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It's Time For Vanderbilt Basketball To Make A Change

No coach stays forever. The 2015-16 season has shown that the Vanderbilt basketball program needs to make a coaching change.

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Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday afternoon, Kevin Stallings vented his frustrations to the media about what almost everybody agrees has been a frustrating, underachieving season, placing the blame at the feet of the media and fans who had high expectations for the team, the players for not learning elementary lessons, the players for not putting the team before themselves, the media for thinking his team is talented.

Nothing he said was different from things that he's alluded to all season.  I'll be the first to admit that Stallings has a point when it comes to the expectations for this year's team; the media are generally not very good at setting expectations, but are very good at hammering a coach for failing to live up to the expectations they've set.  He has a point that the media doesn't understand the difference between "talent" and "potential" and almost never fails to conflate the two.

What boggles the mind is that Stallings almost seems to think that there is nothing he can do about this.  Players are allegedly not learning elementary lessons, yet presumably they are still starting for the team and/or playing major minutes.  Preseason expectations were too high in February, but if Stallings said a word about the expectations being too high back in October, I didn't hear it.  And if I'm an NBA general manager, Stallings has just given me a reason not to draft any of his players.

There is every indication that what Stallings said is quite likely true.  It's still not something that you say out loud, in the middle of the season.  This was quite likely the final straw in what's been a very frustrating season for Vanderbilt.

It leads to an inescapable conclusion: For the good of the program, Vanderbilt should make a coaching change.

The case against Kevin Stallings no longer requires exaggerating the facts.

It doesn't require having unrealistic expectations for the program, either.

Up until this season, I've been a consistent supporter of Stallings.  In order to make a case against him, others have consistently exaggerated the level of talent on previous teams, and also exaggerated the degree to which those teams underperformed their talent level.  The 2010 and 2011 teams were unranked in the preseason, and wound up as a 4-seed and a 5-seed, respectively, in the NCAA Tournament.  That's not underachievement.  The 2012 team was ranked in the top 10 preseason, made the tournament as a 5-seed, and lost to a 4-seed Wisconsin in the second round.  Using a strict definition of underachievement, that qualifies.  But barely.

Kevin Stallings is also the winningest basketball coach in Vanderbilt's history, he's won 60 percent of his games as Vanderbilt's head coach, he took the team to the NCAA Tournament six times in nine years from 2004-12, and he made the Sweet 16 twice.  He's also responsible for one of only two SEC Tournament championships in school history.

But none of these things are relevant.  The past is the past; the concern now is the present and the future.  If Vanderbilt were still the program that accomplished all that it did during that nine-year run, I would not be writing this article.  If Vanderbilt were going to be that program again any time soon, I would not be writing this article.  But, as best as I can tell, Vanderbilt is not that program and is not going to be that program again without a change.  The Stallings of 2004-12 deserved to keep his job, easily.  The Stallings of 2016 does not.

The Present: Even Jan van Breda Kolff was better than this.

Perhaps no man defines Vanderbilt underachievement like Jan van Breda Kolff.  VBK took over the Vanderbilt program in 1993, coming off its most successful season in the last 50 years.  Yes, Vanderbilt had to replace some key parts off that team, but three starters -- including star player Billy McCaffrey -- returned off that team, enough for the Commodores to be ranked in the preseason top 25 in VBK's first year.  Van Breda Kolff took that team and made the NIT.  A year later, Ron Mercer had his application for admission rejected.  Those two seasons cemented his legacy; Vanderbilt did make one NCAA Tournament under his watch, but nobody complained much when he was let go after six seasons.

In those six seasons, VBK won 56 percent of his games.  In the last four seasons, Vanderbilt has won 53.6 percent of its games.

This is why the past is irrelevant to the discussion.  If you are basing your argument on anything that happened from 2004-12, and this goes both ways, the obvious question is: can Vanderbilt do better than that?  And the answer to that question is fuzzy.  There's no evidence that Vanderbilt can do better than six NCAA Tournaments, two Sweet 16s, and an SEC Tournament title in a nine-year span.  It might be possible that it can be done, but there's no proof.

But if the question is can Vanderbilt do better than it is right now, the answer is a clear yes.  Because, yes, even Jan van Breda Kolff did better than what the program is doing now.  In its present form, the program has missed three straight NCAA Tournaments -- and while we're still holding out hope, there's a good chance that becomes four straight next month.

