In 2003 we loved American Idol, Survivor and the Lord of the Rings movies. The music of Evanescense, Chingy and 3 Doors Down filled the air. We hated the French so much that we called French fries, freedom fries. We hated them enough to rebrand them, but not to stop eating them. I hated the French so much that I would refer to old Steelers running back Frenchy Fuqua as Freedomy Fuqua. We were also forced to choose sides in the war between Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.
Oh, and the University of Pittsburgh hired a new men’s basketball coach.
Ben Howland had already turned Pitt’s program around, and when he left to coach UCLA, he handed his whistle over to Jamie Dixon, his well-coiffed young protégé. Dixon had the kind of hair you’d vote for in an election. He brought the Hollywood look to the Oakland Zoo and embarked on a 13-year run that netted 328 wins. He also led the Panthers to seven consecutive 20-plus-win seasons and an equal number of consecutive tournament appearances. For the first time in school history, Pitt sat atop the NCAA rankings in the 2008-09 season, and only a heartbreaker to Villanova prevented Dixon from taking the Panthers to the Final Four.
But now he’s gone. Dixon parlayed that success into a contract worth more than $3 million a year as head coach of Texas Christian University. For the first time since the “Mission Accomplished” banner was unfurled, signifying kinda, sorta but not really the end of the Iraq war, Pitt has a new head coach. In addition to the aforementioned accolades, Dixon’s legacy includes an impressive list of players. Steven Adams, Lamar Patterson, Dejuan Blair, Sam Young, Chris Taft and Brandin Knight all had stellar careers at Pitt. But those days are over. It’s time to say hello to Kevin Stallings, the new man in charge.
While the hair isn’t as good and neither is the record, Stallings led Vanderbilt for 17 seasons, and only one of them was a losing endeavor. He was essentially the Commodores’ Jamie Dixon. Vandy was never exceptional but always respectable in the Southeastern Conference. Stallings went up against teams like Kentucky, LSU, Florida and Arkansas. But that conference is a football powerhouse, whereas the Atlantic Coast Conference specializes in basketball. Despite being an unglamorous SEC team, Stallings led his Commodores to the NCAA tourney seven times and twice made the Sweet 16. But now he follows in the footsteps of Dixon, who has raised fan expectations.
The 2016-17 Panthers are one of 11 teams in the ACC that could reach the postseason — the conference is just that good. But one thing Pitt has that other teams don’t is Jamel Artis. The 6’7” senior forward has played in 67 consecutive games for the Panthers. He’s an extremely versatile player who dominates the paint and can drain them from the perimeter. There’s even talk of letting him play point guard this year. For now, he will team with Michael Young to form not only one of the best forward combos in the league, but in the country. Artis is so good that we forgive him for being from Baltimore. His relentless style of defense will please the Zoo faithful once again.
Chris Jones and Sheldon Jeter are the other two returning seniors for Pitt. Jeter played for Stallings at Vanderbilt as a freshman before transferring to Pitt. Jeter is from Beaver Falls, and his Jerome Lane-like dunks rile up the student section. This is not a bad situation for Stallings to come into; he begins the new era with four returning seniors who are coming off a 21-11 record. Now Stallings will match moves with Hall of Fame coaches like Mike Krzyzewski, of Duke; Roy Williams, of North Carolina; Rick Pitino, of Louisville; and Jim Boeheim, of Syracuse. Sure, Stallings might look like Kevin from The Office, but let’s be patient with the new guy. At least he’s not French.