published Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

Wiedmer: Vanderbilt does it the right way

Like many of us who want our basketball to resemble poetry in motion, Vanderbilt men's coach Kevin Stallings was pretty much in awe of the San Antonio Spurs' dismantling of the former two-time defending champion Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.

"And I don't get in awe of the game of basketball very often," Stallings said during VU's Commodore Caravan stop at the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club on Tuesday evening.

"But the Spurs put me in awe of the way they were able to dominate. And they were going against two of the best players ever (LeBron James and Dywane Wade). It was a beautiful thing to watch."

Some would say the way VU athletic director David Williams has put the entire Commodores athletic department together is a beautiful thing to watch.

And much like the Spurs, who've kept the same coach (Gregg Popovich) and same players nucleus (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker) for more than a decade, Williams likewise has been slow to change. Stallings is about to enter his 16th season on the West End, despite back-to-back losing seasons. Women's basketball coach Melanie Balcomb is starting her 13th season, the previous 12 all ending in the NCAA tournament. Baseball coach Tim Corbin stands 2-0 in this week's College World Series as he wraps up his 12th season.

Even new football coach Derek Mason, who's yet to coach a game, drew this comment from Williams: "It seems like he's been here 10 years. That's what we want to achieve here. We want a family."

A family. Everyone pulling together. No individual bigger than the group. The athletes a sincere part of the student body rather than a bunch of semi-hired guns stuck in college purgatory until their respective professional drafts.

Or as Mason told the Commodores boosters: "Our players go to class just like every other student. They study and socialize with every other student. They're Vanderbilt athletes, but they're a part of the student body."

This was the Vanderbilt goal when it temporarily did away with the athletic department label when Williams first arrived with former VU president Gordon Gee.

Even now, as Williams has added the AD title to his previous title of vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs, he still marches to a slightly different, more admirable drummer.

"Here's what bugs me," he said. "These are still kids playing sports. We can't allow the business of sports to overwhelm that. Overall, we've got to get back to the concept that the education you get through a scholarship is so valuable and so important. It seems like that's getting lost sometimes."

So is loyalty. To return to the Spurs, as good as they've always been under Popovich, never failing to win fewer than 50 regular-season games in non-strike-shortened seasons, they hadn't won it all since 2007. In the what-have-you-done-for-me-today culture, that's dinosaur times. For proof, merely consider that the Golden State Warriors fired Mark Jackson despite him guiding them to 50 wins for the first time in 20 years. Or think of George Karl, who was fired by Denver a year ago despite being voted NBA coach of the year.

"Too many people want a fast fix, which I often think is a temporary fix," Williams said. "I want to build something that will last."

Perhaps that's why Stallings is headed for season No. 16, his seven 20-win seasons and six NCAA berths from 2004 to 2012 more than enough erase the past two losing records.

"When we lost eight players -- including seven graduating seniors -- off the team that beat Kentucky for the SEC [tournament] championship two years ago, we knew there would have to be some rebuilding," Williams said. "In fact, given all he had to go through last year, I thought Kevin did a phenomenal job. Billy Donovan certainly had a tremendous year at Florida, but I also thought you could make a case for Kevin getting coach of the year."

Said Stallings of his boss: "David is very much like a good [professional sports] owner. He's not a guy who thinks change is necessary just for change's sake. He makes smart, wise decisions. He's not caught up in media reports and chat rooms. He doesn't want to win games at the expense of doing what's best for the student-athletes."

As if on cue, Williams later observed, "Yes, we want to win, but I also want our kids to have a good college experience. In that sense, I guess I'm a little old school."

Maybe it won't, or can't, work everywhere. Vanderbilt's a private school with a huge endowment. And it's not immune from embarrassment or turmoil, as witness the ongoing rape case against several members of last year's football team.

But it also doesn't need a football national championship to validate its worth. Perhaps that's why an NCAA baseball title would be only the Commodores' second national championship in any sport, to go with the bowling team's 2007 NCAA crown.

So whether or not you're a Vandy fan, don't you wish, at least once, that your favorite coach would say, as Stallings did: "It's important that our [basketball] program represent the university in a first-class manner off the court. That's much more important to me than how many games we win"?

How could anyone not be in awe of that?

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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