Vandy's Judah 

Kevin Stallings gets played, but it's still a Commodore Win

Kevin Stallings gets played, but it's still a Commodore Win

Kevin Stallings got punked last week.

At least that was how my friend Dee from Atlanta described it when he called the other day to rant about the temporarily unsettled basketball coaching situation at Vanderbilt. He's probably right. The way things turned out, Ohio State University gave the appearance of having played Stallings like Yo-Yo Ma rakes some old Italian violin.

For quite a while, it appeared that Vanderbilt was going to lose its second basketball coach in three years to the Buckeyes' athletic program. After obtaining official permission, Ohio State interviewed Stallings, and then asked him back a week later. Second interviews for basketball coaches, as elsewhere in the business world, are a pretty reliable sign that the suitor is about to proffer a ring.

Then, out of the blue, the job went to Xavier's Thad Matta, who earlier had told everyone within shouting distance that he wasn't a candidate for the Ohio State job. It all happened so fast that Stallings might have run into Matta at the Columbus airport—or, for all anyone knows, at the athletic department offices on campus.

These things happen all the time in coaching—and in movies geared toward teenaged girls.

Thad was the love Ohio State wanted but who seemed unavailable. So they courted Kevin, made it to the altar, and then, wouldncha know, Thad recognized his destiny, and true loved prevailed. It all worked out hunky for everyone, unless you happen to be Kevin, who not only got dumped like last month's cottage cheese but had a little splainin to do at home.

The way the newspapers treated it, Kevin needed to come up with an inspired excuse for the lipstick on his collar, call FTD in a fat hurry and make up with the old lady. I might have attributed that to the usual dynamic of Media Geniuses Needing Column Topics during Summer Doldrums, except that my boy Dee was practically snorting steamjets himself.

"Tell him not to let the screen door hit him on the way out!" Dee fulminated. His volume was louder than Carson's pants on Queer Eye.

"I like the thought of you waiting for him with a rolling pin slapping against your palm," I told him.

"Shut up."

"This is a business, not a marriage. Besides, you got your coach back."

"I don't care," Dee pouted. "I don't want him if he doesn't want to be here."

"What did you expect?" I told him, laying out the case for a philandering, upwardly mobile coach.

Vanderbilt was a only few more losses away from firing the guy at the beginning of last season.

They hadn't gotten around to offering him a new contract yet.

And besides paying enough benjamins to set a guy for life, Ohio State is attractive for a lot of other reasons. It's the dominant state school in a big state (always a plus in recruiting), it has a nearly brand new arena, and it's part of a big-reputation conference that has become semi-mediocre on performance in the past several years.

Even Ohio State's anticipated probation—the likely result of a cash payout by recently dismissed coach Jim O'Brien—could be a plus. New coaches don't mind entering such situations. They enjoy longer honeymoons and lowered expectations. If the team fares poorly for two or three years, they can always blame it on the NCAA sanctions while they rebuild the program.

Under the circumstances, Stallings would have been slobber-slingin' nuts not to pursue the Ohio State job. And Vandy officials would be a little dingy themselves not to welcome back their wayward coach with open arms, or at least a Hillary Clinton public smile.

In fact, if I'm Vanderbilt, I told Dee, my spin is that it's a tribute to the quality of my program to have a major player like Ohio State want to hire my coach (even if they ultimately changed their mind).

Dee isn't buying it, and maybe it's just as well that Vanderbilt didn't try to sell it. Instead, they've wisely kept their heads down and gone about their business.

Almost lost in this whole affair is that, to the surprise of nearly all the Geniuses, as well as any number of non-geniuses, Vanderbilt is now two-for-two when it comes to repulsing raids on its coaching staff.

Barely a month ago, Auburn went hard after baseball coach Tim Corbin, who took his team to within two victories of the College World Series and brought a serious winner to Vandyland for the first time since the last time the Commodores beat Tennessee in football. In the end, Vandy stepped up with a lucrative new deal for Corbin and plans for a swank new practice facility. Meanwhile, the Auburn folks exited muttering, like the playground bully who suddenly gets stomped by the scrawny kid whose lunch money he'd grown accustomed to stealing.

Corbin's return opened a few eyes among the media, which had presumed that, without a full-time professional athletic director, Vanderbilt's sport-supervising cast of vice-deans, or underchancellors, or whatever they're calling them this week, would simply lack the expertise to protect successful coaches from would-be plunderers.

But why such a confounding presumption was made in the first place probably tells us more about the media than about Vanderbilt. College sports have become a business not so different from any other. So it only stands to reason that anyone with managerial skill and experience would know how to negotiate with, hire and retain valued executives. As Bob Dylan almost said, you don't have to be an AD to know which way the wind blows.

Now that Vanderbilt also has managed to retain Stallings, it looks like, contrary to almost all predictions, Gordon Gee and the fellas actually kinda-sorta know what they're doing.

That they benefited from simple luck in the case of Stallings' Columbus punking is beside the point. They said they'd keep their coach, and they did.

In 705 BCE, the Assyrian king Sennacherib brought his army down from northern Iraq to besiege Jerusalem. On the way, they wreaked serious havoc on the towns of Judah—just as, not so many years before, they destroyed the 10 "lost" tribes of Israel. In the middle of the siege, the Assyrian forces apparently were struck down by the plague. Sennacherib withdrew his army and wound up getting whacked by his sons when he got home.

Most of us secular-minded folks today would probably call that a lucky escape from certain disaster, or maybe even a draw if we're being charitable. But it went down in the Bible as a W for Judah. If I'm Vanderbilt, this is my story, too, and I'm sticking to it.

If Stallings' team makes the NCAA Tournament next year—not a bad bet, given their returning talent and an excellent freshman class—the dalliance will be forgotten, Dee's rolling pin will disappear and he'll be all kissy with Kevin all over again.


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