A lot has been made about the Pittsburgh Panthers hiring Kevin Stallings to replace Jamie Dixon. For good reason too, as the latter was an incredibly successful coach at a program that might not be as good — at least on the surface — as he and his predecessor (Ben Howland) made it seem to be.
Stallings isn’t a sure-thing hiring. He had two NBA players at his disposal while coaching the Vanderbilt Commodores, and in turn he only won 19 games — though, he did take the team to the First Four.
The knock on Stallings is a somewhat odd one. He was relatively successful at Vandy — seven trips to the Big Dance in 17 years — but that sort of winning won’t be good enough at a Pitt program that only missed the NCAA Tournament twice since 2001.
It is a game of expectations. Stallings lived up to them at Vanderbilt because they were low. With the Panthers, however, it isn’t only about getting to March, which Stallings has struggled do to regularly as is anyway, it is about making runs in it. After all, the knock on Dixon was that he could put together good regular seasons squads, but didn’t do enough come the time of the year a team puts on its dancing slippers.
Personally, it is my belief that this hire, at least from a long-term point of view, isn’t going to end well for Pitt (for disclosure, and reference). I believe it will expose the program for what it might actually be, which is a university that benefited greatly from making two great coaching hires more so than they are actually a great program.
That doesn’t mean Pitt is an awful program. It means the level of excellence the Panthers faithful has come to expect since the Howland era started needs to be tempered a bit. Admittedly, I can be wrong, and it is a fluid situation, but there is currently no proof that suggests Stallings is a better — or even on the same level — coach as Howland or Dixon.
There is good news here. Even the most severe Stallings detractors can’t ignore the obvious. The former Vandy coach is walking into a more-than-decent situation.
Pitt enters the 2016-17 season with six of its seven leading scorers back from a team that a team that won 21 games last season. There is no good reason — other than thinking Stallings is a horrible in-game coach or the players won’t take to him — to think the Panthers are headed for a steep decline in year one of this new era.
So, yes, Stallings is very much in a position to succeed right out of the gates. In fact, making the NCAA Tournament and performing well should be what is expected of him during his first year. Because of that, however, is where some of the issues come into play.
Stallings rarely had to deal with any level of expectations. At least not the type he is about to. The closest he came was last season, when he had two lottery-level players on his roster, and he and his team failed to live up to them.
That’s the kicker here. Stallings is replacing Dixon, which in itself would be hard enough, but he’s also getting to move into the program with quality players on the roster waiting for him. If he were to come in and those players were to falter — or even just struggle under him more mightily in comparison to Dixon — the Pitt faithful would have a reason to be concerned.
In a sense, if Pittsburgh were to fail, the idea/perception/what have you have Stallings would quickly begin to take a negative shape. If he is to succeed in his first season, well, that’s just what is expected at Pitt, and he’d be doing so with (mostly) another guy’s players. Only blame, very little credit, awaits him.
At the end of the Dixon era, there was a growing feeling that the program went stagnant. That it wasn’t continuing to grow in the way some felt it should. With him deciding to go to TCU (here he is telling me why and his new expectations, if interested), it now puts Pitt in a position to find out if everyone is right about it.
It is the age-old discussion: Has Pitt been a good program because of two coaches, or is it a good program and those coaches simply aided in highlighting that?
While we should never (ever) judge a new era from a singular season, we are going to quickly find out not only if Stallings is a good coach because the cupboard was left the opposite of empty, but if Pitt was that program that grew stagnant yet can still be so much more.
In a less roundabout way, we’re about to begin to find out if this is a be careful what you wish for type of situation.