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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Given the fact that his Pitt Panthers men’s basketball team was selected to finish dead last in the ACC and has 11 new scholarship players out of 13 entering the 2017-18 season, head coach Kevin Stallings has been in a pretty jovial mood this preseason.
He’s met the challenge of integrating 11 new faces into the team head on and likes the personality and the character of the young squad he’s built, even if he’s been pretty up front about its chances of making a lot of noise on the court.
But if there’s one thing that Stallings seems still bothered by, it’s the reaction this summer of the transfer of shooting guard Cameron Johnson to North Carolina.
Pitt had a slew of transfers this offseason, with Chrisshawn Clark, Johnson, Corey Manigault, Rozelle Nix and Damon Wilson all found new homes in Division I college basketball, in addition to Justice Kithcart, who was dismissed from the team late in the regular season.
The transfer of Johnson was a bit unexpected. Very few players graduate in three years as he did and so very few graduate transfers have two years of eligibility. Johnson, who shot over 40 percent from 3-point range last year, was seen as one of the most sought-after transfers in all of college basketball and drew interest from programs like Arizona, Duke and UCLA.
But where he really wanted to go was North Carolina, and therein lied the issue. Pitt was not initially willing to release Johnson from his scholarship to attend another ACC institution. After a failed appeal, weeks of public pressure and a clarification by the NCAA, Pitt eventually released Johnson, and he’ll be eligible to suit up for the Tar Heels this season and next.
It was the way that some members of the media characterized Stallings as the villain in the situation that seems to be what’s stuck with Pitt’s head coach.
Former Duke and Dallas Mavericks center and current ESPN analyst Jay Bilas was perhaps the individual with the most pointed criticism of the way Stallings and Pitt handled the transfer, calling Pitt “foolish, petty, vindictive or worse.”
That characterization didn’t sit well with Stallings, who responded on Wednesday, not to Bilas in name, but to those that had those type of words for him in the media.
“In terms of our individual situation with that, it was a school policy, what I’m told, long before I got there,” Stallings said. “I had no jurisdiction over what happened. I was simply told, ‘This is our policy and this is what we do.’ I gave him a release the day that I told him I would give it to him and release him as fully as I could by what our school allows.
“I think what happens is the uninformed — and I do mean uninformed — media, they think erroneously that coaches are in complete control of everything that happens. They start listening to the player’s side or the player’s dad’s side and they develop this sympathetic ear when they’re told things that aren’t true.
“I never prohibited one aspect of that transfer. I was told by our administration that this is how we do it. I had been there for about eight or nine months. Who the hell am I to tell them that we’re going to do it any different?”
During Johnson’s appeal to the university, the athletic department was represented not by Stallings, but by former associated athletic director Dan Bartholomae, who has since left to follow former athletic director Scott Barnes to Oregon State.
“I took a beating for it, which honestly, I resent, because I didn’t deserve to be criticized for anything that happened,” Stallings said. “If anybody knew the truth, they would know that I didn’t deserve one bit of criticism for what happened. But there are people that have their own agendas and want to have their own voice and want to say their own things. That’s what they do and they do it, sometimes, at coaches’ expense because coaches are easy targets.”
“‘Look at these coaches. They’re making all this money. They won’t let this kid do that.’
“Well guess what, I don’t have any say about what this kid does. I didn’t make the policy that exists for the entire University of Pittsburgh athletic department. I’m just the basketball coach and a new basketball coach, at that.”
Stallings does believe that it would serve all parties if the NCAA had more clarity regarding the rules, and Pitt and North Carolina did get some, eventually. Players that graduate like Johnson did cannot be restricted by where they can transfer to. The release must be given unilaterally or not at all. So in order for a school to keep a player from transferring to a conference rival, they would have to prevent them from transferring at all.
“In this day and age, you’re not winning that,” Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner said.
Georgia Tech had the first intra-conference transfer in the ACC when Adam Smith came over from Virginia Tech before the 2015-16 season. While at Memphis, Pastner battled to try to keep three players from transferring in 2015. He sees what happened with Johnson as a necessary evil of the current situation with NCAA athletics.
“I think once a kid graduates, it’s all fair game and it’s not going to stop,” Pastner went on. “I had it happen to me at Memphis. I tried to restrict and said, ‘No, no, no.’ And then all of the sudden, it just became a media nightmare and I had to let them go. I understand where Coach Stallings is coming from.
“I just think now at this point, if anyone graduates, I just think it’s going to be hard to keep anyone, whether it’s in conference or out of conference. The NCAA is getting sued enough from other things. I think that’s an area where they’re going to say if you graduate, you can go wherever you want to go.”
Stallings wishes that the school didn’t have a decision to make in the matter, and that the players were either eligible to transfer or they weren’t.
“I think that would probably benefit the sport of college basketball,” he said.
In that vein, he has a somewhat unlikely ally: North Carolina head coach Roy Williams. Stallings was an assistant under Williams at Kansas, and though Williams just poached Stallings’ star player, he agrees that the rules seem to be less-than-helpful for the school in Pitt’s position.
“I don’t think there’s any rule that’s perfect, because depends on which side of the draw you’re on, but I think it would probably be better if we had more clarity,” Williams said. “But transferring in itself is a problem. We have so many transfers, and people, five or six years, people blamed coaches. Now, they realize the player is going to transfer. The coaches don’t really have a heck of a lot to do about it.”