Jan. 9, 2013
After last week's win over William & Mary, Kevin Stallings (267-165) is 12 wins away from passing Roy Skinner (278-135) to become the Commodores all-time winningest coach. The victory over William & Mary totaled Stallings record at Memorial Gymnasium 182-48, which passed Skinner (181-41).
This interview between Kevin Stallings and Vanderbilt athletic historian Bill Traughber is from May 2012 and is included as a chapter in Traughber's new book "Vanderbilt Basketball, Tales of Commodore Hardwood History." Interviews with assistant coaches Brad Frederick and Dan Cage (also former player for Stallings) were later added to the story.
When Vanderbilt basketball coach Jan van Breda Kolff resigned at the end of the 1998-99 season, Kevin Stallings was hired as his replacement. Stallings was a successful head coach at Illinois State (1994-99) including experiences as an assistant at Kansas (1989-93) and Purdue (1983-88). He played his college basketball at Purdue (1980-82) and helped the Boilermakers to the Final Four in 1980.
While Vanderbilt sought out Stallings, he had been to Memorial Gymnasium as a basketball recruit long before his hiring.
"I played one year of junior college basketball and I made an official visit when Ron Bargatze was an assistant coach at Vanderbilt," said Stallings. "He recruited me. I came for a visit during a Vanderbilt/Tennessee game at which my high school teammate Steve Ray played for the Vols. I was offered a Vanderbilt scholarship, but didn't take it. I ended up going to Purdue. I had had been to Memorial Gym just that one time."
Stallings is a 1978 graduate of Collinsville High School outside of St. Louis. At Illinois State, Stallings was 123-63 (MVC, 75-33) including two trips to the NCAA and two appearances in the NIT. After Stallings first season directing the Commodores his record was 19-11 (SEC, 8-8) and was selected to the NIT. Vanderbilt fell to Wake Forest (83-68) in the first round. Though playing and coaching in the Big Ten was familiar, Stallings was impressed with the SEC and Vanderbilt basketball.
"I thought the league was really good when I took the job," said Stallings. "Nothing happened to change my way of thinking after that first season. It only confirmed my thinking of how good some of these programs and players were. It was a different type of league from the Big Ten both in playing style and other things. I had been in the Big Eight (now the Big 12) where I had been an assistant at Kansas. It was confirmation for me that we had a lot of work to do, and it would be a tough task building this program where we wanted it to be."
Leading the Commodores that first year was senior Dan Langhi who would be named the SEC Player of the Year while averaging 22.1 points per game. Langhi was also named as an All-American.
"Dan was not picked as one of the top eight guys in the preseason that year," Stallings said. "He ended up being the player of the year and Dan averaged just over 22 points a game. The next closest guy in the league was just over 16 points per game. Dan really distinguished himself and still to this day he is one of the best scorers and players that I have ever coached.
"He really was a shot maker and could make shots from the 3-point line and with a great mid-range game. You could post him up and he could get you baskets and was a terrific foul shooter. Dan was a guy we could utilize in so many ways and his skills were such that he gave me a lot of flexibility as a coach to run things. He gave us an advantage because of his ability."
In the next three seasons, Vanderbilt was 15-15 (SEC, 4-12), 17-15 (6-10) and 11-18 (3-13). However the Commodores were making progress and on the verge of being consistent landing in the top portion of the conference standings.
"The one thing that I completely underestimated when I took the Vanderbilt job was how long it would take to get where we wanted to be," Stallings said. "There are no quick fixes here. You can't go out and recruit like every other team in our league and get a junior college player to fill an immediate need you have with a glaring hole in your roster. You couldn't take a lot of transfers because academically they might not be up to par. I grossly underestimated the length of time it would take to turn the program in the direction that we needed and thus those three years we struggled.
"Fortunately, through the determination and character of guys like Matt Freije, Russell Lakey, Scott Hundley, Jason Holwerda and Corey Smith we were able to take that 11-18 team minus one guy who transferred and added Dan Cage to make a run to the Sweet Sixteen. I felt like we were making progress during that time. Obviously 11-18 was a low point and I'm sure that I questioned whether we were going to get it turned in the direction that I wanted. I thought we had good enough players and people to do it if it was possible."
Brad Frederick is in his 14th season at Vanderbilt after joining Stallings' coaching staff in 2000. His responsibilities include recruiting, scouting and scheduling. Frederick is the dean of assistant coaches in the SEC. He played at North Carolina (1997-99) as a reserve forward for Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge.
"One of the biggest things I've learned from Coach Stallings is not to have a system that only fits a certain team," said Frederick. "One of his strengths is to create a system of play each year based on that specific team. Some coaches will run their stuff every year regardless of what players they have. Coach Stallings has been able to look at the personnel of the team and decide what suites us best and then design the offense and defense around that.
