An Appreciation of Kevin Stallings
It's actually a bit jarring to realize this: Kevin Stallings has made three times as many NCAA tournament appearances as any other men’s basketball coach at Vanderbilt. Three times. Triple. 300 percent more. It’s not a mistake. It’s real. Stallings has made six trips to the Big Dance. Eddie Fogler, C.M. Newton, and Roy Skinner each have two. As the saying goes, “You could look it up.”
This doesn’t mean, of course, that Stallings is the best men’s basketball coach the program has ever had. That honor has to go to Roy Skinner, who went six straight seasons with fewer than eight losses, from 1962-’63 through 1967-’68. Skinner was and is (and always will be) a victim of the small NCAA tournament field which persisted through the 1960s and into the first half of the 1970s. With a more expansive field – 48 teams might have sufficed, not necessarily 64 – the history of Vanderbilt men’s basketball could be substantially different as we sit here and contemplate it today. The ledger sheet says two NCAA appearances, but the merits of his seasons tell us that Skinner should have had more than Stallings’ six Dance cards.
In second place, based on our survey of various Vanderbilt coaches, Robert Polk has to be the choice. It was noted in the paragraph above that Skinner lost fewer than eight games in six straight seasons. Why the focus on eight losses? That was Stallings’ best season in terms of wins and losses – 2008 – and even then, the Commodores got whacked by Siena in the round of 64. Skinner lost fewer than eight games in eight seasons total. Polk, Skinner’s predecessor, lost fewer than eight games in four separate seasons, three of them consecutive. He also won Vanderbilt’s first SEC tournament championship, before Stallings won the second one 61 years later. Polk’s identity as the second choice should not be particularly controversial.
It’s when the discussion moves to the third-best coach in VU men’s basketball history that the matter becomes a little more complicated and requires some compartmentalization of categories. The most famous person (or sportsman) to ever coach a Vanderbilt men’s basketball team is Wallace Wade, the famed Alabama and Duke football coach who snuck in two years at VU in the early 1920s. If measuring the national historical prominence or popularity of a figure – removed from raw achievements – this becomes a different kind of exploration, but we are focusing on achievements, so we can shove it aside.
If asked to name the third-best basketball coach VU’s men’s program has ever employed, and if the ground rules allow the candidates to be identified based on what they achieved at schools other than Vanderbilt, C.M. Newton would be the best answer. Before he came to Vanderbilt, Newton lost a total of just 14 games in a span of three seasons from 1973-’74 through 1975-’76, and only 20 games in the four seasons from 1973-’74 through 1976-’77. Improbably but undeniably, Alabama made the NCAAs in only two of those four seasons. Ironically for Newton (when he arrived at Vanderbilt to coach the Dores), his 1974 NCAA tournament snub occurred at the hands of Skinner’s second NCAA tournament team in Nashville. The two squads tied atop the conference, but Vanderbilt won the head-to-head tiebreaker, and a formidable Crimson Tide team had to sit out the Dance.
You can see that Skinner, Polk and Newton – in their best years as coaches – put together dominant seasons with just a handful of losses. All of those coaches’ peak periods (Newton’s in Tuscaloosa, of course) came before the NCAA tournament began to be seeded in 1979. All of them would have gained at least one team seeded better than Stallings’s highest-seeded VU team, the No. 4 seed from 2008. Therefore, if going by total career resume – not just time spent at Vanderbilt – Newton is the third-best men’s coach VU hoops has ever had. Stallings would be fourth. However, if going strictly by achievements accumulated while at Vanderbilt, Stallings would be third. Newton produced two tournament teams and one Sweet 16 in Nashville, but Stallings topped those accomplishments, and he also won an SEC tournament. Newton admittedly would have had a great chance to win the SEC tournament at Alabama, but the event – not held for just over a quarter century – didn’t resume until 1979.
It might seem like a modest distinction to be the third-best men’s basketball coach in a school’s history, but the larger reality of Vanderbilt and most other Division I programs is that they’ve been around a long time. Some – especially in the West – are newer, and among a number of older Western programs, some (such as Arizona State and Arizona) haven’t been in a power conference very long, since the late 1970s or thereabouts. Vanderbilt is an established school with a longstanding SEC affiliation. To be the third-best coach in school history (strictly in terms of accomplishments while at the school and not anywhere else, whether before or after) is a pretty significant accomplishment. At a school with a much shorter history in the upper reaches of Division I competition, it wouldn’t matter as much.
Has Stallings’ career been marked by a number of disappointments? No doubt. Has the program failed to live up to the standards set from 2004 through 2012? Yes. Within those generally prosperous years – 2004 through 2012 – did early exits as a 4 or 5 seed sting, and reflect poorly on Stallings? No question. Yet, on balance, this program has still enjoyed one of its more productive periods, and this coming season, there’s good reason to expect a visit to the NCAA bubble… at worst. The ceiling could be well within the NCAA field, perhaps an 8 or 7 seed.
The last three years have been rough, but this is still a good time to be Kevin Stallings. 2016 could be a great time to be a Vanderbilt men’s basketball fan. The coach, on balance, has done a very solid job, and for most of us, that’s something we should be satisfied with in any line of work. Do we want to do better? Yes. Just the same, we could all be a whole lot worse… and far more miserable.
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