By Gary Parrish
A column about Bruce Pearl garners cookout remarks. A column about John Calipari gets references to vacated Final Fours. A column about Rick Pitino leads to emails loaded with tired and not-really-funny-anymore sex jokes, and this is how it goes pretty much every time.
Reader comments are usually predictable.
I learned this years ago.
So I wasn't surprised when my column professing belief that this season's Vanderbilt Commodores are built to compete for anything and everything, including a trip to the Final Four, was met with skepticism, nor was I shocked that the main reason folks seem skeptical is because Kevin Stallings has lost his NCAA tournament opener in each of his past three trips, all to lower-seeded teams. I knew what the perception of Stallings and, by extension, his program would bring before I ever typed a word. In fact, I spoke to Stallings about his lack of postseason success in recent years, and he discussed it with great candor.
"The only thing the typical fan base cares about is how you finish, and I share the frustration with the fans," Stallings said. "There's nobody who wants to win or have better finishes than the players and the coaching staff, but [the recent losses are] not going to ruin my life because there are too many good things happening here, too many bright spots, too many success stories, and I believe these guys are having great experiences. But I will say this: It'll be greater if they have success in the NCAA tournament, and for that I feel a responsibility, and I feel a little bit of pressure."
When's the last time you heard a coach acknowledge feeling pressure?
And it's not job-security pressure.
Vanderbilt isn't firing its coach no matter what happens this season.
What Stallings was talking about is pressure from his desire to give his players the best college experiences possible, and he knows tournament-opening losses don't provide great experiences. He also knows fans -- both his fans and opposing fans -- talk about how he's never advanced past the Sweet 16, and how he hasn't won an NCAA tournament game since 2007. Granted, Stallings doesn't completely understand why that's all people talk about given the fact that he's running a program that can be respected nationally for how it operates on and off the court, but he's aware of the perception and would love nothing more than to change it.
"We're 4-5 in the NCAA tournament [since I've been at Vanderbilt], so it's not like we haven't won," Stallings said. "We've gotten bumped lately, and that's no fun. But most programs would be very happy with a [near] .500 record in the NCAA tournament. ... And I have to give some appreciation to my boss, David Williams. Because the first thing he says is, 'Hey, you've got to get there to lose.' There was a long stretch where Vanderbilt wasn't getting there, and he has that perspective, and I appreciate the support he provides. But we would still like to finish better than we have, because I want these guys to have the greatest experiences they can."