Kevin Stallings is a free man.
Free to coach as he’d like. Free to say what he feels, to his players, the media and the fan base. Not that
either had been a particular issue for the hyper-confident Vanderbilt basketball coach, but this year is different.
Having lost his top six players, half of them to the NBA draft, Stallings is free of expectations for the 2012-13 season. No one figures the Commodores will do much of anything, let alone anything that approaches what they did in 2011-12.
There is nothing quite so liberating.
Often forecasts of failure are accompanied by questions about a coach’s immediate future. Athletics is, after all, a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately affair.
Yet Stallings has done enough in recent years to make sure that will not be an issue.
He proved he could recruit and develop NBA talent, as evidenced by the selections of John Jenkins, Festus Ezeli and Jeff Taylor. He showed he could take a young group, bring them together over four years and make them a unit that can compete with the best teams in the country.
Most important, he showed that it is possible to win a Southeastern Conference tournament title. Given that it had been 61 years since the last (the only previous) time Vanderbilt brought home that trophy, there was plenty of reason wonder whether it ever would happen.
The doubts are gone. The expectations are absent. All that is left is freedom.
If Stallings wants to align his defense so that all five players are crammed into the lane, he can. If he wants nothing but 3-point attempts on offense for an entire game, he can do it. If he says no one can rebound until the ball hits the floor, he can mandate that too.
Those, of course, are silly examples but they make the point.
Every time Stallings stands in front of his team this season he has the freedom to demand what he wants. All he has to do is point to his three NBA draft picks and say, “You want to be like them? Listen to me.”
Every time he steps in front of the cameras and microphones to try to explain the outcome of a game, win or lose, he has the freedom to expect people will believe what he has to say. All he has to do is point to the newest SEC Tournament championship banner in the rafters at Memorial Gymnasium and say, “I know what it takes. I proved as much.”
It is a degree of liberation that was decidedly absent during his first 13 seasons at Vanderbilt. Along the way he obliged players’ requests for more positive reinforcement, ceded a certain degree of leadership based on the overall age and experience of this team and made it all work in a way few of his predecessors ever did.
Of course, there’s nothing to suggest that Stallings will — in any way — abuse this newfound freedom.
After all, he was free to walk away from Vanderbilt at the end of last season. It would have been the easy, and some might say the smart thing to do.
There were openings in the SEC, Big 12, Big Ten and the Big East, among others, at places with fewer limitations due to academics and places that don’t require you to play Kentucky two or three times a season. What program would not want a guy who accomplished what Stallings had at Vanderbilt?
Consequently, some might think he’s stuck at Vanderbilt now, that it will take time for him to put together the type of season that will make him once again attractive to other programs.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. The reality of his current situation is that he’s never had fewer constraints.