PITTSBURGH — The worst season in Pittsburgh basketball history cost head coach Kevin Stallings his job.
Stallings was let go by the university on Thursday, just two days after the Panthers completed an 8-24 season that included an 0-19 mark in Atlantic Coast Conference play.
“I want to express my appreciation to Coach Stallings for his commitment to our program,” athletic director Heather Lyke said in a statement. “In moving forward, we have tremendous expectations for our men’s basketball program at Pitt and I believe we can achieve great things within the Atlantic Coast Conference and nationally. A national search for the next Pitt head coach will begin immediately.”
Stallings went just 24-41 in two years at Pitt after replacing Jamie Dixon in March 2016. The Panthers were a perennial NCAA Tournament team under Dixon but Stallings struggled from the outset.
Pitt finished 16-17 in his first season despite having senior stars Michael Young and Jamel Artis. Stallings restocked the roster heading into this season, bringing in 11 new players. Stallings expected a difficult transition and whatever thin margin for error the Panthers had vanished when senior forward Ryan Luther was lost for the year with a foot injury in December.
Without its most experienced player, Pitt simply couldn’t keep up in arguably the nation’s toughest conference. Only four of the Panthers’ 19 ACC games were decided by less than 10 points, including a 67-64 setback to Notre Dame in the opening round of the ACC tournament that marked their narrowest loss of the season. It also assured Pitt of the second 0-19 mark in conference history. The Panthers were the only team out of the 351 Division I schools to not win a conference game this season.
Stallings defended his approach in the aftermath, stressing he didn’t feel he needed to sell the administration on his approach.
“I’m sure comfortable with how we’ve coached this group and how they responded to us,” Stallings said. “How we all held together and supported each other and the one thing I don’t have any question about is they’ve got my back, and I think they know I’ve got theirs.”
Former Pitt athletic director Scott Barnes raised eyebrows two years ago when — after stressing the program needed a “fresh” approach after Dixon left for TCU — he opted to go with Stallings. During the press conference in which he introduced Stallings, Barnes said the common denominator was a shared belief that the Panthers could reach the Final Four.
It’s a destination that’s never seemed so far away for Pitt.
Barnes bailed for the same job at Oregon State just nine months after hiring Stallings, who came to Pitt after a modestly successful 17 years at Vanderbilt, where he made the program respectable and became the winningest coach in school history. Yet the Commodores didn’t ask for a dime when Stallings left for the Panthers, a sign both sides were ready to move on.
The Panthers won’t get off as cheaply. Stallings is owed the final three years on his contract, which could make it difficult for Pitt to afford an experienced and established replacement.
Stallings offered a refreshingly blunt approach compared to the buttoned down and often contrarian Dixon but support eroded quickly. Attendance at the typically rowdy Petersen Events Center plummeted this season as the losses piled up. Pitt averaged just 4,117 fans at The Pete this winter, a 50 percent drop off from 2016-17.
There were even swaths of seats available in “The Oakland Zoo,” the raucous student section that made for one of the most daunting homecourt advantages in the country when the Panthers were rolling under Dixon. When Pitt fell to Wake Forest on Feb. 21, the last legitimate shot at avoiding a winless conference season, only 2,420 bothered to show up.
There were some bright spots. Freshmen Marcus Carr, Parker Stewart, Terrell Brown and Shamiel Stevenson showed flashes at times. Junior forward Jared Wilson-Frame gave the Panthers a dash of toughness and Luther is expected to return pending the approval of a medical redshirt.
Stallings never wavered in his belief that the future is bright. It might be.
Stallings, however, will have to watch it from afar.