"He is certainly a demanding coach. Sometimes stories of him being too tough can be exaggerated, but he is very demanding in practice. Coach is always focused on getting guys better and holding guys accountable. We practice hard now, but we certainly don't practice as long as some other people. A lot of people practice three and four hours a day. We are more in the two-hour range. One of the things that Coach emphasizes in practice is to go hard while you are there. We don't stand around and talk a lot. It is very high pace, detailed, orientated practice that is his style. We have every practice planned to the minute."
That Vanderbilt squad in 2003-04 had fans forgetting the disappointing 11-18 season, which is Stallings only losing season in his career. A 23-10 (SEC, 8-8) record with a regular season victory over No. 4 Kentucky and No. 9 Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament gave the Commodores a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They defeated Western Michigan and N.C. State in the first two rounds.
The Commodores made it to the Sweet Sixteen, but lost to the eventual national champions Connecticut, 73-53. Freije was named First Team All-SEC, and All-American while finishing as Vanderbilt's all-time leading scorer (1, 891 points).
"I will always believe that is was Matt Freije's will, determination and selflessness that enabled our program to turn a corner," said Stallings. "We had a lot of rough spots during that year. We had games that were absolutely must win games. We went to Alabama for a game that we just felt like we had to win. At one point we were ahead 30-9. Matt had 21 points and the rest of our team had nine points. Alabama had nine points. He just made big play after big shot that entire season to really keep us alive.
"Then we got it together in the conference tournament. We had some great wins and we got the sixth seed. We got by Western Michigan and we ran a back door play to get a 3-pointer to beat N.C. State and advance to the Sweet Sixteen. That was really the beginning of the future success that we've had those next several years.
"That success enabled us to attract guys like Shan Foster that created future successes, but I look back on that '04 team of great character--a team that really bought into what we were trying to do. They were all about the team. I believe that is what paved the way for future success at Vanderbilt."
The next few years Vanderbilt was 20-14 (SEC, 8-8), 17-13 (SEC, 7-9) and in 2006-07 22-12 (SEC, 10-6). The Commodores made it back to the Sweet Sixteen with victories over George Washington and Washington State before losing to Georgetown. For his effort, Stallings was named the SEC Coach of the Year and Derrick Byars was chosen as the SEC Player of the Year.
"In the third game of the season our starting center broke his foot," said Stallings. "We went to a makeshift lineup. We started out that season 1-3 and got a lot of rumblings since it had been three years since our first Sweet Sixteen team. That particular team with Derrick Byars, Shan Foster, Alex Gordon, Dan Cage, Ross Neltner and Jermaine Beal, probably came as close to reaching its playing potential as any team I had ever coached.
"We started Cage at the power forward spot who was 6-foot-4 and while that created some disadvantages for us defensively like rebounding-wise, there were some offensive advantages that we gained. We had five guys on the floor that could shoot and pass. Ted Skuchas ended up being a key player for us going down the stretch. It was a team that was difficult to guard because they could shoot and pass so well. Then they became one of the most physical teams that we had despite our lack of size. The thing that I remember so fondly about that team was we started out 1-3 with a home loss to Furman. And that team was a whisker away from the Elite Eight. We probably should have been playing North Carolina to go to the Final Four.
"Derrick Byars had two unproductive years at Virginia and came in as a junior and played well, but not dominate the way he could. In his senior year he turned the corner and began to trust us as a coaching staff. Derrick became a great player and had some of the greatest performances that we've ever had in the years I've been at Vanderbilt. Derrick Byars just became a player that maximized his enormous talent."
During that season the Commodores recorded one of their greatest upsets with a home victory over No.1 ranked Florida (83-70). During the intense game there was a moment that drew attention to Stallings and Gators' player Joakim Noah. Stallings was seen with the basketball and Noah attempting to take possession of the ball. Stallings refused to let loose of the ball.
"Somebody had started a cut back-door, stopped and we threw the pass," said Stallings. "I happened to have been standing right in the line of the pass. Of course, I was very upset that we turned the ball over. The ball sailed out of bounds and came straight to me. I think certain players like to be in the midst of the action. He just came over and tried to take the ball out of my hands for an inbound pass.
"Obviously for him to have the ball was going to be of no consequence because the official had to have the ball before play could begin because we had just turned it over. So it wasn't like he could take the ball and inbounds it. I just held on to the ball and gave it to the official. He tried to take it out of my hands and at that particular time wasn't the best idea. A lot of people seemed to enjoy it. It was just one of those things that happened during a game.
"He didn't say anything to me during that exchange, but I said something to him when he tried to take the ball from me. We laughed about it after the game. That is the best game that any of my teams have ever played, that day against Florida. As far as a team performance, I can't remember any of my teams playing any better than that day. They had to play that well because Florida obviously had a great team."
