Stallings’ Vandy enrichment goes deeper than wins record

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When setting individual records in sports, those establishing the new marks seldom get to know the person whose record they’re breaking.

Not so for Vanderbilt basketball coach Kevin Stallings. He cherishes his many visits with former Commodores coach Roy Skinner, for whom Stallings surpassed to become the program’s all-time winningest coach last Friday (win over Lipscomb).

With the 2-1 start to the season, including Tuesday 85-77 overtime road loss to Butler, Stallings has an overall record of 279-177 in 14-plus seasons at Vanderbilt.

Skinner, in turn, went 278-135 from 1959, 1962-76.

“The thing that struck me with coach Skinner was how fond his players were of him,” Stallings said of Skinner, who died Oct. 25, 2010. He was the first coach to recruit a black athlete into the Southeastern Conference.

“All those guys just really, really loved coach Skinner, and it gave me a tremendous appreciation,” Stallings said, “because I think if there is anything that a coach would like when he is done, it would be fondness and affection from the guys that played for him.

“So, that stood out to me and just how nice and gracious he was to me.”

Stallings said that Skinner, whose 1974-75 team claimed one of the program’s three SEC regular-season championships, reminded him of his high school coach, the legendary Vergil Fletcher. He won 747 games at Collinsville (Ill.) High School from 1946-78 and is a member of the National High School Hall of Fame.

“I never heard coach Fletcher say a bad word to or about anyone,” said Stallings, who played collegiately at Purdue and was head coach at Illinois State from 1994-99 before moving to Vanderbilt. He has an overall record of 402-240.

“I think that was just the way coach Skinner had about him,” Stallings added. “He is a lot different than me. He was a lot nicer and a much sweeter guy to be around than I am.”

In 14 seasons under Stallings, the Commodores have made the NCAA tournament eight times, including five of the last seven years, advanced to the Sweet 16 round twice, made the NIT four times and notched seven 20-win seasons.

“I am proud of it,” Stallings said of being Vanderbilt’s all-time winningest coach. “In these days, you don’t make it 15 years at a lot of places, so I am proud of the fact that we have had some longevity. I am proud of the fact that we have had really good players for a long time. I have had really good coaches.

“And, of course, this record is about a lot more than me. It;z about an administration that has been patient through some tough times, especially early on. We have a great fan base. And, certainly, the players are the ones who won the games, really.”

Speaking of patience, Stallings said the three recent seasons, including the current one which resumes Friday against Providence at the Paradise Jam tourney (St. Thomas, Virgin Islands), provided the starkest contrast among his Commodores squads.

Two seasons ago, Vanderbilt won 25 games and won the SEC tourney championship for the first time in 60 years, beating eventual national champion Kentucky in the title game. For the first time, three Commodores — guard John Jenkins to Atlanta, center Festus Ezeli to Golden State and forward Jeffery Taylor to Charlotte — were drafted into the NBA in the same year.

With the subsequent loss of eight of the top nine scorers, Stallings knew last season could be a long and rebuilding one. But the youthful Commodores improved as the year progressed, eventually knocking off Kentucky in the SEC tourney before finishing 16-17.

“We knew that big change was coming two years ago,” said Stallings, a two-time SEC coach of the year. “We knew there was going to be a lot of turnover in the program in terms of personnel and role revision and things like that. It has been a stark contrast each of the last three years.

“But it is a little bit of what makes it enjoyable because there is change, there is turnover, and it stays fresh. And each season, you get a new group and a new challenge and you try to do new and different things.”

While Stallings expected a host of young players without a senior on the roster to struggle and grow last season, he felt it would benefit the program, long term.

“Last year was one of the most coachable teams I have ever had,” Stallings said, “although it won’t go down in the record books as one of our best years. But I thoroughly enjoyed coaching last year’s team.”

Which made for guarded optimism heading into this season. But that was before junior point guard Kedren Johnson, the Dores’ leading scorer, was declared ineligible because of undisclosed reasons.

The other two other expected key returnees did not return, including sophomore forward Sheldon Jeter, who transferred to Pittsburgh, and sophomore Kevin Bright, who signed to play professionally in Germany.

But the cupboard isn’t completely bare with the return of three of the four top scorers, including senior forward Rod Odom, the club’s No. 2 scorer last season, junior shooting guard Dai-Jon Parker and senior guard Kyle Fuller.

Helping fill out the backcourt is sophomore Eric McClellan, a transfer from Tulsa who scored a career-high 29 points Tuesday against Butler.

At 6-foot-11, junior center Josh Henderson continually improved last season, while a pair of 6-10 freshmen — Luke Kornet, the son of former Commodores standout Frank Kornet, and Damian Jones – provide immediate depth and future promise inside.

“Anytime you lose guys, everybody has to step up and do a little bit more,” said Odom, who scored a career-high 20 points twice last season. “That’s what I have been trying to do, and I think that’s also what my teammates have been trying to do.”

Being a senior who has been through the rigors of playing for the demanding Stallings, he also knows he is there for the younger players to lean on if need be.

“It is to provide leadership to guys who are unsure about things,” Odom said. “After going through the ups and downs, I think I can provide guidance to some of the guys who might be going through the same things that I went through in the past.”

And part of that is learning how to play for Stallings.

“At first, it was tough because he’s an intense guy,” Odom said. “He demands a lot of his players. But I think as I have grown up, I kind of understand where he is coming from. The reason he is so demanding has to be because he expects a lot out of us.”

Odom and Fuller, the only seniors, also take pride in the notion that Stallings became the program’s all-time winningest coach during their playing days at Vanderbilt.

“Coach Stallings is a second dad to everybody,” Fuller said. “He loves you, but then again, he will definitely punish you if you do something wrong the same way a dad would. I am really happy he was able to accomplish what he did while I was playing here.”

As his 15th season at the Vanderbilt helm gets under way, Stallings feels he is a different coach today than when he took over the Commodores in 2000.

“I work harder and coach less,” he said. “I subscribe to the theory now that less is more. And I think that my job is to try to develop the habits with these guys to put them into the position to be successful.

“Over the course of time, we have proven that we are fairly effective at that. I have been very fortunate to have very coachable groups with this year being one of them.”