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A Wild Ride Ends: Stallings hired, other Pitt basketball news and notes

By Paul Zeise 6 years ago

AND ON THE 6TH DAY, OUR LONG NATIONAL NIGHTMARE WAS OVER….

Well, at least MY nightmare is over because the coaching search is over.

So I will try to wrap up the search in a nice bow, then sign off for the night and relax and crack open a few adult beverages on my couch as I watch basketball games….

As you know, Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings is now Pitt’s head basketball coach. I could give you a long look at his resume but instead, here is the official announcement from Pitt.

Now then, Stallings’ name didn’t emerge in the search until Saturday afternoon and that has raised some questions about the search firm, who was a candidate and who was interviewed.

Look, we are never going to get the truth from anyone, that’s the nature of these things. Refer back to one of my first blog posts where I attempted to define the words offer, interview, contact and interest, if you are still confused as to why that always is.

I will say this – I know of at least one other of the candidates that was offered the job (and that doesn’t even include the Miller brothers), but this will never be on the record and I’m sure we will be told Stallings was the only candidate and the first choice and all that stuff tomorrow.

So there is no need to dwell on it, but the reality is Barnes interviewed several candidates, at least one said no, and he turned his attention to hiring Stallings and got it done pretty quickly.

Again, I’m sure they will say he was their first choice and blah blah blah – but there is plenty of reason to believe he wasn’t. In the end that doesn’t matter because he is the guy, and now we can move forward with dissecting the hire and what it means.

*** First, conspiracy theorists were alive and well Saturday when all of this broke, and for obvious reasons. Stallings was reported to have been fired at Vanderbilt on Thursday by several outlets, the SID issues a statement saying that isn’t true and less than 48 hours later he is negotiating with Pitt.

Now, what conspiracy you ask?

Well, the conspiracy of cronyism and the questionable ethics of search firms for college searches …

The search firm that was used was Collegiate Sports Athletics and the CEO is Todd Turner, who used to be the athletic director at Vanderbilt and also at Washington.

Turner hired Stallings at Vanderbilt in 1999, Stallings was a client of the search firm and Barnes was Turner’s deputy athletic director at Washington from 2005-08.

So there is a legit question of whether this was a case of an “old buddies network” scratching each other’s back or if Barnes really had Stallings in mind from the start of the search.

I mean, if Vandy was on the verge of firing Stallings – and Barnes had struck out with a few candidates – could Turner have said to Vandy “I have a solution” to Stallings “I have a solution” and to Barnes “I have a solution” to make this work?

As I first reported Saturday, they were negotiating Stallings’ buyout and my source told me it was not seen as even a little bit of an obstacle.

It would be real easy to see these dots getting connected – Turner brokers a deal with Vandy to get Stallings hired elsewhere so they don’t have to pay his buyout for firing him and delivers him to Pitt for a reduced number to buy him out of his Vanderbilt contract.

So problem solved – Vandy gets rid of a coach it wanted to fire and not only doesn’t have to pay him to leave but gets a few bucks back from Pitt; Pitt gets an experienced and somewhat successful coach to come for cheap; and Turner collects fees from both sides because he has successfully helped one of his clients find a job while helping another client to fill a vacancy.

Again, I stress, I am NOT reporting that this is what happened because I don’t know and obviously, again, we will never know – but this scenario, these questions that arise, these seemingly conflicts of interest, are exactly why a lot of people question the ethics of colleges using these search firms.

It may – all of it – have been completely a coincidence that there are these connections and Pitt ended up with Stallings, but these are questions already being asked by a lot of people because it just doesn’t look right on certain levels.

I’m willing to give Pitt the benefit of the doubt on this one until I see solid evidence (not speculation and connecting dots) that Turner and his crew hooked up old friends to help out another old friend.

But it really does raise serious questions about search firms because most that I’ve come across or heard of are run by former athletic directors and coaches, and that’s begging for conflicts of interest to occur.

I will say one more time, I am NOT accusing Pitt of doing anything unethical; I am just saying these are questions a lot of people are asking today and I spelled out exactly why.

