“No wonder the Bucs lost last night … what a jackass.”
“Tonight was probably the only setting in which [he] was not the most hated individual in the place.”
“Maybe he will throw his back out and be done for the season.”
This was the reaction on Twitter when Pitt men’s basketball coach Kevin Stallings threw out a first pitch at PNC Park’s Pitt Night on Aug. 2. The event had nothing to do with basketball, yet many still took the opportunity to bash the appearance.
This is by no means an isolated incident. In fact, the Pitt fan base was unreasonable with Stallings before he was even officially announced as head coach, setting Twitter ablaze as soon as rumors started appearing.
In the fall, I wrote Stallings needed to be given a chance, arguing he must be at least competent due to being a Power Five coach for 18 consecutive years. But he wasn’t given any breaks, with many calling for him to be fired amid the program’s worst season in 20 years.
Attendance at games plummeted, with the season average dropping to 8,327 by the year’s end. It was down more than eight percent from 2016 and the lowest since the 2001-02 season, when the team played in the Fitzgerald Field House.
So, with this being said, it’s clear Stallings is one of the most controversial figures in Pitt sports history. Right now, he carries very little support outside of the athletic department.
But even so, he still deserves the opportunity to recruit and build his program.
One season, or even two, is not enough time for a coach to get his players into the program and turn them into a competitive group. It’s going to take time, a fact especially true in this case, with 10 new players entering the program this fall.
This season, the inexperience of the group will almost surely lead to a worse record, and many will again call for Stallings to be fired. But getting rid of him just two years into his tenure would be a mistake, because no coach would do well with this many new faces.
In an interview this May, Stallings continually mentioned his long-term vision for the program and the plan he had for the near future, stressing it would take time for his changes to have an impact.
“The Twitter world wants everything to be okay right now,” Stallings said. “Well, sometimes businesses don’t work that way … sometimes things have to be broken down in order to be built back up properly, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re putting the fundamental blocks in place to build success and sustain it.”
So, in order to give Stallings a fair chance, he deserves to be here until at least the 2018-19 season. This would give him time to recruit and begin to develop his own players into a more well-rounded and competitive team.
In the 2017 recruiting class, Stallings said he was looking for players who would “buy into dependability, selflessness and being physically and mentally tough as it pertains to playing and building a winning culture.”
It remains to be seen whether or not the new recruits can live up to those expectations, but solid effort only means so much. If the team can’t find a way to be competitive in the ACC, the players’ effort won’t mean anything.
And with this year’s recruiting class, winning doesn’t seem very likely. Only a couple of the incoming players have Division I basketball experience, and none of them have played in the Power Five.
Many national publications agree with this expectation — CBS Sports and Sports Illustrated have the Panthers ranked last in their current ACC power rankings — but most supporters likely won’t be pleased with anything short of an NCAA Tournament, or, in other words, a miracle.
What those people forget is that the Pitt basketball program hasn’t been great in a long time, so it’s not entirely Stallings’ fault. Since 2010, the program has won just three NCAA Tournament games — only one against a Power Five team — and hasn’t made it past the first weekend of the tournament since 2009.
Ever since the team lost to the Butler Bulldogs in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, it’s seen a constant decline which will most likely culminate this season. The administration might not want to stick it out, but they have to do it to be able to fairly judge Stallings.
If he’s allowed to stick around for a third year, the team’s picture should look brighter. Transfer guard Malik Ellison — forced to sit out this year due to NCAA transfer rules — will be available and the rest of the class will have a year of experience in Stallings’ system.
And as important as the class of 2017 was, the coach’s 2018 group is far more meaningful. The class is off to a strong start, getting an early commitment from four-star forward Bryce Golden in June, but there’s still a long way to go. The rest of the class will have a huge impact on the future of the program and whether or not Stallings achieves success in his time here.
If noticeable improvement hasn’t been made by the end of his third year, then the administration could, and should, consider firing him. By that point, he will have had enough time with his own players for others to see whether or not he’s the right fit here.
What does “noticeable improvement” mean? Well, assuming the NCAA Tournament will still be well out of reach, a reasonable expectation would be to finish back above .500.
It would by no means be considered a great season, but it would be successful enough to provide hope for the future. At that point, the Panthers would still be relatively young and could turn their attention to making a return to the tournament.
This only happens if Stallings is the coach. Pushing the reset button prematurely would only set the program back further, as another coach would have to come in and work with players not best suited to his system.
So while making an improvement under Stallings sounds unrealistic now, it’s in the program’s best interest to keep him around and see if his recruits pan out. Athletic director Heather Lyke and the administration seem willing to give him this chance. Hopefully, they’ll have the courage to withstand the impending firestorm.
“Any successful basketball program begins with a plan,” Stallings said in the May interview. “The ones that succeed are the ones that have a good plan and the conviction and confidence to execute the plan. That’s where we’re at, we’re just in the process of executing the plan that primarily I have created.”