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VOL. 43 | NO. 17 | Friday, April 26, 2019

Can Carolina blue transform VU’s black and gold?

Stackhouse’s map to success drawn by Dean Smith

By Tom Wood

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The easy path. That’s never been the way for Jerry Stackhouse. He’s always taken the hard road to success.

Legendary North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith made sure of that, and it was a lesson that Vanderbilt’s new men’s basketball coach has never forgotten.

“(Coach Smith) always did it the right way. He didn’t have to try to sell me,” Stackhouse, 44, recalls. “He sold me on the program … didn’t promise me anything, didn’t promise me that I was going to come in and play 30 minutes a game – which I didn’t.

“But he promised me that he’d be a foolish coach if he didn’t play his best players.”

Stackhouse flashed a Cheshire Cat grin at that recollection, then turned serious, saying it’s the kind of atmosphere he intends to bring to Vanderbilt, which fired coach Bryce Drew in late March after an 0-19 run through the Southeastern Conference (including the first-round tournament loss) and a 9-23 record overall.

Stackhouse – commonly addressed as just “Stack” or “Coach Stack” – says returning and incoming players will be tested both on and off the court in order to get the program back among the SEC elite.

“I took that as a challenge. I was getting promises from everybody else. You’re going to come in and you’re going to play 40 minutes a night. You’re going to do this and you’re going to do that,” Stackhouse said. “And I took the challenge of going to a place where things weren’t promised to me, that I had to work for it.

“That’s what we’re going to be here. We’re not going to try to fool anybody. If you want to come to a place that’s second to none from an academic standpoint, that’s second to none from the level that you play at in the SEC and, I feel, that’s second to none in what you’re going to learn about how to play the game and how to play the game the right way, and play it at a high level.”

Tough times as a Tar Heel

Stackhouse might not have arrived at North Carolina with promises, but he did come with many dreams and expectations.

The Kinston, North Carolina, native was named the state’s player of the year and a first-team Parade All-America pick as a high school junior, and then transferred to prestigious Oak Hill (Virginia) Academy to further enhance his basketball reputation.

As a senior, Stackhouse led Oak Hill to a 36-0, USA Today-declared mythical national championship season, repeated as a first-team Parade All-America pick and was the MVP of the McDonald’s All-American Game.

Stackhouse headed to UNC in the fall of 1993 like the typical high school stud jock – full of confidence. But his freshman season at Carolina was a humbling experience.

New Vanderbilt basketball coach Jerry Stackhouse, a former North Carolina and NBA star, has never coached at the college level.

-- Photograph Courtesy Of Vanderbilt Athletics

“I was almost leaving every day. That first year at North Carolina was tough,” Stackhouse recalls. “It was (Coach Smith) telling me that me and Brian Reese could be the best small forward tandem in the country. And I was like, ‘I feel like I could be the best small forward in the country by myself.’

“Coach Smith taught me to be humble and wait my turn. I learned the importance of being part of something and not just being the focal point; being a part of something special. All those lessons, just from a basketball standpoint, I still carry those same fundamentals.

“But those are the lessons you couldn’t see as an 18-year-old. I think those stories that I can share with young students-athletes now should resonate.”

And the Dean Smith effect continues to this day. In a 2015 interview with Yahoo Finance, which cited Stackhouse’s net worth at $60 million, Stackhouse said Smith, who died in 2015, approached him early in his NBA career about his spending habits.

“Coach Smith put (me) with a group (Franklin Street Partners of Chapel Hill) … and I’ve been there ever since,” Stackhouse told the website. “So I had to trust (someone). Coach Smith took it upon himself to be that person, to make sure (and) protect me from myself.

“I’m so proud he took that initiative.”

Many more mentors

Smith wasn’t the only one who helped put Stackhouse on the road to superstardom.

He credits his junior high school coach Robert Murphy, whom he called “a big conditioning guy.” Murphy died in 2006, and Stackhouse sent condolences through a childhood friend.

“I got something from a lot of different people. (Mavericks coach) Rick Carlisle was the guy that kind of changed my game (during the 2008-09 seasons). When I started coaching with him, I was averaging probably about 30 points a game. And he came in and told me, ‘if you could average about 23,’ and I was kinda like ‘huh,’ know what I mean?’

“But we went from a 32-50 team to a 50-32 team. So it’s like sometimes, less is more,” he adds. “I played for and coached against a lot of great coaches, and from those coaches I’ve taken some things I liked and some things that I didn’t like to try to formulate my own system of how I feel the game should be played. And that’s what I’m going to try to do with these kids. I mean, it’s really gratifying to see kids get it.”

His Vanderbilt coaching philosophy will combine everything he’s learned from his many mentors, he says.

And nobody, he notes, deserves more credit in shaping Stackhouse than his parents, George and Minnie, who still live in Kinston. Stackhouse says they were unable to attend his introductory news conference because of health problems, but that they were there in spirit.

Jerry Stackhouse was a first-team All-America selection as a sophomore at North Carolina before leaving for the NBA. He was the No. 3 overall pick by the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1995 NBA draft and went on to play for eight teams in 18 seasons.

-- Ap File Photo/Bob Jordan

“My family, my mom and dad, who … I’d be remiss without thinking about them and what they meant to me, the fact that I just want to thank them for rolling me out of bed every morning at 5 a.m. to get on my knees and say my prayers,” Stackhouse remembers.

“Every Sunday morning we were in church. Every Sunday morning. Just Bible study. Everything. That’s why I’m here. That’s what they’re getting.

“Obviously, I’ve been able to have some success at what I’ve done in basketball, but those are the two people that Vanderbilt University are getting. What they taught me, the value of integrity, treating people right, and teaching is what I’m going to try to bring to these kids.”

