A history of Vanderbilt men’s basketball coaches
by Cutler Klein, Sports reporter
In order to better examine the choice regarding Kevin Stallings’ future with the Vanderbilt men’s basketball program, we need to examine the history of Vanderbilt basketball leading up to Stallings’ tenure and what he has done with the program in his 16 years at the helm.
Vanderbilt has fielded a men’s basketball team every year since 1900, but has only played in the modern Southeastern Conference since 1932. In that time, Vanderbilt had a total of 12 coaches before Stallings took over. However, only a handful of those coaches are relevant to the discussion regarding Stallings, because teams prior to 1985 competed for spots in a much smaller tournament.
The decision over Stallings’ future is a tough one, and it all depends on your view of the program. Stallings has brought in great talent and put Vanderbilt on the map in terms of Tournament appearances, and he has far exceeded his predecessors in essentially every category.
But, after 16 years, is the standard for success still just making the NCAA Tournament?
by Torben Ginsberg, Sports reporter
Entering the season as a dark horse Final Four pick for some, the Vanderbilt men’s basketball team has not lived up to the hype.
Despite having two projected first-round picks on the roster in Wade Baldwin IV and Damian Jones, the Commodores have struggled mightily, sitting at 12-8 overall and 4-4 in the SEC. A few bad losses combined with the lack of a notable win leaves Vandy on the outside looking in on NCAA tournament projections at this point in the season.
Amid these struggles, head coach Kevin Stallings’ job security has naturally come into question. To fire Stallings would not be entirely unfounded given the team’s recent struggles. After reaching the Round of 32 in 2012, the Commodores have failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament in each of the past three seasons.
Vanderbilt ended the 2014-15 season in strong fashion, winning eight of their last 10 regular season games before reaching the quarter-finals of the NIT tournament and falling to the eventual champion Stanford Cardinal. With such a young and talented squad, this momentum was supposed to carry into the 2015-16 season and make the Commodores a contender again.
While that clearly hasn’t happened, firing Stallings now would be an overreaction. As the winningest coach in Vanderbilt men’s basketball history, Stallings is a staple of the program and has brought it to relevance during his tenure. That fact itself might not be a justification for keeping him around, but the perks that come along with his continued success are worth it.
For starters, the respect that comes along with his building a winning program has helped him become the most successful recruiter that this program has ever had. The NBA prospects on this team only aid in proving that point. College basketball today is largely seen as a means to an end by many of the top prospects, and proving to those prospects that this program can produce lottery picks is a huge recruiting tool.
Furthermore, Stallings has long been recognized as one of the top strategic minds in the nation. A 2013 ESPN poll of approximately 250 Division I coaches found that he was selected as the 10th most feared coach in terms of drawing up plays. For a program that isn’t often attracting top talent, this is a critical asset to have.
It is also doubtful that the Commodores would be able to find a replacement who can move the program in a better direction. Making a coaching change coming off a disappointing season with the two best players possibly leaving for the draft and no top prospects coming in to fill the holes is a dangerous proposition.
The Commodores would not be able to attract the very top coaching candidates like Brad Stevens, Gregg Marshall or Archie Miller to fill Stallings’ shoes, but rather would have to target an up-and-coming mid-major coach or a notable assistant.
In all likelihood, the program would suffer during the first few years of the new era, and that might be enough to doom Vanderbilt basketball for the foreseeable future. It took quite some time to build a respectable program, and the chances of maintaining or improving upon that success are much better in the hands of Kevin Stallings.
by Karim Oliver, Sports reporter
I would like to preface this article by saying I have tremendous respect for head coach Kevin Stallings and everything he has done for this program. Stallings is easily the best basketball coach in Vanderbilt history and has deserved the support from the athletic community that he has received.
However, with this week’s game against Kentucky and the season overall, it may be time for Stallings and Vanderbilt to part ways.
The decision of whether or not to fire Stallings, I believe, should come down to one simple question: Is the school satisfied with the state of the Vanderbilt basketball program?
The recent history isn’t positive. Since winning the SEC tournament in 2012, Vanderbilt has failed to make the NCAA tournament for three consecutive years and is staring at a fourth this season. In those years, they have also failed to finish in the top five of the SEC.
Going back to last season, Vanderbilt is 2-13 in games decided in five or fewer points. Combine that with the fact that Vanderbilt blew a 10-point lead against No. 3 Kansas, a 13-point lead at No. 25 Baylor, a 16-point lead at home against tournament hopeful Dayton, and halftime leads against No. 14 Purdue, LSU and South Carolina, and you get an abysmal picture.
Simply put, Vanderbilt hasn’t been able to close games, and while it’s unfair to blame it all on Stallings, Vanderbilt’s second-half woes have become a trend, and trends are reflected in coaching.
It’s extremely rare for a team this talented — featuring two likely first-round NBA draft picks — to struggle so mightily; only four such teams since 2000 have missed the tournament. And though you must give credit to Stallings for recruiting the talent, especially given the academic complications, it’s very difficult to say that he has maximized it.
In 2012, Vanderbilt had three players selected in the first 31 picks of the NBA Draft, and although they won the SEC tournament, they still managed to lose in the Round of 32. In fact, since Stallings was hired in 1999, Vanderbilt has made it to the Sweet 16 just twice — in 2004 and 2007 — and never advanced further. More alarmingly, in three of its last four NCAA tournament appearances, Vanderbilt has been eliminated by two No. 13 seeds and one No. 12 seed.
The reality is that the team has performed consistently average and rarely above average.
Of course, it’s very difficult to fire a coach in college sports.
One, for Vanderbilt, there is an academic reputation that is much more important than basketball. Unlike Kentucky, who can just recruit the best players, Stallings has to find players that wouldn’t mind the academic rigor and can make the grades.
Two, the players on the team committed to play at Vanderbilt in large part because of Stallings, and new recruits would likely bail if he was no longer the coach.
Lastly, Vanderbilt would have to buy out the rest of his contract if he was terminated, which can put a strain on boosters and the athletic budget, although Vanderbilt has not released the terms of his contract.
Given all of that, barring a turnaround this season, it may be in the best interest of the athletic department to look in a new direction and find a coach that can raise the program to an elite national level just like Tim Corbin did with the baseball program 12 years ago.
—Photos by Bosley Jarrett and Chris Honiball
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that Vanderbilt has been eliminated by two No. 13 seeds and one No. 12 seed in three of the past four NCAA tournaments