A Q&A with new Pitt coach Kevin Stallings, who takes over the Panthers after 17 seasons at Vanderbilt.
With the 2016 college basketball coaching carousel nearing its conclusion, SI.com is checking in with all the major hires about their new gigs. These Q&As will be posted periodically throughout April, May and June. Next up is Kevin Stallings, who spent 17 seasons as Vanderbilt’s head coach before leaving for the same post at Pittsburgh. Stallings led the Commodores to a 332-220 record and seven NCAA tournament appearances. He replaces Jamie Dixon, who left Pittsburgh to become TCU’s head coach.
Sports Illustrated: You had a pretty good job at Vanderbilt, and you’d been there for 17 years. What was it about Pittsburgh that convinced you to move on?
Kevin Stallings: I just reached a point to where I wanted one more opportunity, one more change, one more different opportunity. I had a number of opportunities over the course of 17 years to leave Vanderbilt, but whether it was because of timing or family situations or what have you, I always made the decision to stay.
And when this opportunity was presented, I guess I took a little bit of a different approach in my thinking. I was encouraged to do so by my wife, so I just thought about it a little bit differently. As I met with [Pitt athletic director] Scott Barnes and really analyzed what kind of opportunity was here, I just thought it was something that was honestly too good to pass up.
SI: You said that this job made your heart come alive in a way that it hadn’t in some time. Was it about this job and this location, or was it just time to move forward?
KS: I think it was a job with much different parameters. Every job has its limitations and every job has its challenges, but I think the challenges with the job here are different and they’re exciting to me. Obviously, being in the ACC was a tremendous draw.
The student support here rivals anybody in the country with our Oakland Zoo people. And I think that, again, the challenges were different, they excited me. The opportunities were different. I felt like there was a different ceiling of what can be done at men’s basketball at the University of Pittsburgh. I wanted the opportunity to see how close I could get to that ceiling.
SI: How long was the process, from the first time Scott called you to when you’d agreed in principle?
KS: I got a call on Monday and was asked about my interest. I returned that call later in the evening on Monday after I’d had a chance to visit with my family. We were all down at spring training watching my son play baseball. [Editor’s note: Stallings’s son, Jacob, is a catcher for the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ system.] I think that Monday evening I returned the call and said I would have a genuine interest.
The interview took place I think on Wednesday. And the job was offered to me on Friday evening. And I agreed in principle to accept the job sometime during the day on Saturday.
SI: It seems like it was a pretty measured process.
KS: I would say that I was afforded the opportunity to take my time with it, but I also think it had much more to do with Scott’s process and interviewing the different people he wanted to talk to for the job. I certainly wasn’t the only person interviewed, and that had as much to do with it as anything. I think it was him working on the timeline that he was most comfortable with.
But I was told early on in the process that it wouldn’t take very long. It went fairly quickly. Honestly, the way these things are covered now by the media that becomes the best thing not only for the candidates but also for the schools. If you can get it done in an expedited fashion, that’s best for everyone.
KS: Well it would be very special. And he loves the Pirates’ organization. They drafted him in 2012. He loves the organization and has had a great experience with them. If that ever happened, it certainly would be a dream scenario. But that didn’t have anything to do with my decision. And what you mentioned is exactly right, those guys get moved around a lot.
SI: As you look back at your time at Vanderbilt, what do you think you did really well and where can you improve?
KS: Well, overall as a body of work, I’m very proud of what we accomplished at Vanderbilt in the time I was there. Again, Vanderbilt has its unique challenges and limitations—and every place does, but theirs are different from some others. And I felt like we were able to be very effective in working around and through those challenges that you get at a school at Vanderbilt.
What I felt like I did well? I felt like we identified players who were capable of being SEC-caliber players and in some cases capable of being NBA players. And I think that happened for two reasons. One, I think we were pretty good at evaluating. And two, I think we were pretty good at developing. So I’m proud of the fact that we were able to get NBA-caliber players at times, but they weren’t coming off the McDonald’s All-American lists. They weren’t top-25 guys. They were guys that came and bought into our culture and bought into what we were trying to do. By buying in, they helped themselves develop as well as they could.
I’m certainly proud of the fact that we did some things, NCAA tournament-wise that hadn’t been done before. I’m proud of the type of program we had. We were very competitive. We had some years that were better than others. We won the first SEC tournament in 60 years for the school. The only time the school has been to three NCAA tournaments in a row, we did that. The school in its history has 14 NCAA tournament appearances, and we had seven of them while I was there. I’m proud of that. I’m proud, like any coach is, that we impacted the lives of some unbelievable men and guys that went on to be great things in their lives. There are a lot of things that I’m proud of.
Things that I could have done better? We had it really going in 2012 when we won the SEC tournament championship.
SI: You beat a pretty good Kentucky team in that championship game.