Dan Cage entered the 2012-13 season as the Director of Operations for Vanderbilt basketball and is in his third year as a member of the Commodores' coaching staff. He lettered for Stallings from 2003-2007 and helped lead the Commodores to two Sweet Sixteen appearances in 2004 and 2007. Cage played in 125 games, started 32 and averaged 11.2 points per game as a senior.
"The head coach is a determining factor for most kids where they choose to play in college," said Cage. "When I first met Coach Stallings I could tell he was driven, motivated and passionate about the game. The players I talked to on my official visit said so many impressive things about him. It was an easy choice to play for him. I respected his energy and toughness. He was never scared of a fight. We would get into some heated games like with two minutes left, down by six on the road and Coach Stallings is right there in the huddle ready to fight. He is uncompromising in the fact that he always wants to do what he believes is right and not what is easy
"I haven't seen how practices are run at other programs, but Coach Stallings calls it `Being on Fire.' He comes to practices on fire from the first whistle to the end of practice. The pace is intense, fast and hard. There is a lot of teaching through doing. We spend a lot of time in the film room diagramming, going over plays and learning the mental aspects like the academic side of things. When we go out onto the court, Coach Stallings is on fire. It is unique if go through four years of high school practices then Coach Stallings walks into the gym and there is motivation."
The next season (2007-08) Vanderbilt would record its best record in Stallings era. They won its first 16 games on its way to a 26-8 (SEC, 10-6) record. After going 1-4 to begin conference play, the Commodores reeled off seven straight victories. One of these wins was over No. 1 ranked Tennessee in Nashville.
Vanderbilt received a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but was upset in the first round by Siena (83-62). Shan Foster became Vanderbilt's all-time leading scorer (2,011 points), an All-American and SEC Player of the Year.
"That team got off to a great start in the non-conference and really played well," Stallings said. "We had some weapons with good perimeter and inside players. That team was able to score, but at the end of the season I think that I made a mistake. I didn't see it coming when that team developed a mindset that they could out score anybody. Obviously, as a coach you know that defense is a priority and our defensive numbers going down the stretch were dismal even though we were able to win games. Our games were getting tougher and tighter.
"I couldn't get that team at the end of the season to guard the way it needed to in the NCAA Tournament to be successful. And that's what happened in that game against Siena. We couldn't guard them. They made a bunch of shots against us and we couldn't shut them down. During the regular season we performed especially well offensively. That is probably one of the best offensive teams we've had and one of the leaders in the country in scoring.
"Shan was a terrific player and ambassador for us on and off the court. He was a key recruit for us since a lot of high-level schools were after him. He wanted the best of basketball, academics and the best college experience. Shan was a special guy to this university and this program. His Senior Night performance against Mississippi State when he had 42 points was absolutely the most incredible senior performance. He and Matt Freije had the most memorable Senior Night's that I have seen."
In the next three years Vanderbilt was 19-12 (8-8), 24-9 (SEC, 12-4)), 23-11 (SEC, 9-7) Stallings received his second SEC Coach of the honor after the 2009-10 season. Jermaine Beal was named First Team SEC after leading Vanderbilt in scoring and assists that season.
There had been a great deal of preseason hype for the 2011-12 season with the Commodores ranked in the Top 10 of most polls. With all five starters returning including John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor, Brad Tinsley, Festus Ezeli and Lance Goulbourne. Added to this team was senior Steve Tchiengang the top reserve coming off the bench. Expectations were high with Vanderbilt fans, but a slow start can be credited to Ezeli missing the first 10 of 12 games due to a knee injury.
This talented squad finished the season at 25-11 (SEC, 10-6) and won the SEC Tournament in New Orleans defeating Georgia, Ole Miss and No.1 ranked Kentucky, 71-64. This was the Commodores first conference tournament championship since 1951. In the NCAA Tournament the Commodores beat Harvard, but lost to Wisconsin (60-57) to end their season.
"I think we would have handle the expectations fine had Festus injury not occurred. Festus was never the same as he had been before at the end of the previous season when he was playing so well. The preseason hype was based on the amount of progress Festus had made in the fact that we could have had a dominant low post player, which there aren't very many in college basketball. Festus just never turned into that guy not through any fault of his own, but I really believe he would have been that guy had he not been injured. He got injured and that is part of the game.
"That team was as talented as any that we've had for sure. I think it was a little more inconsistent than some of our better teams, which is frustrating for our fans and certainly frustrating for me. It was certainly a talented, physical and athletic group. They did things no other teams in the program's history have done. There were three NCAA Tournaments in a row, and a SEC Tournament championship the first in 61 years. That team performed at a high level for a long period of time, but its biggest negative was inconsistency over the course of time. You can look over the years and see that our good teams have been consistent."
