PITTSBURGH — Pitt’s mens basketball program has its fair share of problems.
From deep-seated ones like continued struggles with the transition to the ACC, the erosion of the local talent base to near-meaningless levels and the apathy of a fanbase that seems less interested in ever than the product on the floor to the smaller-scale things like the contentious transfer of former star and local product Cameron Johnson and the fact that the team will return just two scholarship players for the 2017-18.
Some of those things can be fixed quickly. Some will take some time. Some may not be repairable at all. There’s another issue that new Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke would like to tackle this year and she seems to think it’s one that can be solved.
No one seems to like Kevin Stallings. At least that’s the public perception. There’s probably plenty of reasons for that, as well.
Stallings’ most infamous moment before arriving at Pitt was telling Vanderbilt guard Wade Baldwin “I’ll kill you.” His introductory press conference at Pitt was absurdly marred by the negative reaction to the hiring process and didn’t do him any public relations favors.
Then, the team underperformed in his first season, with frustration boiling over from many angles. Jamel Artis was suspended for a game as Pitt lost to crosstown rivals Duquesne for the first time in a decade and a half. Stallings was caught on camera cursing at forward Ryan Luther on the floor. Freshman guard Justice Kithcart was kicked off the team.
It hasn’t added up to a rosy public perception of Stallings or the future of the team, which led many to believe that Lyke, with an unpopular and thus far unsuccessful coach, might have an itchy trigger finger to make a change.
#PittTwitter Poll: Do you like Kevin Stallings?
— Alan Saunders (@ASaunders_PGH) June 28, 2017
Instead, after 90 days on the job, she’s discovered what many close to the Pitt basketball program already knew: that the public’s perception of Stallings couldn’t be farther from the truth. She also believes that the Pitt fanbase can be convinced of that. After all, she was.
“It really started with probably a conversation I had with Coach Stallings that we scheduled for an hour that ended up being three and a half hours,” Lyke said Tuesday in a meeting with members of the Pittsburgh media. “It’s a part of getting to know the people that you’re working with. My biggest question to him was does he want to be here. Because if he wants to be here, we’re going to help him be successful, and there was nothing uncertain about his response of his commitment level to being here at Pitt and wanting to build our basketball program back up.”
Lyke added that she’s been involved in the process as Stallings added assistant coaches Sam Ferry and Dan Cage to his staff and came away with not only positives about those individuals, but the way Stallings conducted the search. She also has been impressed by his passion for recruiting and the dedication he’s put into the job.
“I asked him about (Parker Stewart), who just committed, and when he describes him, he’s like, ‘Heather, I love this kid. I cannot wait to coach him, I’m so glad he’s a part of our program.’ Coaches don’t say that if they don’t genuinely mean that. I think he’s really excited about the program that he’s building. I’m working a whole lot of hours and I’ll just tell you, he parks right next to me, and his car is usually here early in the morning before I get here and often here after 11 p.m. when I leave, but his staff is working incredibly hard to get the right kids here.”
But of course, Pitt fan’s don’t have an open invitation to park next to Stallings in Lyke off Sutherland Drive and watch him go about his business as he scours the country to fill his roster. They have to get their interactions with him as they come, and Lyke is set to try to help process that over the summer.
“He’s going to be throwing out the first pitch at Pitt night at PNC Park,” she said. “We’ve had a number of donor events for him to get involved and engaged with our donors, and I know the chairman of the board offered to host. She’s going to have a gathering at her home. There’s ways we are intentionally getting him in front of audiences he just didn’t have a chance to get in front of before. So, we have a real comprehensive plan with public appearances and opportunities to expose people to the program.”
The second part of that comes with the acknowledgement that some people will only get those two-minute soundbites and tune out. Lyke knows that all too well, having fired Eastern Michigan football coach Ron English for using inappropriate language in 2013.
“The reality is that coaches have to recognize that that’s sometimes all that people get,” Lyke said. “You’ve got to be really intelligent about what you say. I think there was a frustration level, unfortunately, that was not common for him. But I think you’ve got to get to know him. He hasn’t coached this long because he doesn’t love kids and he doesn’t love impacting them. He has a brilliant basketball mind. There’s some really in-depth intellect there to what his strategy is. The competition is very real, right? So that’s a steep climb, if you will. It’s not something that’s going to come easy, and it takes an incredible amount of work, and I think they are going to work incredibly hard to be prepared.”
It’s a big ask for Stallings to not only find a way to turn around the basketball team on the court but to reverse the downward trajectory of the program’s public perception that started on its current path before he even arrived. Winning cures a lot, though. Regardless of his summer personality tour, that should be the focus.