KS: That Kentucky team wasn’t bad, as I recall. But what I failed to do was—we shot a little higher, aimed a little higher in our recruiting efforts, and we missed. In our efforts to scramble and do what we needed to do, we made some mistakes in character in some of our recruiting efforts. That really came back to haunt us for the next couple years. I don’t believe in ever sacrificing character as one of our core values of what we try to do. Because I’d had such great kids for so many years, I think I let my guard down about warning signs with guys who would do things the way you needed to have them done, not only at Vanderbilt, but in my program, in order to be successful. I made some mistakes that way, and it ended up costing us.
SI: Moving forward to Pitt now, it seems like this roster as it stands now with Jamel Artis, Michael Young, Chris Jones and Sheldon Jeter as seniors, is ready to compete right away. Do you feel that way?
KS: You know, I hope so. Again, I recall my first year in the SEC. I had a young man by the name of Dan Langhi. Dan, as I recall, was not picked on the first team preseason All-SEC. I’d watched this kid play, and I was simply amazed at how prolific he was at scoring.
So I go to media day that fall, and they asked me about how I felt about Langhi not being preseason All-SEC. And I said, if he’s not one of the 12 best players in this league, then I’ve completely underestimated how good the SEC is. And he ended up being player of the year that year in the league.
But I would say the same thing. You mentioned Jamie Dixon, and Jamie did a terrific job at Pitt. Everybody knows that. We have four very good senior players that have been here and been through the wars. But I don’t know what else is out there yet in the ACC, and I don’t know how we stack up against everyone else. And I hope I can impact this team in a way that we can have a lot of success. But I’m certainly not in any position to say I think we can do this or that, because obviously the ACC is arguably the best basketball conference in the country. But I can say that I’ve really enjoyed working with this group so far.
SI: Now that you’re out of the SEC, are you free to say unequivocally that the ACC is the best conference in college basketball?
KS: You know, I’m not going to throw dirt at some place that I was at for 17 years. I love those people. And I do think the SEC is underappreciated in basketball. And I think that monster that they call SEC football has something to do with that, because obviously the SEC is completely dominant in football. But I think it’s a very good league with very good coaches.
Somebody asked me the other day what the difference between the SEC and the ACC was, and I said, the SEC has one Hall of Fame coach coaching in it right now, and the ACC has four (Laughs). Right now, that’s all I can tell you.
SI: Could be a little intimidating.
KS: (Laughs) If a guy stopped and thought about it, it sure could be.SI:
KS: The response has probably been the most pleasing thing that I’ve encountered in the three or four weeks I’ve been on the job. The response we’ve gotten from the prospects, the response we’ve gotten from the AAU guys, the response we’ve gotten from coaches and families—it’s been nothing short of terrific. So that part has been a complete energizer for me and a big point of excitement.
The long-term strategy is similar to what we had at Vanderbilt. At Pittsburgh, we’re not going to be able to recruit locally and field our entire team. We don’t have the benefit of New York City or Washington D.C. or Chicago. We’re going to have to go elsewhere and get players. Obviously, we want to do a great job locally in the state and in Western Pennsylvania. But we’re going to have to be strategic in where else we go and where we can be effective.
I think that was a strength of ours at Vanderbilt—identifying kids. We didn’t feel like we had any geographical constraints. We literally went internationally and all across the country. One of the best players I had in the entire time I was there, a kid named Jeff Taylor, we got him from Hobbs, New Mexico. Festus Ezeli went to high school in Sacramento [California]. Now he didn’t play high school basketball, but he was from Sacramento. John Jacobs was a local guy. Damian Jones was from Baton Rouge. Wade Baldwin is from New Jersey. We went all over the place.
That’s how we’ve kind of learned to make our living. That’s going to be beneficial to me here. We may be a little more geographic in how we recruit, but we’re going to have to go elsewhere and into other people’s backyards to get the players we need.
SI: When you were asked at your press conference about the Sheldon Jeter transfer while you were coaching at Vanderbilt, you said that if you could go back, you might do some things differently. What would you have done?
KS: Honestly, I don’t want to get too specific about it. Fortunately, that’s something that’s sort of been allowed to die. Sheldon, I really enjoyed coaching the one year we were at Vanderbilt, and he knew that. He knew that I didn’t want him to leave. And I would say the one thing that could have been done better that I don’t mind saying is that the communication of certain things could have been better. And I don’t mean that as Sheldon could have communicated with me better. I mean that the whole process, if maybe there’d been a little better communication, we could have avoided some of the issues we had.
The good news is, Sheldon’s family is good, I’m good, and most importantly, he’s good. And I’m really excited to coach him again because he’s a terrific kid, and I think he’s going to have a great senior year.
SI: Anything else you’d like to add in closing?
KS: I’m not smart enough to think of my own things to talk about. That’s why I need guys like you (Laughs).