*** I’m willing to give Scott Barnes the benefit of the doubt and say that he does know what he is doing, and this was a case of him hiring a guy he thought was best fit to move the Panthers forward. And that’s because I have had plenty of interactions with him and have gotten to know him well and he seems to be very bright, a guy with vision, he is driven and he is no nonsense.

There isn’t a lot of BS with him. He knows where he wants to go, he believes he has a plan to get there and he believes his track record will get people on board to follow him. Time will tell, as I wrote, but this hire will be a big part of his legacy and he is smart enough to know that. 

**** I don’t want to be THAT guy, but the outrage over this hiring -- while understandable when more exciting names like Enfield and Drew were involved with this discussion – is a little bit over the top. Actually, the outrage is a lot over the top.

I know Stallings feels a bit like a retread hire, and I know that he isn’t a young “up and comer” -- he is an established guy who has been around a long time. That profile is often times not quite as sexy as the risky, unknown guy, but the safe hire has worked out in the past.

And this isn’t like Pitt hired the worst basketball coach on the planet.

The guy has 38 years of experience, he coached under Roy Williams, he coached under Gene Keady, he played for Keady – he has been around the block a few times.

He is known as a very good offensive coach, a good X’s and O’s guy and he has had seven of his players get drafted in the NBA – and that number will grow to at least nine and maybe 10 once a couple of his current players graduate or put their names in the hat.

I know, I know – “but he had two or three legitimate NBA guys and only got to the First Four and then got waxed by Wichita State,” and maybe they underachieved a bit this year.

And yep, the last few years haven’t been great --- but think Jamie Dixon’s last few years and why almost everyone involved thought this was the perfect time for him to leave: Maybe it was a little burnout and time for him to go find a new challenge.

Same thing with Stallings – maybe it was time for a new challenge.

I am not saying it is going to work out, nobody knows, but I am saying that it COULD work out and there are a lot of things to like about this hire if you (a) wanted a guy who has experience recruiting to a major conference in the South and (b) wanted a guy who runs a lot of good offense based on guards who can really score.

Yes, a mid-major guy such as Drew or Will Wade would get people excited at the press conference – but there is risk there. Ben Howland was a mid-major guy and it was a home run; Ralph Willard, not so much.

In this case, you know what you are getting and he has proven he can win in a major conference at a place where it is tougher to win at than Pitt because of the academic/admissions standards.

Now, you can counter that the ACC is much better than the SEC, and that is true – but wouldn’t you agree Vanderbilt is probably the toughest job in the SEC because it is so much different than the other schools in that conference?

Only time will tell if it is going to work and I do appreciate the sense of disappointment from Pitt fans because y’all had visions of Enfield bringing Dunk City to the Pete or whatever.

But my two cents are to at least give this one a chance because I do think Kevin Stallings has been better – at a tough place to win – than you think, and I do think he will be able to recruit good players to Pitt.

*** In fact – he just made his first offer a few hours ago, to 2017 point guard Aaron Thompson of Paul VI in Virginia. Thompson announced that he got an offer from Stallings on Twitter –he plays AAU for Team Takeover. He has offers from VCU, DePaul, Temple, Penn State, Miami, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and a bunch of other schools as well. He is 6-foot-2, 175 pounds and is a four-star recruit by Scout and ESPN.

*** Speaking of players, it is well documented that things didn’t end well at Vanderbilt for Sheldon Jeter.

He left the school after his freshman year in 2013 and said he wanted to play closer his to home, and Stallings said publicly that he gave him his blessing to leave and transfer.

But then Stallings blocked Jeter from going to Pitt, there were rumors of tampering, and Jeter had some hard feelings and ended up having to go to Polk Junior College for a year before arriving at Pitt for the 2014-15 season.

This has been a huge deal and brought up early and often by a lot of different people since last night when it broke that Stallings might be the coach.

“You can’t hire Stallings, he screwed over Sheldon Jeter, he isn’t an honorable guy and Jeter will leave…”

Well, here is the deal:

As it turns out, most of you are a lot more upset about all of that stuff than Jeter is himself.

