Today, Kevin Stallings coaches a team at the bottom of the 15-member Atlantic Coast Conference.
Like the Pittsburgh Panthers, Stallings is in deep trouble, a point reinforced by colleague Joseph Nardone. He isn’t meshing with his players. Morale is plummeting in the Steel City. North Carolina and Duke are next on the schedule. Pitt predecessor Jamie Dixon, despite a bad loss to Auburn this past weekend, is moving TCU forward and generating excitement about hoops in the Dallas-Fort Worth corridor.
Stallings’ career is heading downward to a point where — if he doesn’t right the ship in 2018 — he could be on the hot seat and then out of a job in March of 2019. In his late 50s, Stallings would not be an attractive rebound candidate at many, if any, Power 5 conference jobs.
It didn’t have to be this way.
While Stallings is principally the author of his own decline, it is true that in the world of college basketball, one bounce — or call, or missed free throw — in the single-elimination NCAA Tournament profoundly alters careers and perceptions. This has always been the case since the Big Dance became a larger-scale event at the start of the 1980s, and it will continue to be.
Guy Lewis of Houston isn’t a national championship coach because his team couldn’t hit foul shots.
Jud Heathcote of Michigan State was victimized by a clock malfunction in the 1986 NCAA Tournament and then by a clock and officiating error in the 1990 tourney. We might speak of him in much more reverential tones if those errors had not occurred.
P.J. Carlesimo of Seton Hall could have become a national championship head coach and built an empire in New Jersey, but a phantom touch foul called with three seconds left in overtime of the 1989 national title game against Michigan enabled Rumeal Robinson to win the championship for interim coach Steve Fisher, who shortly thereafter recruited the Fab Five to Ann Arbor.
So many other examples exist of what-ifs related to the eternally fragile and tenuous nature of the NCAA Tournament. Coaches can control how prepared their teams are, but they can’t control everything.
Kevin Stallings sits at the heart of one of these great “what-ifs.”
In the 2007 East Regional semifinals at The Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Kevin Stallings could smell it.
His sixth-seeded Vanderbilt Commodores had largely flustered Roy Hibbert, Jeff Green, and the loaded No. 2 seed from Georgetown. The Hoyas, however, scrapped and fought well enough to earn a chance to win the game in the final seconds, trailing 65-64 with the ball.
Then came the play which — one could argue — transformed Stallings’ career.
After receiving the ball in traffic on the right edge of the paint, Green — who is now enjoying a decade-long career in the NBA — made a sloppy move with his pivot foot. Georgetown fans will argue to this day that Vanderbilt defenders bumped Green and caused the foot to move, but Vanderbilt fans will counter with the perfectly reasonable assertion that the pivot foot did in fact move without a dribble occurring.
The officials did not call a travel, and Green artfully banked in a six-foot leaner with 2.5 seconds left, giving Georgetown a 66-65 win.
Whether the call was right or wrong, consider the ways in which this altered college basketball history.
First, Vanderbilt and Stallings never truly recovered from this moment. Stallings made two Sweet 16s from 2004 through 2007, lifting VU to a higher place in college basketball. In the next nine seasons, the Commodores never returned to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Stallings did win the 2012 SEC Tournament with his best recruiting class — Festus Ezeli, Jeffery Taylor, John Jenkins, Steve Tchiengang, Lance Goulbourne, Brad Tinsley — but even that team couldn’t make the Sweet 16. Vanderbilt never again played in a round-of-64 March game under Stallings.
Naturally, there are no guarantees that Stallings’ career would have taken off, but a high-end victory such as that one would have bolstered Vandy’s national profile. Realize that in the Sweet 16, CBS and Turner show two different games at one time, and the story lines for a Sweet 16 night are split in several directions. Playing in the Elite Eight on Saturday or Sunday offers exclusivity. No other college basketball game competes with a regional final. The platform is far more prominent.
That 2007 Vanderbilt team beat Washington State to reach the Sweet 16. Wazzu is hardly a needle-mover in the hoops ecosystem, so taking down Georgetown would have represented a far more resonant statement. Moreover, on the subject of publicity, VU would have played North Carolina in the Elite Eight had it defeated Georgetown. The Dores and Stallings could not have asked for a better scenario… but it was denied them.
Now, Stallings sits in misery, knowing he has to prove his worth next November and beyond.
Beyond Stallings, that non-travel call on Jeff Green affected other aspects of college — and perhaps pro — basketball over the ensuing 10 years.
If that travel call had been made, John Thompson III would never have made his only Elite Eight and Final Four at Georgetown. Yes, his daddy is still alive and influential, but one can’t help but wonder if that Final Four appearance is the main thing keeping him around in the District of Columbia.
If that call had been made, North Carolina and Roy Williams probably would have made the Final Four and played Ohio State in the national semifinals in Atlanta. Tyler Hansbrough-Greg Oden would have been good, but it wouldn’t have created the sensation Hibbert-Oden did. It’s true that Hibbert versus Oden turned out to be a bust, but the matchup still drew lots of NBA attention. It just might have ensured that Oden was taken first in the 2007 NBA Draft.
Kevin Durant’s future and career path might have been affected by Vandy-Georgetown, then, but it’s impossible to speak with certitude on that point.
Maybe the Portland Trail Blazers, with K.D. in the fold, would have become an NBA colossus, while the Oklahoma City Thunder would have become the Russ-and-Harden Show without Durant in the mix.
Kevin Stallings isn’t the only man who might wonder how different life might have been if Jeff Green had been called for that travel 10 years ago in The Meadowlands.