Stackhouse sang in the church choir, developing a love for old-time gospel music. He’s been known to sing the national anthem at NBA pregame ceremonies (you can find them on YouTube), and recently told WSMV’s Chris Harris, he “might have to bless the crowd with that … to try and fire up the crowd a little.”

The pros and beyond

Stackhouse spent two stellar years at UNC, averaging 19.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game as a sophomore in leading the Tar Heels to the Final Four. For those efforts, he earned first-team All-America and was Sports Illustrated’s player of the year.

He decided to go pro and was the No. 3 overall pick by the 76ers in the 1995 NBA draft. A two-time All-Star with the Pistons, Stackhouse averaged 29.8 points in the 2000-01 season and reached the NBA Finals in 2006 with the Mavericks. He played 18 seasons for eight teams before retiring after the 2013 season.

Since then, Stackhouse has fast-tracked his coaching resume with impressive results. There also have been a few side projects, including starting an AAU basketball program, Stackhouse Elite, in 2011, and serving as a TV analyst/commentator covering the Pistons for Fox Sports Detroit and the ACC Network.

He also has appeared in three sports documentaries – “1 Love’’ (2003), “Against All Odds’’ (2006) and “Road to the Championship’’ (2011). He served as executive producer for “Against All Odds.”

But Stackhouse always wanted to coach, though not necessarily at the collegiate level.

“As a head coach, I want to teach. It didn’t matter what level that I got in. People felt that I was on a trajectory in the NBA,” says Stackhouse who began as an assistant with the Raptors in 2015, advancing to Eastern Conference finals.

He transitioned to the head coaching position with the Raptors 905 NBA G League team in 2016-17, winning both the title and Coach of the Year honors. He also served on the Grizzlies staff in Memphis before joining Vanderbilt.

The G League is where he met Malcolm Turner, the developmental league’s president. Turner officially started Feb. 1 as Vanderbilt’s athletics director, and earlier this month hired Stackhouse.

“When I met with Malcolm and talked about this excellent university, what it stands for from an academic standpoint, the confidence that we play in the SEC, playing at the highest level, it was just an opportunity that I couldn’t resist,” Stackhouse says.

Again, it was all about the challenge. Taking the hard road.

What does the future hold?

Stackhouse is supremely confident that he can turn around the Vandy program, and so is Turner.

“He’s someone who has coached and developed young players with great success at all levels, from AAU to the NBA to the G-League,” says Turner who, like Stackhouse, is a North Carolina graduate. “And Jerry is someone who has consistently turned heads throughout the basketball community with his ability to connect, his ability to relate to players at all levels, and his ability to make players better and ultimately, his ability to win games

“He’s a highly skilled leader with an exceptional basketball mind, a unique feel for the game that’s unparalleled, given his extensive background. He is otherwise a new dynamic and relevant voice within the game of college basketball. And he is committed to winning the right way.”

Stackhouse, whose scowl at players not competing at the level he expects is legendary, flashed it a time or two when reporters quizzed him during his introductory media availability about his coaching credentials.

“I don’t think there’s really another coach in the country that has a better blueprint for what’s needed and what’s prepared to go to that next level because I’ve done it,” he said, pointing to his G League coaching success.

“A lot of things, kids have to be taught what they need to do and how they’re going to do it, and that’s one of my strong suits, being able to develop not only individual skills but have an understanding of the game and how it should be played.”

If Stackhouse is successful at rebuilding Vandy – and zero SEC wins last season set a pretty low bar to eclipse – then he will have made a transition from the NBA to college game, a route that has been tough for other coaches.

Most recently, Alabama fired Avery Johnson after four seasons. He was head coach of both the Mavs and Nets after his NBA playing days.

Isiah Thomas, the former Pistons star and coach of both the Pacers and Knicks, was fired by Florida International in 2012 after just three seasons.

Mavs coach Carlisle told the team’s website that Stackhouse will make Vandy relevant again, and then return to the NBA as a head coach.

“The thing I really admire about Stack is that he got into coaching and he’s put in the work. He paid the dues,” Carlisle points out.

“He wanted to coach their G League team in Toronto so that he could get experience as a head coach. A lot of guys wouldn’t want to do that. That showed real humility and respect for the game. And I think he’ll be an NBA coach at some point.”

It’s quite possible that Stackhouse would already be coaching in the NBA if the Vanderbilt job hadn’t come along when it did. Days after Stackhouse left the Grizzlies, Memphis fired coach J.B. Bickerstaff.

So while the NBA is always a coaching option, there may be a bigger threat to someday lure Stackhouse from Vanderbilt if his love for the college game is as great as he intimates.

That would be North Carolina, where coach Roy Williams, 68, just completed his 16th season at his alma mater. In a 2016 visit to the Chapel Hill campus, the Raleigh News & Observer asked Stackhouse about his NBA trajectory versus coaching in the college ranks.

“Just one. And you can guess on that one,” Stackhouse said that day, adding that coaching Carolina “would be the dream job.”

Perhaps he was just playing to his audience, maybe not. Either way, it’s something to ponder as the Stackhouse Era begins at Vanderbilt.

“I’m just excited for this opportunity to be able to blaze a path at this university,” he says. “We’re going to graduate student-athletes that not only are going to have success on the court, but they’re going to have success in life and be people that we’re going to look to, look for, as some of the best leaders in the world off the court as well.

“We’re going to play hard, we’re going to play tough, we’re going to play the right way. And I’m extremely excited to get started with these guys.”

Once again, he’s taking the hard road to success.

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