Matt Freije was probably Vanderbilt's leading candidate to pick up some postseason hardware. The 6-10 senior, who was voted SEC Preseason Player of the Year by the media last fall during Media Days, delivered an outstanding season. He led the SEC in scoring (19.1 points per game) and a few days ago eclipsed Phil Cox as the school's all-time scoring leader.
Yet the SEC Player of the Year awards will likely both go to Mississippi State's Lawrence Roberts, and few could argue that the Baylor transfer wasn't worthy. Roberts was the dominant player on a team that, in a year in which the West was supposed to be a six-team dogfight, ran away with the division and won a surprising regular-season championship.
Freije, a consensus All-SEC first-teamer, will have to be content with having led his team into contention for an NCAA Tournament invitation-- an accomplishment in which Freije, knowing his selfless attitude, is doubtless taking a lot more pride.
Jenni Benningfield began the season with an outside shot at an SEC Player of the Year award, but a midseason injury to her foot ended any chance of that. The women's team struggled through the middle part of the season without her, and the discouragement and disappointment of wearing an inflexible shoe through much of her senior season sometimes showed up on her face.
But the Commodore women ended their season with a flourish, and Benningfield's countenance while cutting down the nets on Sunday was one of sheer exhilaration.
Coach of the Year awards are much more subjective, much more like beauty pageants. For fans, they're little more than fodder for great talk show and message board discussions; for coaches, they're a way to pad their resumes, or chips to use for bargaining at contract negotiation time.
How, exactly, does one determine which coach in the league did the best coaching job? Did Tubby Smith, who lost Keith Bogans and Marquis Estill from his 2002-03 team, do a better coaching job than Rick Stansbury, who lost Derrick Zimmerman and Mario Austin? Did either do a better job than Georgia's Dennis Felton, who miraculously beat Kentucky twice and forged a competent team from almost nothing?
Sometimes the question of who did the best coaching job isn't answered until after the tournaments are all over. Last week the women's coaches awarded their Coach of the Year honors to the wicked witch to the East (Pat Summitt), whose Lady Vols breezed to the regular-season title. But the guess here is that if you took that vote again this week, Melanie Balcomb would merit at least a few mentions.
All of which brings us to Kevin Stallings. The skipper of the Commodore men's team may not be receiving any Coach of the Year awards-- there are simply too many other worthy candidates this year-- but the job he did in his fifth year at the helm is nothing short of extraordinary.
One short year ago, a good number of passengers on the good ship Commodore were ready for a full-scale mutiny-- and perhaps rightly so. Vanderbilt had finished 11-18 overall (the first losing season of Stallings' career), 3-13 in the SEC (worst conference record in school history), and had suffered the indignity of a 62-point loss at Rupp Arena.
To top it off, Stallings had seemed to come unglued after one or two of the more painful losses. There were rumors of internal squabbles, and burly center Brian Thornton was quietly preparing to leave school.
If you were among that group who campaigned for Stallings' ouster at the end of last season, insisting loudly that things were unlikely to get any better-- it is now officially time for you to raise your hand and acknowledge your mistake, and perhaps even serve yourself a well-seasoned dish of crow.
That's certainly not to say Stallings wasn't open for criticism at the end of Year Four. Things did indeed look bleak one short year ago, and if not for a stirring showing in last year's SEC Tournament, the season would have ended on a ten-game losing skid.
|Photo by Neil Brake, Vanderbilt athletics.|
At the end of last season the pressure was indisputably on Stallings, and he sensed it -- but instead of cracking, he seemed to mellow. He introduced new elements into his offense. He made changes, some subtle, some not-so-subtle, in the way he dealt with players, in the way he dealt with losses. He became less results-oriented, and more process-oriented. He became a better coach, and a better man.
Under Stallings in 2003-04, the Commodores got off to the best start in school history (12-0). They set a new school record for home wins in a single season (15). They won 19 regular-season games for the first time since Eddie Fogler's tenure.
Stallings took a team with essentially the same personnel as the year before and infused it with new degrees of mental toughness, team chemistry and unselfishness. As a result of its dedication to "process", as Stallings puts it, the team is about to scratch a seven-year NCAA itch.
As fans sensed that Stallings' team was poised to do something special, they returned to Memorial Gym in considerable numbers. Vanderbilt set a new home attendance record. Game by game, the venerable old gymnasium became the nasty place to visit that it used to be; next year, thanks to Stallings, no one should have to grovel before loyalists with the catchphrase, "We want you back."
Despite the impending loss of Freije, the program appears on solid ground, as Stallings signed his best class yet last November. (Think Vanderbilt has improved its athleticism relative to the rest of the SEC under Stallings? Wait'll you see Shan Foster and DeMarre' Carroll.)
It's time to give Stallings his due. Congratulate him in person, and he will deflect the credit to his players-- as any coach rightly should. But Stallings and his staff have wrought a remarkable turnaround with them-- maybe not a "Coach of the Year" turnaround, but remarkable nonetheless-- and it's time every member of the Commodore nation acknowledged it.
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