Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Age Game Kevin Stallings Was 55 When Pitt Hired Him. That's Rare. Here's Why

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

The Age Game Kevin Stallings Was 55 When Pitt Hired Him. That's Rare. Here's Why

Article excerpt

Every so often, Kevin Stallings thinks back to the first day of his current job, when an event typically treated as a pep rally more closely resembled an awkward cross-examination.

At the news conference unveiling Stallings as Pitt's men's basketball coach in March 2016, many of the most biting questions weren't directed at Stallings; after all, he merely accepted a job he was offered. Rather, they were aimed at athletic director Scott Barnes, with many queries implicitly and sometimes explicitly revealing a common curiosity - why this guy?

The unpopularity of Stallings' hire - backlash he is still dealing with, to an extent, nearly 23 months later - was a multi-faceted issue. Part of it can be tied back to an overlooked factor: his age. The marriage of the then-55-year-old Stallings and Pitt was something of a rarity in modern college basketball; a program in one of the six major conferences - the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC - hired a coach who was at least 55.

The sport is, in many ways, defined by iconic coaches like Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and Jim Boeheim who are well past their 60th birthday. Very rarely, though, is a coach in that age demographic hired for a new position. In the past 20 years, dating back to 1998, there have been only 19 coaching changes (of a possible 187) in which a coach age 55 or older was hired by a major-conference school.

The experiment on which Pitt embarked isn't unprecedented, but it's uncommon. But why do so few coaches like Stallings get opportunities elsewhere once they've reached a certain age?

Does ageism, as it does in other aspects of society, have a foothold in college basketball?

"Generally speaking, if all things were equal, [athletic directors] would probably rather hire younger than older," Stallings said. "But usually things aren't always equal."

A not-so-inexact science

One of the first things most any athletic administrator will say about the hiring process is it's an inexact science. It's governed by reason, sure, but there's no specific list of instructions to be followed verbatim. Different schools want and need different things at different times, meaning there's variance in who is ultimately selected.

Even still, reasons for the dearth of older coaching hires go deeper.

Perhaps the most obvious and oft-mentioned is the notion of "winning a press conference" - that is, making a hire that rallies fans from the moment it is revealed. That can be a coach with a long track record of success. In many other cases, it's a young coach who provides excitement based on what he can potentially accomplish. Sometimes, as it was with rising stars such as Shaka Smart and Archie Miller, it can be both - or as Stallings put it, "Sometimes when you get to be my age, I guess you can be neither of those."

Such arbitrary measurements can sometimes cost coaches. When passed over for a job several years ago, Stallings said he was told by a search-firm employee that he did not have "enough star power."

For longtime coaches who haven't had overwhelming success and who may have even been fired at one point, they can be branded with the dreaded "retread" label. That can scare off potential employers, or, at the very least, sour a customer base. What that word entails isn't concrete - ESPN analyst and former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg noted that even Bill Belichick was once a retread.

Nonetheless, it's a stigma that can linger.

"I would say there might be, unfairly," said Western Kentucky AD Todd Stewart, who hired 56-year-old Rick Stansbury as basketball coach in 2016. "A lot of times, people get certain labels or certain stereotypes that in many cases are inaccurate. I think that's just a product of the world we're in and the environment we're in."

Stallings became the notable exception to the trend because the man who hired him viewed age and experience not as a hindrance, but a strong bonus to the point of effectively being a requirement for the job. …

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