The SEC Tournament win was emotional for the fans, players and Stallings. When the tournament was revived in 1979, the Commodores had been a disappointing participate usually bowing out early. The emotions of surprising the Wildcats in the finals was seen when television cameras caught Stallings sitting on the bench after the game with his face buried in a towel. Stallings is not one to show those types of emotions.
"Our team had been called underachievers and a lot of things," Stallings said. "Even when the season was over the first article I see is that our team underachieved. I felt such a sense of gratitude and relief that they had achieved something that one other team in the program history had ever done. To do it under those circumstances to where the entire arena was decked out in [Kentucky] blue. It was a road game for all intense and purposes and for the SEC Tournament championship against the No. 1 team in the country.
"And of course I didn't know it at the time, but they were eventual national champions. I was so happy for my players and that team to be able to experience that moment. It was emotional for me. There is a lot of hard work and a lot of time involved. Your life is consumed in trying to make moments like that happen and to have it occur at that point, with that team in SEC Tournament on the line was a great feeling."
Said Coach Frederick, "The SEC Tournament was something we've talked about wanting to succeed. Everyday at practice you look up and see one SEC Tournament championship banner . That was a goal to win the SEC Tournament. Usually when coach is emotional it is back in the locker room or behind closed doors. The other thing that was big for him is that group of seniors had done so much to raise the level of the program. Just the fact that those guys were able to have that success in the postseason brought out his emotions."
It is well known that the benches at Memorial Gym are in the end zones and not on the traditional sides of the court. This has been a frustration for visiting coaches and Vanderbilt coaches. It can be entertaining to see Stallings gain the attention of his players that are on the far end of the court by stomping his foot or giving a sharp whistle. All five Commodore players will turn their heads at the same time glaring towards their bench and coach.
"Many years ago I asked my staff to do an amateurish study on what we could do to get the benches moved to the sides," Stallings said. "I brought in some former players that had been around here for long time. I told them I wanted their opinions. I went through how we would have to do this, and how we would have to do that to move the benches to the sides.
"They were very quiet while I was going through the things we thought would have to take place. So I asked them what they thought. There was silence for a good bit of time and one guy finally spoke up and said, `Coach, I don't think you've won enough games here yet to do that.' [Stallings laughing]
"That ended any thoughts we had of moving the benches to the sides. You have to develop some communication mechanisms. I've cut down on stomping my foot since I get heel bruises. The whistle certainly comes in handy. Memorial Gym is a very loud place and it's difficult to communicate when everybody is on the other end. But that is a good thing to happen."
In 13 seasons at Vanderbilt, Stallings all-time record is 261-159 (SEC, 103-105) Including his stint at Illinois State, he is 384-222 overall as a head coach. Entering the 2012-13 season, Stallings is 18 wins away of passing the late Roy Skinner (1959, 1962-76) for all-time wins in Vanderbilt basketball history. In 16 seasons, Skinner was 278-135. Stallings was asked if passing Skinner's mark something he's thought about and is looking forward to breaking.
"Not really and I will tell you why," Stallings said. "My guess is it probably took me more years to win those games than it did Coach Skinner. If you stick around in one place long enough you'll set some records--wins and losses. I probably have the most losses [Stallings laughing].
"I think Coach Skinner was such a great coach and a great ambassador of Vanderbilt University and he was a giver. He gave to people. I know the players that played here for him have a very special feeling about him. Honestly I hope the players, at least some of them that come through here that played for me, will have a similar feeling about me when they are older and look back and reflect. I don't think it will give me any gratitude to break Coach Skinner's record. He was one of the nicest people I have ever met and truly was a guy that was deserving and worthy of being the all-time wins leader here."
Who was Vanderbilt's first basketball player to record a 3-pointer? Savvy Vanderbilt basketball fans might say Scott Draud. That is kinda right and kinda of wrong. Draud did hit the first 3-pointer on November 28, 1986 against Virginia Commonwealth in the Hawaiian Airlines Silversword Invitational Tournament when the NCAA adopted the rule for the 1986-87 season which became permanent.
But on November 27, 1982, against Clemson in the Great Alaska Shootout in Anchorage, Alaska, Phil Cox secured a 3-pointer in which the 3-point rule was experimental just for this tournament. Cox hit the only 3-pointer for the Commodores in the three games played. So technically and historically, Phil Cox made the first recorded 3-pointer in Vanderbilt basketball history.
With the Vanderbilt's women's recent win over Ole Miss, Melanie Balcomb has an all-time record as the Commodores' head coach of 250-97. That record is seven wins away from passing Jim Foster (256-99) as Vanderbilt's all-time winningest women's head basketball coach.
If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com