Oh, there are still some things to work through I am sure but the truth is Stallings and Jeter talked today and apparently it went very well and both parties seem to be ready to put the past behind them and move forward and work together.

Does that mean Jeter isn’t going to transfer or there aren’t some more conversations that need to and will take place between Stallings and Jeter?

No, anything can happen, but it sounds like the two have taken a pretty good first step, and from what I have been told by two different sources, the “hard feelings” and whatnot between Jeter and Stallings was a little bit overstated.

Sure, it is easy to say now that circumstances have come together ,but I honestly will be surprised if Jeter transfers for his final year.

**** Stallings has a video he would love to see disappear from YouTube that shows him berating a player going through a handshake line and yelling “I will [expletive] kill you” because they kid was taunting the other team and showboating at the end of a game they were winning.

This has become the narrative that Stallings is a fiery guy, maybe a wacko and he is a yeller and a maniac that berates players.

One of his current players disagrees with that – former Plum star Nolan Cressler, a redshirt junior guard who transferred from Cornell to Vanderbilt to finish his last couple of years. Here is what he said to our own Mike White today about playing for Stallings.

“I liked him,” Cressler said. “I respect coach Stallings. I think he’s a man of value and he really values high character kids. I think he’s about doing the right thing and I think he exemplified that in his recruiting efforts. He wants things done the correct way.

“He’s a pretty intense coach, but he’s not a hot head. He’s more of an intellectual guy. He’s more of a thinker, but he’s very strategic as well. If you’re doing something wrong and he doesn’t like it, he’ll take an intense approach to it.”

Cressler said that Stallings’ style of play was indeed a draw, but not because he is some up-tempo run and gun coach, just that he has a proven track record of having his guards score a lot.

But as far as his actual style of play, Cressler said the big thing is that he adapts to his talent and this year, they were a lot more structured on offense than in the past – though the structure is not so rigid that players can’t make decisions and plays on their own.

“The past two years has been the same style basically with the same personnel,” Cressler said. “But talking to players in the past and two of our coaches who played for him, they said they played completely different than we are. Obviously, it’s up to [Stallings], but he doesn’t necessarily bring a set style. He develops his style around the pieces he has.

“The way we played this year was very structured. I can’t even name the number of plays we had. It was less kind of a go-play style and more structured. It was just about having different alternatives. If someone was denied a pass, you have different alternatives.”

One other thing Cressler said – the team had an idea the last few weeks that Stallings may be making a move, so this wasn’t a surprise to any of them and he did reach out to each of them via the phone because he was in Florida with his son, Jacob, who is a catcher in the Pirates organization.

*** Speaking of endorsements, I spoke with Ben Howland today and he had nothing but praise for Stallings and said that Pitt pulled off a real coup by hiring him. He said the two go back 30 years, and he called Stallings “one of the best offensive coaches in the country.”

Howland said that Stallings was able to recruit NBA players to Vanderbilt and that isn’t an easy thing to do “he has two first round draft picks on his team right now and that’s a credit to him and his ability to recruit but not only recruit but develop players.”

“This was a real coup for Pitt, a steal for them, an absolute no-brainer hire,” said Howland, who is the coach at Mississippi State. “I’ve known Kevin for 30 years, Pitt basketball is in great hands. He will do a fantastic job. This isn’t a young guy learning on the job, he will know exactly what to do from day one.

“Vanderbilt was the best defensive team in our league [the SEC], but he is also one of the very best offensive coaches in the country. As someone who loves Pitt basketball as much as I do and as someone who was honored to be a part of that program, I am truly excited about the future of the program.”

Howland, by the way, said he loves it at Mississippi State, has really fit in and been embraced by the community and has an excellent recruiting class coming in and he is focused on a future that he thinks is going to be really bright there.

I asked him about the culture shock of going from Los Angeles, Hollywood, etc., to Starkville, Miss., and he said it has been an easy transition because “the people here have been fantastic.”

