Stackhouse Eager to Teach
by Adam Lucas
NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Vanderbilt's April selection of Jerry Stackhouse as the program's new head coach was greeted with some surprise in the college basketball world. The former Tar Heel great had a successful head coaching stint with Toronto's NBA G League affiliate, winning a title and Coach of the Year honors during his two-year career there, but had never been a head coach or assistant coach in college.
But when Stackhouse sits behind his desk in Vanderbilt's Memorial Gym one summer morning and explains the path that led him to Nashville, it makes perfect sense. And not surprisingly, there is a Carolina connection.
The athletic director who hired Stackhouse at Vanderbilt is Malcolm Turner, himself relatively new to the job after being named to the post in December of 2018. Turner is the former president of the G League, but he has another, less-well known credential: he's a Tar Heel and a Morehead Scholar.
"Malcolm was at Carolina before me, but we had mutual friends who connected us through Carolina," Stackhouse says. "As Malcolm and I were ascending in the NBA, me on the playing side and him on the front office side, we were cordial. And once we both went to the G League, we were in quite a few meetings together as far as collective bargaining and how to grow the league and things like that. We became closer and he was able to observe me and how I approached building a team and running an organization. For the most part it was respect for each other's work. But it didn't hurt that we had some Carolina ties."
Those ties include Stackhouse's two years playing for Dean Smith, including an ACC Tournament championship in 1994 (when Stackhouse won the event's MVP award) and a Final Four appearance in 1995.
As a Tar Heel, Stackhouse was known for two things: the athleticism that was best portrayed by his incredible reverse dunk at Cameron Indoor Stadium in 1995 (he had an equally impressive, though less-recognized, jam against then-nonconference foe Virginia Tech at the Greensboro Coliseum) and his home-grown, Kinston brand of toughness. But nearly 25 (!) years later, he knows his Carolina career was also an opportunity to learn firsthand from Smith the intricacies of not just coaching a team, but leading a program.
"A program is about people and understanding their issues and what they want," Stackhouse says. "We're dealing with people's kids they've had in their house, and we're asking them to put us in charge of that gap between leaving their house and going into the real world."
Dealing with people is one of the primary areas where Stackhouse learned valuable lessons during his tenure with Toronto, which included coaching national champion Kennedy Meeks during the 2017-18 season. Because of his competitiveness, Stackhouse's first inclination was to win every game. Through a series of meetings with respected Toronto president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri, he began to broaden his view and understand the role the G League team had in the entire organization.
But make no mistake: he still wanted to win. And like any coach, Stackhouse has a certain way he believes basketball should be played. He honed those principles during his NBA playing career, then during an extensive coaching career in grassroots basketball, and finally during his pro coaching experience. Now he's ready to pass on those lessons to a team that finished a disappointing 0-18 in the SEC last year but now gets a fresh start under an energetic new coach.
"I'm a loyalist," Stackhouse says. "If I see any inch of being disloyal, I'm ready to end it right there. We talked a lot about how to massage relationships, and the fact that you can't just fire everybody. In a college environment, you want everyone to have opinions. But I've already done a lot of the work in determining how we're going to play basketball. I would rather spend more time with you telling me ideas on how I can teach it than telling me ideas about how we should play it."
Spoken like a true head coach. But Stackhouse isn't quite ready to let his players forget that he's still a very accomplished player. Although he says his full-court days are mostly over and describes himself as a "half court assassin," he's spent much of his practice time with the Commodores this summer getting out on the court and actively participating in the NCAA-allowed workouts.
"I understand there will be a learning curve," Stackhouse says. "We have limited time in the summer, and they retain it for a couple days and then come back the next week and they don't have it anymore. Those are the highs and lows of building a team. But this summer our guys are enjoying the competitiveness of it and that's what we have to do to get to the next level. We have to compete. I'm excited about having so much more time to prepare a team than I'm used to. In the past, I've prepared 15 guys in the G League to play a game in two weeks. We've got much longer than that before the season starts here, and once the season comes, I hope to see some real growth start with this group."