When the team watches a 17-point lead evaporate over the final 12 minutes of the game, and the coach ends the game with two timeouts in his back pocket, suddenly timeout hoarding goes from an annoying quirk that you can live with to an infuriating example of why the coach needs to go.  And that's the general theme of this season.  Here is a truism about sports coaches that I totally didn't just make up:

You can live with just about any flaw in a coach or a program so long as it is a winning one.

Anybody who pays attention to the comments section knows that I have little time, for instance, for complaints about Stallings' press conferences.  These are irrelevant: if the program is winning, nobody cares much about what the coach says to the press.  If the program is not winning, what the coach is saying to the press is not why you are upset.  Because literally no one's opinion about the state of the program changes based on what the coach tells the press.  This is even true of Stallings' press conference yesterday.  It's simply the final straw among a litany of better reasons to make a change.

In the midst of a 25-win season, a single second-half meltdown in a loss is frustrating, but it's a fluke.  In the midst of a 15-11 season, four double-digit leads that melted away are a trend, and they're infuriating.

And yes, there have been infuriating meltdowns.  According to Ken Pomeroy's in-game win probabilities, on five occasions this season, Vanderbilt has had a greater than 87 percent chance of winning the game, and gone on to lose the game.  (Yes, that includes a game against LSU where Vanderbilt had a small lead early on and held an artificially high chance of winning because Pomeroy's ratings were way off on LSU at the time.  But the fact that there have been four games Vanderbilt should have won and didn't, doesn't really make this any better.)  In nine of Vanderbilt's 11 losses this season, the Commodores had a better than 50 percent chance of winning the game at some point.  Only wire-to-wire losses at Kentucky and Texas defy the trend, and let's just say those games are not evidence in Stallings' favor, either.

In the 24 games on which Vegas posted a line this season, Vanderbilt has been the favorite in 18 of them.  They have won 13.  Of the six games in which Vanderbilt was the underdog, they have won zero.

Even the good points to the season -- a 17-point win over Texas A&M, for instance -- do not work in Stallings' favor, because they're proof that the team can be better than what it's shown.  When you can build a double-digit lead on an opponent, chances are that if you lose, you are not losing to a better team.

The performance this season hasn't been good, but the context makes it worse.  If this were a young team that wasn't expected to do much, then it's frustrating, but at least you can see potential.  That sort of describes last year's team.

The Future: Where is the program going from here?

There are only so many next years.  Aside from the infuriating present, the reason I've changed my opinion has to do with the future.  It is getting harder and harder to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

For the past three years, if you wanted to make an argument in Stallings' favor, you could point to what he had done in the past as evidence that he can win at Vanderbilt, and you had plenty of evidence to support the idea that the future was going to be better than the present.  In 2012-13, the team finished with a losing record, but there were no seniors on the team and, anyway, you had expected that to be a rebuilding year all along.

In 2013-14, the team again had a losing record (because half the roster left in the 2013 offseason), but you could point to promising freshmen Damian Jones and Luke Kornet, as well as a strong incoming recruiting class, as evidence for a better future.

In 2014-15, the team showed potential in a 21-14 season that ended in a run to the NIT quarterfinals, and with the bulk of the team being freshmen and sophomores, making the argument that next year was going to be even better was very easy.

And now?  Next year was supposed to be this year.  This year sucks.  What evidence is there that the program will be better than it is now?

Perhaps, you could point to the fact that none of the top seven players on this year's team (in terms of minutes played) are seniors.  But at least two of those players could be gone to the NBA after this season, and in any case, if the coach isn't the problem, then the players are the problem.

And none of the top eight players on the team are freshmen.  If you squint hard enough, you can see the potential in the current freshman class, but the fact that none of them are playing big minutes on this underachieving team is evidence that either (a) they are a year or two away from contributing, or (b) Stallings doesn't know what he is doing.  The 2016 recruiting class consists, at present, of a couple of three-star recruits who might be diamonds in the rough, but they're not the kind of players for whom you would keep the coach just to make sure they stay in the fold.

The argument that you shouldn't fire a coach because of the possible roster upheaval that frequently follows a coaching change is, as VandyBruin points out (and I hate to admit to agreeing with him), an argument against ever making a coaching change.  Okay, that might be an exaggeration.  It's a tiebreaker.  Players can be replaced, but some players are harder to replace than others.  When the program has numerous promising freshmen and/or incoming recruits, that can be an argument in the coach's favor when it's a close call.  Stallings probably would not have gotten another year after 2014-15 if that team had mostly consisted of juniors and seniors, but since it consisted mostly of freshmen and sophomores, it was a solid argument for keeping him at least another year to see what he could do with that group.

