Stallings winning fans over with strong string of moves


Coach Stallings speaks at his introductory press conference. Matt Hawley | Staff Photographer

By Jeremy Tepper / Senior Staff Writer

Kevin Stallings might not be who I thought he was.

I thought he had peaked and certainly wasn’t fit to replace Jamie Dixon as the new Pitt men’s basketball head coach. Plus, with his seemingly testy personality, I thought he’d lose players to transfers.

The first month of the Stallings era, though, has gone surprisingly well. So far, he’s kept the team together and constructed a strong staff.

Withstanding a coaching change without any transfers is rare. It’s hard to convince players who committed to a different coach and system to stay around, especially today, as transfer rates skyrocket.

Plus, there was Stallings’s past relationship with Pitt forward Sheldon Jeter, who Stallings blocked from transferring from Vanderbilt University to Pitt. Stallings’s decision forced Jeter to spend a year at Polk State Junior College before being able to commit to Pitt.

With that history, it was hard to imagine Stallings keeping Jeter around, or keeping the whole team together with Jeter being one of the leaders on the Pitt team. But he’s done just that, as Jeter publicly supported the move on Twitter shortly after Pitt hired Stallings.

There’s no guarantee the rest of the team sticks around, but Stallings has stated that he’s gotten affirmation from everyone on the team that they won’t transfer. On top of that, Pitt’s three commits in the 2016 class all re-affirmed their commitments, also a rarity in a coaching change.

Stallings’s ability to keep the team intact has been a crucial development.

Stallings’s staff, too, looks good on paper. He brought along his right-hand man, Tom Richardson, who coached alongside Stallings the past 13 seasons at Vanderbilt.

Richardson has developed the reputation of being a strong-shooting instructor and solid recruiter. Plus, he has head coaching experience, having been the head man at Illinois State University for four years. Having another strong basketball mind with coaching experience is necessary for any good staff, and Richardson has gained those qualifiers through his extensive career.

Also joining Stallings at Pitt is Jeremy Ballard, a 12-year assistant coach who spent last season at Illinois State. What’s impressive about Ballard, though, is the three years he previously spent on Virginia Commonwealth University’s staff during a period of exceptional success.

Coaching under Shaka Smart — who is now the head coach at the University of Texas — VCU compiled a 79-28 record in the time Ballard was there. Smart is one of the most respected coaches in college basketball, in part due to his strong coaching staffs.

Ballard is a good recruiter, too, bringing in several top prospects to VCU, which is a historically tough program to recruit for. When Smart left for Texas, Ballard was one of the top candidates to replace him at VCU, though he lost the spot to Will Wade.

Still, the fact that VCU considered Ballard — only 34 years old now — for the spot is impressive. Ballard will be anxious to prove his worth in his first Power Five job, too.

Rounding out the staff is Kevin Sutton, a coaching veteran with 27 years of coaching experience. Though he spent some of those years as the head coach at top prep schools, Sutton joined Georgetown University as an assistant in 2013.

His recruiting ties are what matter the most — he has plenty of experience recruiting across the DMV area, which is within the ACC footprint that Pitt needs to use.

Fans also shouldn’t overlook that Stallings brought over his strength and conditioning coach from Vanderbilt, Garry Christopher. It’s hard to judge the ability of strength and conditioning coaches, but the fact that Stallings brought one over strictly for basketball is notable.

Though most schools have such a coach solely dedicated for men’s basketball, Pitt’s previous strength and conditioning coach, Tim Beltz, also held the position for the women’s basketball team. Because of this, Beltz rarely traveled with the team for road games. Though conditioning hasn’t perceivably been a problem for the basketball team, having a coach only for men’s basketball is important for recruits, as it shows them an increased investment in their specific program.

Really, Stallings has done everything right since coming to Pitt. Obviously Stallings will need to provide results on the court, but by keeping the team together and assembling a strong staff, he’s improved his chances at success.

I’m not ready yet to say that Stallings will do well at Pitt. Underachieving for 17 years at Vanderbilt is hard to overlook.

But in Stallings’s first two challenges, he’s come out with strong results. That’s all anybody can ask for at this point.

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