New coach Jerry Stackhouse and Vanderbilt joined by AD’s shared vision
by CL Brown
Vanderbilt athletic director Malcolm Turner and newly hired basketball coach Jerry Stackhouse first stood side-by-side on a court during a banner ceremony for the Raptors 905. Stackhouse had guided the team, the G League affiliate of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, to the 2017 NBA Developmental League championship. (It was the last title in the D League as Gatorade took over as the title sponsor.) Turner, then the G League president, slid championship rings on the fingers of Stackhouse and two of Toronto’s senior administrators at the 2017-18 season opener. As these ceremonies go, it was a short one. Because nearly the entire roster had turned over. Just two players were still with the team.
Turner had a saying he used often during his four years at the helm of the G League, and really, it’s true of all minor league sports: “Your success is your demise.” The more successful your team and players are, generally the more likely they are to be coveted on a higher level. Members of the Raptors 905 title team either landed on NBA rosters, ventured off to Europe to continue their careers or transitioned to a new franchise. But as Stackhouse watched his roster being raided and was faced with starting with essentially all new personnel, he did more than maintain. “As you develop talent, they move on, they get called up to the NBA and so forth but that was impressive about him,” Turner says. “Once again, he was able to build culture quickly, relate, connect, teach, develop and, lo and behold, I would see Jerry again at the G League finals that same year.”
At the time, neither Turner nor Stackhouse could envision that their paths would lead them back to campus, in general, and to Vanderbilt, specifically. Turner, whose tenure officially began on Feb. 1, did not have any experience in college athletics. He was a bit of an unconventional hire, who in turn made an unconventional hire. Turner had loosely followed Stackhouse’s 18-year NBA playing career as a byproduct of both being North Carolina alumni. But their time in Chapel Hill did not overlap and the hire of Stackhouse was not some kind of super-secret activation of the Carolina Way. Turner graduated in spring of 1993, a couple of months before Stackhouse arrived on campus. The respect he developed for Stackhouse came from working with him in the G League. When Turner says he’d ask other coaches about the best in the league, Stackhouse’s name repeatedly came up. It was the same when he consulted with people such as Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens and San Antonio Spurs general manager R.C. Buford. Even before Turner secured Korn Ferry, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm to help with the search, Stackhouse was a name high on his list of potential candidates. “Amidst a field of exceptional candidates, he’s a guy who came into this process and honestly just took hold of it and just flat out won the job,” Turner says. “It’s that simple.”
Stackhouse acknowledges not many college jobs were attractive to him. But he was impressed with Turner’s record in the G League overseeing a 10-team expansion and playing a major role in securing Gatorade as the league’s title sponsor. The moment when he first thought Turner was different came during a preseason coaches’ meeting. Stackhouse spoke out in favor of raising player salaries after reports showed the NBA’s eSport participants were set to make more. Turner didn’t just play lip service to the suggestion, eventually ushering in a raise. Stackhouse interviewed for NBA head coaching jobs last year and says he was preparing to do it again this spring until Turner called. Had it been anyone else, Stackhouse might not have taken it so seriously, if at all. “Relationships are huge,” Stackhouse says. “That was the appeal and I think it was the same thing for Malcolm. I don’t think he was looking to be an AD. It was just they sought him out to be the leader to take them to find out what their ceiling could be. And for me, I felt like he sought me out to be the vision he had for the team. I was like OK, let’s do this.”
Stackhouse inherits a team that ended the season on a 20-game losing streak, including an 0-18 mark in SEC play. That led to Bryce Drew’s termination after just three seasons on the job. Ken Pomeroy ranks Vanderbilt as the 48th best program in the nation in terms of desirability. (Compared with other SEC schools, that is one spot ahead of Arkansas, which owns a national title, and eight places above Texas A&M, which just hired Buzz Williams.) A small, private school competing in a conference in which the stakes continue to be raised, Vanderbilt is not a particularly easy place to win. The Commodores have made the NCAA Tournament just 15 times in program history. They haven’t made it past the first weekend since 2007, when they reached the Sweet 16. Stackhouse and Turner didn’t harp on the history and challenges of the program. Stackhouse says he’s not just looking to make the ‘Dores respectable, he’s looking to “do something big.” What linked the two is that their belief in the opportunity at Vanderbilt and their belief that they can take the program to new heights. “Maybe we’re both just foolish,” Stackhouse says. “But we feel like we can do what we set our minds to and kind of beat the odds. I guess that’s why we’re here.”
Stackhouse interviewed for the Toronto Raptors’ opening a year ago when Dwane Casey was forced out. Team president Masai Ujiri, who Stackhouse calls a big brother and mentor, gave him a blunt critique of his coaching style, saying he was known as a defensive mind, but urged him to become more innovative offensively. Stackhouse took the directive and began talking with longtime coach Doug Collins. He flew to Maui to talk offensive philosophy with Don Nelson, whose teams were frequently among the NBA’s highest-scoring during his 31 seasons as a head coach. Shortly after Stackhouse got off the plane in Hawaii, Uriji called with a message he didn’t want to hear. “You’re going to be a head coach in this league, but I just don’t think the time is right,” Ujiri told him. Stackhouse didn’t bother to tell Ujiri he was in Maui trying to get a step ahead. “I still spent that time with Nellie and talked offense, talked different things because I knew that ultimately it would make me better,” Stackhouse says.