So, looking at next year's potential roster, is it an argument for keeping the coach?  I suspect that Luke Kornet will stay regardless of who's coaching the team, so this argument essentially comes down to Jeff Roberson and Matthew Fisher-Davis.  As much as I like them, at this point they are good role players who haven't shown that they are players you can build a team around.  It would hurt to lose them, sure... but they're certainly not players who you would even think about keeping a coach just so they'll stay around.  As for the current crop of freshmen and incoming recruits -- sure, some of them might have potential, but if Stallings can't win with Wade Baldwin IV and Damian Jones, what makes you think he'll win with Camron Justice and Clevon Brown?

And just looking at next year's roster misses the bigger picture.  Recruiting tends to be a lagging, not a leading, indicator of a failing program.  There are probably some examples of an established head coach who randomly stopped landing good recruits in the midst of a successful stretch, but those are the exception and not the rule.  The more frequent pattern is that the coach continues to recruit at the same level he has been, but gets lesser results out of the recruits -- and then the quality of the recruits entering the program starts to fall off, as prospects begin to see the results and figure that there's a good chance that they won't play in the NCAA Tournament (or whatever their definition of success is) while they're there.  Or perhaps the coach who's recruiting them won't be there when they get to campus.  At least, that's the theory.  The reality is that most programs get rid of the coach before it gets to that point, and when they don't (see: the end of Rick Stansbury's tenure at Mississippi State), the program often finds itself with an even bigger mess for the next coach to clean up.

While we debate the merits of Kevin Stallings' past and present at Vanderbilt, the biggest concern when it comes to the coach is the future of the program.  And over the past few months, the future has begun to look much bleaker.  The future of the program looks a lot worse than it did twelve months ago, when you could dream of the 2015-16 team being one of Vanderbilt's best ever.  Now, you're having nightmares that the 2016-17 team will be even worse than this one with the potential losses of its two best players.

It's time for Vanderbilt to make a move.

But will Vanderbilt make a move?  That's long been the question, as the administration has been extremely patient with Stallings (and, if we're being honest, coaches in general) in the recent past.

However, Vice Chancellor David Williams seemed to indicate on Wednesday that the university is considering making a move:

On Wednesday, Williams said, "You kind of wait until the end (of the season to evaluate coaches). People need to understand that you need to be fair in this. We have standards and we want to meet those standards, but at the same time, we always want to be fair in how we do it."

While on the surface, Williams did not indicate that the university is considering making a change, the fact that he was noncommittal about Stallings' future invokes the first rule of athletic directors (which, again, I totally did not just make up):

If an athletic director is making public statements about a coach's job status, you can assume that the status is "not good."

Because logically, if Williams is committed to retaining Stallings beyond this season, there is exactly no reason to make a noncommittal statement about the coach's future on the record.  On the surface, Williams said nothing of interest: evaluating the coach at the end of the season is part of an athletic director's job description.  Every athletic director in America is going to evaluate his coach's performance at the end of the season.  If Williams already knows that Stallings will be back next year, there is exactly no reason to give opposing coaches ammunition on the recruiting trail.

But that wasn't all that Williams said.  Williams also indicated that the coach's existing contract -- long presumed to be the main hangup in making a coaching change -- would not be a factor in his decision.

"But at Vanderbilt you’re not going to be hammered for one season," Williams said. "We look at the total picture, trends of the program and how long trends last."

And if you're looking at the total picture, the last few months have given a clear answer.  Three years -- and now, likely, four years -- without an NCAA Tournament appearance, a sub-Van Breda Kolff winning percentage, and what could easily become a decline on the recruiting trail all point in the same direction: Vanderbilt needs to make a change.  The only arguments you can make in Stallings' favor are that he used to be good, and that his players are generally good citizens who go to class and graduate.  But as to the first, the Stallings of five years ago is not the Stallings of today; and to the second, recruiting players who don't go to class and don't graduate is an argument for firing a winning coach, but the reverse is not an argument for keeping a losing coach.

There is a lot of emotion involved here, because for many of us, Kevin Stallings is the only Vanderbilt basketball coach we have known.  He's been here so long that many of us have a difficult time imagining Vanderbilt basketball without Stallings making his whistle so loud that you can hear it twenty rows up as he roams the baseline of Memorial Gym.  But we've also known that this day would eventually come, as either Stallings would walk away from the program or the program would become so stagnant that a change would become necessary.  In 2016, the negatives severely outweigh the positives, and it is time for Vanderbilt to move on.