In March and April, athletic directors with coaching vacancies employ the oft-used idiom “splash hire” ad nauseam. What does it even mean?
Well, it connotes the image of a new leader entering the fray on a chariot as a shrill cry emitted by the program’s supporters ricochets around the country.
Hail, Coach! Hail, Coach! Hail, Coach!
That’s the idea. But often, the splash never comes. No ripples. Not even waves. Just a question: Why is it raining now?
Kevin Stallings joined Pitt basketball in late March following the departure of longtime coach Jamie Dixon. It didn’t make sense then. It doesn’t make any sense now.
Those who touted Stallings’ merits as a head coach can’t dismiss his record. In 17 seasons with Vandy, he reached the second weekend of the NCAA tournament twice, results that failed to notarize his eight top-three finishes in a top-heavy SEC. He entered the 2015-16 season with four pro prospects -- Luke Kornet, Matthew Fisher-Davis, Damian Jones and Wade Baldwin IV -- but lost to Wichita State in the First Four. A team that talented, even dealing with a series of injuries, shouldn’t stumble into the field of 68. In 2011-12, a stacked, 25-win Vanderbilt team with three players who were picked in the first 32 slots of the subsequent NBA draft lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Maybe he’s a good coach. But Stallings’ record states he’s a coach who underperformed with some of his best teams in Nashville. That’s why many fans who grew sour on Dixon, despite his achievements and the length of his reign, wondered why their favorite team selected the guy Vanderbilt no longer wanted. This particular carousel sent Dixon to TCU and Bryce Drew to Vanderbilt. Pitt’s the only team within this mix that doesn't seem to have secured an upgrade at coach over its predecessor.
See, you can’t talk about Pitt in 2016-17 without an extensive dissection of the coach Pitt just hired. Will Stallings succeed with the Panthers? Maybe. But the future, at a minimum, seems murky and uncertain. Because Pitt is Vandy in a better league, folks: a program with the potential to mine its region for elite talent, but only if it wins the perennial recruiting battles against the more notable schools in its conference. To win at Pitt, you have to overachieve. Every season.
That’s not the summary sentence of Stallings’ resume.
But a collection of vets will lead Stallings’ first team. Four of the top five scorers from 2015-16 return for the Panthers. Forward Michael Young averaged 15.7 points per game and 6.9 rebounds per game. Jamel Artis averaged 14.4 PPG and connected on 36 percent of his 3-pointers. But departed point guard James Robinson was a four-year catalyst for Dixon’s teams. He’s gone now. So Stallings will need Sheldon Jeter -- the same Sheldon Jeter he blocked when the forward tried to leave Vanderbilt a few years ago -- to do more in 2016-17 ... and to put the past behind him. Four-star recruit Justice Kithcart could log minutes at point guard for Stallings. Or perhaps he’ll ask Damon Wilson to go from 10 minutes per game to full-time PG for a team that will face powerhouses Duke, Louisville, North Carolina and Virginia along with respectable assemblies such as Syracuse and Miami in conference play.
It’s better than accepting a new job to coach a team that only boasts a handful of scholarship players -- sorry, Marvin Menzies. Still, this is the same Pitt team that scored just 43 points in a first-round loss to Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament. This is still the same Pitt team that lost seven of its last 12 games in 2015-16.
Yes, the Panthers beat Duke and swept Syracuse (three games) last season. But the reality is Pitt’s aspirations center on three unknowns: finding a new point guard, getting consistent efforts from the team's veterans and the new coach elevating the talent on the roster.
The latter should concern every Pitt fan. Stallings did not get the most from his talent at Vandy. Not most years. And his Commodores rarely lasted in the NCAA tournament. The last time Vanderbilt reached the second weekend under Stallings? The 2006-07 season.
That’s not a splash hire, folks. It’s just confounding. Still.