PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Kevin Stallings spent 17 years at Vanderbilt, making the Commodores consistently competitive at a place where success had only been sporadic.
Yet the itch for a new challenge kept at bay for the better part of a decade kept nagging at him. When Pittsburgh athletic director Scott Barnes reached out looking for someone to replace Jamie Dixon, Stallings could no longer resist the urge to finally scratch it.
“There comes a point in your life if you don’t change, you’re never going to change,” Stallings said. “I kind of determined I wanted one more opportunity.”
And the Panthers wanted someone with a proven track record to improve its standing in the nation’s best basketball conference. Barnes introduced Stallings as Dixon’s successor on Monday, pointing to Stallings’ ability to navigate the unique landscape at Vanderbilt while becoming the school’s all-time winningest coach. It’s that track record _ seven NCAA appearances and a 332-220 record _ that Barnes will rely on after the Panthers hired the 55-year-old Stallings rather than a younger and lesser known commodity.
“I’m not going to hire a flash in the pan because it wins the press conference,” Barnes said. “I’m going to hire somebody who had less tools to work with and did a really good job in terms of the quality of student athletes he recruited there with the small pool to recruit from because of the academic standards and other limitations. The ceiling is much higher here.”
A ceiling the Panthers watched slip out of arm’s length during the final years of Dixon’s 13-year run. Pitt is just 28-26 in conference play since leaving the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference at the start of the 2013 season and has just one NCAA victory since 2010. Dixon left last week for TCU, and Barnes decided to hand the reins of the program over to another experienced coach, one that could potentially land recruits that were out of his reach at Vanderbilt.
Wearing a blue pinstripe suit with a white shirt and a blue-and-gold tie, Stallings joked he was “extremely upset” with Dixon for the high standard Dixon set while leading the Panthers to three Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight before bolting for his alma mater.
“I’m certainly not going to apologize for my record,” Stallings said. “Jamie obviously had great success and as I said before, our goal is to try to match and improve on it.”
Stallings was coming off a 19-14 season with the Commodores that ended with a 20-point loss to Wichita State in the opening round of the NCAAs, his fourth first-round exit in Vanderbilt’s last five trips to the tournament. Despite the lack of lengthy March runs, Stallings said he was scheduled to meet with Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams to discuss the future of the program, one that Stallings planned to be a part of until his phone rang.
“If David was going to fire me, David would have fired me right after the season was over,” Stallings said.
Williams thanked Stallings for his “productive tenure” and the coach stressed the move to Pittsburgh had nothing to do with his status at Vanderbilt.
“The decision to be the basketball coach here wasn’t what I was going from but what I was going to,” he said.
Stallings will have plenty to work with next fall. The Panthers return six of their top seven scorers, all of whom met with Stallings for 30 minutes on Monday afternoon, and then gathered on the Petersen Events Center floor to watch Stallings during a lengthy and occasionally contentious question and answer session. The group included junior forward Sheldon Jeter, a western Pennsylvania native who played one year under Stallings at Vanderbilt before asking to transfer to Pitt. Stallings blocked the request, forcing Jeter to spend a year at a junior college before joining the Panthers.
“If I had to do situation again, things might have been handled differently,” Stallings said, adding he has spoken to Jeter about it and it is “something in the past.”
Stallings would prefer to talk about the future, one that likely will include a more strident nonconference schedule than the one Dixon annually put together. Stallings also wants it to include offensive-minded players who want to get the ball and go.
“I’ve never had a problem relinquishing control of the game to the players,” he said. “I’ll manage the game in practice and I’ll allow them to manage during the game.”
Stallings will start compiling a staff immediately, one that likely won’t include former Pitt player and longtime assistant Brandin Knight. He’ll also try to enjoy the spoils of his new gig, saying he will “look under every blanket” for good players, including ones that weren’t on the table for him at Vanderbilt.
When he met with Barnes to talk about the job, the determining factor was the shared belief the Panthers had all the tools to reach the last weekend of the season, a place the program hasn’t been since 1941.
“I asked him why Pitt and he said `Can you get to the Final Four at Pitt?”’ Barnes said. “I said yes and he said `Absolutely, I’m in.”’
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