Kevin Stallings needs to tell a lie from time to time.
A product of the heartland — he grew up in Missouri and went to college at Purdue — the Vanderbilt men’s basketball coach is predictably straightforward. It’s a trait that makes him a good interview subject. If a particular player screwed up something during a game, he’s much more likely than most to name that player and point out his mistake. That kind of detail adds depth to the stories of those who cover his team and provides clarity for the fans who cheer him and his players.
Often, though, it’s not what the players need to hear. Particularly not the players he has right now, who were just stung by their second one-and-done appearance in as many years at the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
There are programs where players can be told 100 times that they screwed up, and 100 times it has little impact or even spurs them to do better. Vanderbilt players — most of them, anyway — take information along the lines of “You screwed up” and process it. Not only do they think about what exactly they screwed up and why, they start to consider all the other things they can — and possibly do — get wrong.
Given enough input of that sort, it’s easy to imagine that their fertile minds can sprout enough negative thoughts to eventually resemble a lush cornfield at harvest time.
Everyone, on the other hand, likes to hear how good he or she is. Often, it is the most powerful lie a person can tell because it is the one people want to hear more than any other. More importantly, it can make one perform at a higher level, acting as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Maybe Stallings does it, but there’s nothing to suggest that he ever looks a player in the eye prior to a game and tells him, “They have no one who can defend you. It wouldn’t surprise me if you score 50 tonight.” Never mind whether it’s true.
Watch the Commodores, and it’s hard to see any real joy. No one looks like he relishes the moment. Moreover, the players seem to exude a sense of dread about what they might get wrong and the reaction such an error will bring from their coach. They play with stern faces. They don’t — or at least this season they didn’t — multiply their good moments with more good moments. Rather than be freed by double-digit leads, they tensed up and too often allowed the opposition to close the gap, as was the case in the NCAA loss to Richmond.
Stallings knows basketball. Lots of it. There can be no debate on that front. But it’s questionable whether he understands the full range of personalities that exist within a team of 15 or so players, and whether he’s equipped to deal with some of the softer, more sensitive ones.
Several years ago, his players publicly railed against his hard-edged approach, and he adapted. He vowed to holler less, and he followed through on that promise, which could not have been an easy thing.
But there’s a difference between not yelling and empowering players with positive reinforcement. Sometimes players actually benefit more from being told what they want to hear as opposed to being told the truth.
Maybe it’s just not in him. Perhaps Stallings’ Midwestern upbringing simply will not allow him to tell someone who made a mistake, “It’s OK. I know you’ll do better next time.”
Each of the last two years, though, Vanderbilt fans believed their team would “do better this time” in the NCAA Tournament, and that turned out not to be the case. At this point, it seems like an occasional lie might be worth a try.