Kevin Stallings made the commitment to his Vanderbilt team that it would take a trip this summer to Australia — and man, did he mean it.
The timing was perfect. Teams are allowed to go overseas for an offseason trip once every four years. Coaches always make sure the trips are done when it makes the most sense. Incoming freshmen can’t go since the trips are supposed to occur when school is out of session, so having a veteran team coming back can maximize the experience.
The Commodores return 14 of 15 players from last season’s roster, including a likely first-round draft pick in Australian center A.J. Ogilvy. Vandy, which finished 19-12 last season (8-8 in the SEC), is primed for a breakout season that will lead it to the NCAA tournament for the third time in four seasons.
Then a few months ago, reality hit. David Williams, Vanderbilt’s vice chancellor for student affairs and athletics, met with Stallings in early spring and told him the money wasn’t available for the trip.
“We had waited an extra two years, since it had been six years since we’d gone on a trip,” said Stallings, whose program traveled to Italy, Spain and the Canary Islands in 2003. “I knew the university was facing a tough time just like the rest of the country. There were people losing jobs. There was so much distress economically for the university to shell out $100,000 for us to make the trip.”
Entering his 11th season at Vanderbilt, Stallings was determined to take his team to Australia.
The majority of coaches would have likely just left the decision alone. But not Stallings, not with this team, not at a school that he has been so committed to the past decade — a school that has as sterling a reputation for its ethical behavior as Stallings has within the college basketball community.
“I was convinced it was the right time for the program; it was a hard thing to let die,” Stallings said. “So I went back to him and proposed the idea of me paying for it, and he agreed to that.”
Nevertheless, Stallings still had to convince his wife, Lisa. Foregoing $100,000 that the university would otherwise owe him as part of his salary is no joke. But this was the ultimate investment in his team, his program, and his future at Vanderbilt. If the trip is a success, it could ultimately be the impetus to catapult the Dores toward a banner season.
“I went home and was convinced the trip had to be made,” said Stallings by phone from Melbourne, Australia. “I felt our players earned it, deserved it. And my wife said to me, as she usually does, to make sure I’ve thought it through. I gave it some thought and said it did [make sense]. Our players deserve this and it is an investment in my program.”
Williams, who is traveling with the team on the trip, wrote in an e-mail to ESPN.com that Stallings “did not want the story told, but I am glad you are writing it so all can see that while he is a great ballcoach, he also cares about what’s happening around him.”
“He understood why we could not pay for the trip at this time and stepped up to help the team and the school,” Williams continued. “We are truly lucky and proud that Kevin Stallings is Vanderbilt’s basketball coach. I am sure his generous and commitment will pay back a hundred times over.”
Stallings said he didn’t promise Ogilvy a trip to Australia. But he did tell the rising junior that he would try. Ogilvy, who could have declared and been a first-round pick in June, was thrilled with the decision, according to Stallings. So, too, were the rest of his teammates. Stallings said as soon as the decision was made, he received text messages from the team thanking him for his generosity.
“This wasn’t a difficult decision to make,” Stallings said. “It wasn’t something I had to labor over. The players are having a terrific time. We demand a lot in this program, but our guys work hard, play hard and conduct themselves with a tremendous amount of class, and that’s important to me. Under normal circumstances, the university would step up and do what it is appropriate.”
Stallings covered the trip for 16 players, the five-person coaching staff, trainer, manager, strength coach and a few administrators. A few coaches who took family members had to cover that on their own. Stallings couldn’t take his family due to summer scheduling events with his children back in Nashville (while his son, Jacob, is playing Cape Cod League baseball before he returns to North Carolina).
In addition to attending an Australian Rules Football game and touring the highest point in the country, the Commodores have already played two games on the trip.
In the second game, against the Kilsyth Cobras of the South East Australian Basketball League, guard Jermaine Beal was stellar, scoring 23 points and grabbing seven boards. Ogilvy, as expected, poured in nearly a double-double with 19 and eight and the Dores had five players in double figures in their win. Vandy also took its opener with the Dandenong Rangers, led by Ogilvy’s 23 points and 16 boards. Beal added 10 points, six assists and four steals and Brad Tinsley had nine points and seven assists.
The 10-day trip will almost certainly prove useful when the Dores get to the Maui Invitational in November and open up against Cincinnati, one of the best first-round games in early-season tourney play. Prior to that game, Vanderbilt plays at Saint Mary’s (which is also on a tour of Australia this week). The Commodores will also host Missouri, travel to Illinois and play Western Kentucky in Nashville.
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