On March 27, 2016, as he was being roundly criticized for making what seemed like a reach of a hire that would have made Stretch Armstrong blush, this is what former Pittsburgh athletic director Scott Barnes had to say about new men’s basketball head coach Kevin Stallings:
“Coach Stallings and I share the same vision for Pitt — playing in the Final Four. Kevin has a successful track record recruiting the ACC footprint and beyond, and is one of the best coaches in the country at building an offense around his talent. He plays a fun, up-tempo style that players love and fans will enjoy. Kevin runs his program with impeccable character and has a high care factor and connection with his student-athletes. He is a Power 5 conference coach whose experience and success will be immediate assets for our program.”
Barnes left for Oregon State nine months later, meaning he had to watch from the other side of the country as his proclamation proved to be one of the least accurate statements ever issued by an athletic director. I say “one of” instead of “the” only because of the “he is a Power 5 conference coach” declaration. If nothing else, Stallings was at least, quite literally, that.
Stallings, who arrived at Pitt after appearing to be on his way out at Vanderbilt, lasted just two seasons with the Panthers. His relationship with his current players and his ability to bring in exciting new blood proved to be equally abysmal. Pitt went 24-41 overall in its two seasons under Stallings and was just 4-32 in ACC play. In 2017-18, the Panthers were a perfectly imperfect 0-19 in conference games, and drew their lowest home attendance numbers since 1981-82.
All of this would have been embarrassing enough for Pitt fans had Stallings been carrying himself with dignity and making moves on the recruiting trail that indicated better days were on the horizon. Neither of those things were happening.
After infamously being caught on camera threatening to kill one of his own players at Vanderbilt, Stallings drew heat for this moment near the end of his first season with Pitt:
In year two, there was him getting into it with a heckler during a blowout loss to Louisville where he could easily be heard saying “at least we didn’t pay our guy $100,000” multiple times. Stallings would defend his comments both immediately after the game and when he was asked about them later that week.
Perhaps most embarrassingly, the heckler in question later revealed themselves to be a Pittsburgh fan.
The salt in the gaping wound in all of this was the fact that Stallings was only hired because previous head coach Jamie Dixon had left for TCU after believing he was going to be forced out at Pitt. Dixon, who is about as uncontroversial figure as there is in major college basketball coaching, had taken the Panthers to the NCAA tournament 11 times in 13 seasons and won three Big East championships.
Still, Pitt fans and some within the athletic department were upset over the fact Dixon had guided the Panthers past the tournament’s opening weekend just three times over those 13 seasons, and had never gotten them to a Final Four. For a Power 5 conference program not known as a perennial college basketball powerhouse, that’s a concern worth forcing a coach out over if you have a can’t miss coaching savant waiting and ready to sign on the dotted line the moment your head coaching position opens up. It isn’t if you have no apparent plan to fill the vacancy and have even the slightest chance of settling for a controversial figure who was about to be fired by a Power 5 program with less history than yours.
For all these reasons, it wasn’t difficult even before Thursday to make the case that Stallings was the worst major conference coaching hire of college basketball’s last several decades. What we found out Thursday lends significant credence to the assertion that Stallings might be the worst major conference coaching hire in the history of college basketball.
On Thursday, the NCAA dished out punishments to both Pitt’s football and men’s basketball programs for rules violations that occurred under the watch of Stallings and current Panthers football head coach Pat Narduzzi.
On the basketball side of things, the violations are fairly minor on the surface — Stallings allowed three non-coaching staff members to assist in practices, and the program produced personalized recruiting videos to play for 12 different recruits on their respective visits. Where the program, and Stallings, really got into trouble was in their efforts to cover all this up.
After Stallings became aware of the fact new Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke and several other members of the compliance department became suspicious that non-coaching members of his staff were being used as additional assistant coaches, he set up an alert system to ensure he wouldn’t be caught redhanded during practices. A student manager would stand outside the doors of Pitt’s practice gym and send a text to another manager if an athletics administrator was coming in to observe practice. The inside student manager would then sound a buzzer, at which point all non-coaching members of the Pitt staff would exit the practice floor.
If that weren’t enough, the NCAA also discovered Stallings had ordered the deletion of tons of practice video footage that showed non-coaching staff members acting in the role of assistant coaches. The NCAA then used computer forensics experts to recover this footage, which showed exactly what everyone expected it would.
The result of all this is three years probation for Pitt, a minor fine, and a three-year show cause penalty assessed to Stallings. So if you’re the fan of a program hoping to hire a man whose last act was losing all 19 of his conference games despite cheating (albeit in a relatively minor fashion), this just isn’t your day.
For Pitt fans, and really everyone else, this is the one of the strongest pieces of evidence (and likely the final one) in the argument that Stallings was the worst major college basketball hire of our lifetime. For the fans of programs with a head coach who has been just OK, it’s a nice reminder that if you’re going to move on that guy, you had better have a set plan in place for the morning after.