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Stallings attempts to ease concerns at opening press conference

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Pitt's first ACC matchup under new head coach Kevin Stallings comes against Notre Dame at the Petersen Events Center on New Year's Eve.  Matt Hawley | Staff Photographer

Pitt's first ACC matchup under new head coach Kevin Stallings comes against Notre Dame at the Petersen Events Center on New Year's Eve. Matt Hawley | Staff Photographer

Pitt's first ACC matchup under new head coach Kevin Stallings comes against Notre Dame at the Petersen Events Center on New Year's Eve. Matt Hawley | Staff Photographer

By Jeremy Tepper / Senior Staff Writer

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The beginning of the Kevin Stallings era started noisily, in more ways than one. Pitt’s band played the University’s fight song as Stallings, Pitt’s new basketball coach, and Scott Barnes, Pitt’s athletic director, walked toward the podium for the coach’s introductory press conference.

Stallings, who left his job as Vanderbilt’s head basketball coach to take the same job at Pitt, will have to replace Jamie Dixon, who decided to spurn Pitt for a head coaching job at Texas Christian University, his alma mater. After opening statements by Barnes and Stallings, the two fielded a number of questions, many seemingly hostile in nature, questioning the strength of the hire and the process that led to it.

Pitt interviewed five people for the job, three of whom were sitting head coaches of Power Five conference schools, Barnes said. Stallings was one of the first candidates Pitt interviewed for the position.

“This was a highly coveted job for sure,” Barnes said. “It became very apparent to me that he was the standard for the others to rise to, and obviously, at the end of that, nobody met the qualifications and the connection that Coach Stallings had.”

To sift out candidates, the University hired Collegiate Sports Associates as a search firm. The decision to use a search firm elicited ire from fans — though it’s standard for such job openings — as it presented a potential conflict of interest. Todd Turner, the founder and president of CSA, formerly hired Stallings at Vanderbilt when he served as the school’s athletic director.

Barnes has used Turner’s firm previously, which is why Pitt contracted him again, Barnes said.

“You get familiar with folks that you use and that do a great job and are excellent,” Barnes said. “That’s exactly what we did to move this forward.”

When asked about the outpour of negative responses by fans on social media, Barnes got a bit defensive in his response, asserting his happiness with the hire while rebuffing those who disapprove.

“We’re going to be above the noise,” Barnes said. “You’ve just met the man that is going to lead our ship, and if you’re not impressed with him, then maybe you aren’t in the right spot.”

That man, Stallings, compiled a 332-220 record in his 17 years at Vanderbilt. Barnes cited Stallings’ recruiting ability and “fun, up-tempo style of play” as reasonings for hiring him. In Stallings, he saw an ability to reach greater heights at Pitt, having failed to reach an Elite Eight or Final Four at Vanderbilt. Both Barnes and Stallings referred to an anecdote from the interview process, when Barnes asked Stallings why he wanted the job.

“I responded to his question with a question. I said, ‘Can you get to a Final Four in men’s basketball there?’ He said, ‘Yes, we can.’ I said, ‘Well that’s why I want to be your coach,’” Stallings said. “When I got the first call about this job potentially opening, it felt different. I felt an excitement in my heart and an excitement in my body that I hadn’t felt in a long time.”

The primary reason Stallings saw a higher opportunity at Pitt, and the reason Barnes believes in the coach’s potential, is that Pitt is a riper ground for success than Vanderbilt.

“With no slight to Vanderbilt, there’s a lowered ceiling at Vanderbilt from the pool that you can recruit from to the emphasis on basketball and likewise,” Barnes said. “There’s a wide difference from getting to the Final Four from a Vanderbilt or a Pittsburgh because of some of those restraints.”

When Stallings’ team eventually takes the court, he said he likes to play fast and encourage his team to play through mistakes. Though it was not said how the Pitt basketball team reacted to Stallings, Stallings said he met with them before the press conference, and their attitude floored him.

“I was energized by their energy. I was fascinated and impressed with their togetherness and closeness,” Stallings said.

One of those players, forward Sheldon Jeter, is already familiar with Stallings, having originally committed to Vanderbilt and played his freshman year there before deciding to transfer. Jeter, though, had to attend Polk State Junior College before transferring, as Stallings blocked the Beaver Falls native from transferring to his hometown school.

Pitt was the only school Stallings blocked Jeter from transferring to, and reasoning for the decision was not disclosed, as Stallings said the details are “unimportant.” Stallings insisted that there are no hard feelings between the two.

“I think if we had to do the situation again, things might have been handled a little bit differently,” Stallings said. “Honestly, that to me is something that is in the past. I’ve spoken with Sheldon, and I’ve spoken with his family, and I think we’re all comfortable with what happened.”

Barnes declined to comment on any details of Stallings’ contract, either in terms of duration or financial terms.

The 55-year-old Stallings left a Vanderbilt program he took to the NCAA tournament seven times. Stallings finished 71-61 in his last four years, with a 19-14 record in his final season. Amid the recent struggles, reports emerged that Stallings’ job at the university could be in question. Stallings asserted that that was not the case, and that Vanderbilt Athletic Director David Williams gave him no indication that he could lose his job.

“If David was going to fire me, David would have fired me right after the season was over,” Stallings said.

Dixon received similar criticisms at Pitt of his program stagnating, having missed the NCAA tournament two of the last five years and losing in the first round of the tournament in the final season to Wisconsin, finishing with a 21-12 record. Still, with Dixon’s 328-123 career record at Pitt, Stallings said he’ll be a difficult person to replace.

“I do want you to know that I’m extremely upset with Jamie Dixon,” Stallings said. “He did such a great job here, that I have a terribly tough act to follow.”

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Stallings attempts to ease concerns at opening press conference