something that eluded VBK for his entire tenure.)

Getting rid of a coach is always, always a difficult decision. I mean, sometimes it’s not, like when Bryce Drew went 0-18 in the SEC (granted, for a couple of reasons I thought at the time it would have been okay if Vanderbilt had given him another year, though it became blatantly obvious that Vanderbilt made the right move a couple of weeks later when he sat down for an interview with Pete Thamel and made clear that he sincerely believed that his record shouldn’t have mattered once Darius Garland got injured) or when Woody let Rex Grossman hang 71 on his defense. But even when the coach is obviously a walking disaster, you still have to ask yourself if you’ve given him enough time, if only to avoid the media shitstorm that ensued when we did fire Drew. You might have known after the Temple game that Derek Mason wasn’t The Guy, but the actual people making decisions like this can’t be seen as reactionary jackasses who don’t give the head coach a fair shot. (For another thing, the number of people who thought Clark Lea wasn’t The Guy after the ETSU game was significantly greater than the number of people who think this now. Sometimes, first impressions are wrong.)

Even with all that, though, it’s often better to pull the plug a year too early than a year too late. Sometimes, you just have to rip the Band-Aid off. I probably wouldn’t have thought firing Derek Mason after 2017 was wrong or unfair, given that it appeared at that point that the upside you’d be giving up was a trip to Shreveport in December. You might have ended up sacrificing the 2018 Texas Bowl (though you might have had a decent argument that a different coach would have done better with that team), but the trade-off would be possibly avoiding the 5-28 three-year stretch that followed it.

Mediocrity is a different matter, though. Because you’re always going to see signs that this could still work right alongside the signs that this isn’t going to work. VBK was like that. Granted, he took over the program in a vastly different place — Vanderbilt was coming off an SEC championship, not an 0-18 season — and the problems were different — VBK took over the SEC championship team that returned All-American Billy McCaffrey, and promptly delivered an NIT bid after farting away a shot at the NCAA Tournament with an 80-56 loss to a bad Auburn team on a Thursday night inside the Bass Pro Shops Pyramid in Memphis.

(You could also describe the Bobby Johnson era in the same manner; however, mediocrity was a vast improvement over the 20 years of Vanderbilt football that preceded it.)

The problem with mediocrity is that every year, the decision-makers have a difficult decision on their hands. Not the fans (hell, I was ready to give up on this experiment three weeks ago, but I’m less certain of that after Vanderbilt displayed some level of competence in beating Arkansas at home and Georgia on the road and giving Tennessee all it wanted in Knoxville), but the people whose jobs depend (in theory, anyway) on making the right call certainly will. Because when the bottom isn’t falling out, you can never fire the coach and feel confident that you made a good decision.

I wrote at basically this time last year that I still wasn’t sure what to think of the Jerry Stackhouse era, and what’s changed is that now I have some level of certainty about a couple of things: Stackhouse is a good enough in-game coach that he isn’t going to bottom out the basketball program in the way that Bryce Drew did, because if that were going to happen, this year would have been the year it would have happened. (Yes, we lost to Grambling. We’ve also won three SEC games in seven tries.) I’m also pretty sure now that the upside of the Stackhouse era is losing in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, which isn’t the kind of upside you mind sacrificing. The program could be in pretty good shape if he keeps the current freshman class and the incoming recruiting class together; they’re also not so good that you keep the coach around just to make sure those guys stick around.

Now, all this could become moot depending on how the rest of the season goes. Playing on Wednesday night at the SEC Tournament for the sixth year in a row should probably be a fireable offense; we can certainly do better than that. I also think that rallying to finish 9-9 in the SEC would be a reason to keep the coach. Anything in between those two outcomes, and I’m in the camp of “do whatever the hell you want, because I’m just as confused as you all are.”

But then, look at the Mark Fox era at Georgia if you want to see what it looks like when you always err on the side of keeping the coach around for doing little more than parking himself in the middle of the SEC standings, but never bottoming out. It’s easy to look at all this and see how Stackhouse could grind out a full decade of 9-9 SEC finishes and like one NCAA Tournament appearance with a quick exit. Sometimes, pulling the plug to avoid that is fine; but sometimes, Tom Crean is the coach that you get when you do.