TAMPA, Fla. – The Vanderbilt basketball team arrived in this warm and breezy coastal city Wednesday night ostensibly to win a game on Friday.
Look closer, though, and it becomes clear the Commodores are carrying a banner of deeper significance.
History can be written this month, the kind of history that causes record books to be re-printed and teams to forever be etched into the memories and consciousness of its fans.
This is only the second Commodore to make back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances. They are situated at the highest seed, No. 4, the school has received in 15 years.
This is also Vanderbilt’s third tournament appearance in five years. Peruse the sometimes-sparse school record book, and it becomes quickly apparent that such a streak is noteworthy.
In nearly every way, the golden age of Commodore basketball might be in full bloom.
“I think this may very well be the best five-year stretch in Vanderbilt history by the time this season is over,” said former Commodore guard Barry Booker, now a college basketball TV analyst.
Kevin Stallings never had a doubt he could win at Vanderbilt when he accepted the school’s head-coaching position in 1999.
In 30 seasons as a player and coach, his teams have made 25 tournament appearances, including 16 NCAA berths and three Final Fours.
He had been a successful head coach at Illinois State and had been involved in plenty of victories as an assistant at Kansas and Purdue. The same formula, he figured, would bear fruit in Nashville.
In Stallings’ first four seasons, the Commodores failed to make a single NCAA Tournament appearance. The nadir came with an 11-18 record during the 2002-03 season.
Suddenly, a puzzled Stallings wondered how he had gone from living a charmed life at Illinois State, Kansas and Purdue to becoming a whipping boy of many Vanderbilt fans.
A hard lesson had been learned.
“All three of those programs can be fixed more quickly, when they’re broken, than Vanderbilt can because of the nature of the school and the kids that you can and cannot get into school,” Stallings said. “It just took longer to get here than I thought it would.”
Perhaps it also took Stallings longer, too, to realize it.
“It’s an understanding of what kind of kids you need at Vanderbilt to win, and coach Stallings has figured that out,” Booker said.
Armed with a better grasp of their surroundings, Stallings and his coaching staff began to recruit differently.
Results came immediately. The 2003-04 Commodores stormed into the NCAA Sweet 16, but that was followed by two seasons of National Invitation Tournament appearances and the accompanying sense of underachievement.
On March 10, 2006, moments after his team had been crushed by LSU in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Stallings told reporters he was excited about the future of Vanderbilt basketball.
“I'm sure anyone who read what I had to say then thought I was crazy,” he said.
Fast forward to March 2008. Vanderbilt is ranked 11th nationally in the latest Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) and is the midst of its best season since 1993 and one of the best in school history.
The Commodores won all 19 games at Memorial Gym this season, knocked off a No. 1-ranked opponent for the second straight year and, in Shan Foster, produced the SEC Player of the Year for the second straight season.
Perhaps the program’s crowning success is its third NCAA Tournament appearance in five years.
“I won’t say after our 11-18 season that I was sitting there envisioning three NCAAs in the next five, but I felt like our program was right then on the verge of making a jump,” Stallings said. “I firmly believed we were heading for success.”
Stallings had opportunities to flee before the resurrection of Vanderbilt was finished.
He interviewed at Ohio State in 2004 and had discussions with multiple schools last spring. He admits that during seasons such as the disaster of 2002-03, self-doubt crept in.
“I made a mistake in being here after every game we lost,” Stallings said. “You question everything when you lose or not winning as much as you want to win.”
SUCCESS IS COMING
Perhaps no image typified the Vanderbilt basketball renaissance more fully than when Stallings and Foster embraced at midcourt March 5 moments after Foster’s 42-point effort in his final appearance at Memorial Gym carried the Commodores to an 86-85 overtime win over Mississippi State.
On one side was the coach who – to the astonishment of many – was still at Vanderbilt nine years after he arrived and finally experiencing the success he had anticipated.
On the other side was the leading scorer in the history of VU basketball, a player who had never heard of Vanderbilt when the school began recruiting him out of Kenner, La., five years ago. This was the face of the school’s “new” recruiting efforts.
Stallings has been effusive in his praise of Foster, and other Commodore seniors, for bringing an air of refreshment and enthusiasm to the program and, thus, leading its recent surge.
This week, as Vanderbilt prepared for another NCAA Tournament game, Foster turned the tables.
“The thing I took out of my recruitment is that I was coming to play for a great guy who really knew the game of basketball, and he was dedicated to making his team and his players better,” he said.
“When you have that, success is coming. I really felt that, and it's been a great honor to be part of.”