The trip to Maui wasn’t unproductive. First because, well, it’s Maui. Second, Stackhouse received two phone calls from then-Memphis Grizzlies coach J.B. Bickerstaff. The first was to ask if he’d be interested in flying in to interview for an assistant coach opening. The second call, not much later, was Bickerstaff saying he didn’t need to interview, the job was his. It was the final piece Stackhouse believed he needed to gain experience to be an NBA head coach. “I thought that (Toronto) was my job the way I worked my way up there, but it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me that he (Ujiri) didn’t hire me,” Stackhouse says. “I felt like I’ve done everything I could to show that I was that guy. But I hadn’t even been on a bench yet. The only experience I had in the NBA was behind the bench, even though I was game-planning, I was doing scouts. I’d done all the things everybody on the front of the bench had done.”
That distinction of first or second row on the bench is the difference between being one of the top three assistant coaches on a team. Stackhouse was considered the fourth assistant in Toronto, so he sat on the second row. It may seem an insignificant difference to many, but it’s another reason why Turner was impressed with Stackhouse’s résumé. When Turner consulted with many in the NBA, he says there was a common sentiment on Stackhouse. “There are a lot of NBA players that want to get into coaching, but more often than not they want to skip steps, they don’t want to pay their dues,” Turner says. “And to a person, everyone was like, Jerry Stackhouse is the exact opposite. No interest in skipping steps. He invests in himself and in the craft of coaching.”
Turner’s decision to hire Stackhouse comes in the same time frame in which a trio of NBA lifers turned college coaches have been ousted. Chris Mullin stepped down at his alma mater, St. John’s, joining Avery Johnson (Alabama), and Mike Dunleavy (Tulane). The trio had a combined two NCAA Tournament appearances in their 11 seasons. Dunleavy never had a winning record in three seasons with the Green Wave, including a winless campaign in the American Athletic Conference this season. Johnson had four winning seasons with Bama but agreed to a buyout after its NIT appearance last month. Mullin guided the Red Storm to a First Four appearance in the NCAA Tournament, after posting his first winning season in four years at the helm. Mark Price, who was hired in the same cycle as Mullin and Johnson, was dismissed nine games into his second season at Charlotte, making the trail of failed tenures loom ominously for college coaches with extensive NBA backgrounds.
Turner and Stackhouse are undeterred by this recent trend, and there is reason to believe his tenure at Vanderbilt will be different. Memphis coach Penny Hardaway, who Stackhouse says he’s consulted several times about making the transition, and newly hired Arkansas coach Eric Musselman are the examples to why. Hardaway began coaching first in grassroots basketball and then high school before taking over at his alma mater last season. Musselman, who like Stackhouse is a former G League Coach of the Year winner, spent three seasons as an assistant coach at LSU before leading Nevada to three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, including a run to the Sweet 16 in 2018. Musselman says that scheduling was a learning curve because when he was in the NBA, “I didn’t know there was such a thing as a buy game.” (To his point, Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing, fresh off of an NBA sideline, played the worst non-conference schedule in Division I his first season, according to KenPom.com.) But Musselman doesn’t think recruiting would be a hurdle for Stackhouse. “The first thing people question is how is an NBA person going to recruit,” Musselman says. “What’s underestimated as a coach is the contacts. (Avery) Johnson was able to recruit well because he had contacts. Jerry will have a lot of contacts that people don’t understand that he has just from playing in the league and knowing people. Actually, an NBA background would lend itself in a positive way much like we’ve seen with Penny Hardaway and (Memphis assistants) Mike Miller and Sam Mitchell. Those guys have recruited as well as anybody in the country.”
Musselman believes having dealt with roster turnover in the G League, in which many of those decisions were out of his hands, would help Stackhouse at Vanderbilt. So will the fact that Stackhouse speaks the language of grassroots basketball as the founder and executive director of Atlanta-based Stackhouse Elite in 2011. Los Angeles Lakers forward Brandon Ingram, who is from Stackhouse’s hometown of Kinston, N.C., is the best player to come through the program. He played one season at Duke before becoming the second overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. Stackhouse is more likely to brag about the ones who didn’t go on to NBA fame, but became successful in life. He coached his son’s team and “fell in love with those kids.” Like the time he moved five players on the team who were in bad situations into his house. “I know my wife thought I was crazy,” Stackhouse says. “It was impulsive, I didn’t really have a whole lot of discussion with her, but four out of those five kids went to a major college, so it was worth it.”
Stackhouse says NBA coaching was appealing in that once the basketball part was done, he didn’t have to be responsible for the players off the court. Turns out that’s the part that he realized that he missed. He served as a mentor for many of the players who came through the Raptors 905. Coaching at Vanderbilt, he says, will return him to his passion of working with kids. Stackhouse was known for challenging his players in the G League and in his last stop with the Memphis Grizzlies by going one-on-one with them. Grizzlies forward Justin Holiday believes the fact that Stackhouse can show and not simply tell players will bode well for him in Nashville. “Stack can show you exactly what needs to be done,” Holiday says, “and I think that it will go over well with the players. They will listen a lot more knowing that this is how it’s supposed to be done.”
Quietly, a group of very interested observers in Chapel Hill is pulling for Stackhouse. Roy Williams is 68 and recently signed an eight-year extension to remain the coach of the Tar Heels through 2028. There’s no clear-cut favorite to succeed Williams who has ties to Carolina, especially not one with a direct line to program patriarch Dean Smith. Stackhouse has both, which is why shortly after his hiring some Carolina boosters were already pondering his being Williams’ successor. Stackhouse terms it a “great feeling” to be thought of in that light for a position he’s mentioned, even as a player, would be a dream job. But he says he’s focused on making a mark at Vanderbilt. “If I’m able to do what Coach Smith did, why would I leave that?” Stackhouse says. “I’ve started to blaze my path and establish something that’s my own here. That’s how I’m looking at it. I’m looking at it that this will be somewhere that I want to be for 30 years like Coach Smith did.”