He said Pitt fans should be excited about the hire of Stallings because he is far more experienced and accomplished than a lot of other coaches and he will be able to continue to build on what Jamie Dixon did.

“Jamie Dixon is the best coach and most accomplished coach in Pitt history,” Howland said. “He did an unbelievable job at Pitt and deserves all the credit for everything he did because it is nothing short of amazing in many, many ways.

“And now I fully believe that Kevin will build on that. I really mean that, like I said, I love Pitt, I love that university and that program and that city – It really makes me happy to know that the program is in such capable hands.”

Obviously, Stallings is Howland’s friend, and he is going to say nice things about him but he raved about his X’s and O’s and how good of a coach he is.

So you can take it for what it is worth but I’m going to go out on a limb and say Howland knows a thing or two about good basketball coaches.

*** Speaking of Dixon, I asked Howland about him and he said that it was just a unique experience for Dixon to be able to go back to TCU, his alma mater, and is a firm believer that the timing was right.

“Jamie is my best friend, I talked to him all the time,” Howland said. “I think that the ability go back to a place he went to school, a place he loves, a place he has a lot of friends still at, that was really just too good to pass up.

“That team has struggled for the last few years and Jamie saw this as an opportunity to go back there and help rebuild it and finish his career at a place it started. He will get that program up and running again and sooner than people think because he has experience doing it and knows how to do it.”

**** I also spoke with ex-Purdue coach Gene Keady, who coached Stallings and then Stallings was his assistant for six years. That’s what I wrote before – talk about pedigree, Stallings coached under both Keady and Roy Williams (at Kansas) so he has some pretty good mentors.

Keady joked that he is just glad Stallings wanted to get into coaching and stuck with it “after dealing with me for so many years.”

But he said that the best thing that Stallings has done is that he has done things with integrity.

“He is a great X’s and O’s guy, he really knows and understands the game,” Keady said. “He will be a great fit in Pittsburgh, they like guys who work hard there, I love that city. And he won’t take short cuts, will do the right thing, he stands for the right things. It is a great hire for Pitt.”

*** The beauty of a coaching search is once it is over, everyone goes back to their normal lives and acts like nothing happened. Nobody contacted anyone, nobody talked to anyone and all of that other stuff I’ve written about…..

There are denials, non-denial denials and a lot of guys who will end up cashing in with contract extensions as a result.

One coach who was supposedly involved but apparently was not is UNC Wilmington’s Kevin Keatts. His agent, Myles B. Solomon, reached out to me this morning to say that Keatts had no contact with Pitt or with anyone on behalf of Pitt. So there’s that…

But Knight, Enfield, Drew and Lonergan all were involved and Wade was at least on the radar if things didn’t get done with Stallings. Interestingly enough Wade is already a coach whose name is surfacing at Vanderbilt so we shall see. None of it matters now nor will we ever get the whole truth about things but it is amazing to follow these things and see how they unfold.

I don’t know if Brandin Knight will have a chance to stay or will even want to stay, but he is a classic example of how this business works: “We love loyalty but we value people who have some variety on their resume.”

I’m obviously not his agent and he is much smarter than me so he doesn’t need my advice, but the best thing he could do is go get a job somewhere else, either as a top assistant in a major conference or as the head coach at a smaller school.

That will give him some diversity on his resume and make himself more marketable when he tries to land his first major conference head coaching job.

I think he is going to be a very good coach, by the way. He is smart, driven, competitive and I think he connects with players and they respect him. He will be able to recruit and he will be able to win.

But again, he just needs a little more experience and it would serve him to get it elsewhere.

*** Well that’s about it, time to relax and have a few, um, adult beverages and watch basketball. I hope you have found these blog posts both informative and entertaining during the search. It has been a bit of a grind, but Pitt has a coach now and a new era of Pitt basketball is underway. I’ll have another post tomorrow after the press conference, sort of setting up the scene and reacting to what is said from Barnes, Stallings and whoever else is available to talk. And then, I will take a long winter’s nap…..or something like that.