PITTSBURGH — I hadn’t even made it to my seat, and Pitt basketball was already living down to my expectations.
Just inside the main entrance to the Petersen Events Center were maybe two dozen security personnel and ticket takers. Nearly all of them milled about next to the metal detectors, with nothing to do. Until a few years ago, this was one of college basketball’s most raucous arenas. But tonight—with Pitt sitting at 8-20 (0-15 ACC) heading into a 9 p.m. tipoff on a Wednesday in late February against Wake Forest, a bland-but-superior opponent—there were few paying customers coming through. Tickets were selling at the gate for $45, but I was able to grab two for $31 through a reseller on my phone, even though I only needed one. I should have acted sooner; that afternoon, the same reseller had been offering seats for as little as $3.
Upstairs, the concourse was deserted except for a guy in a throwback Ontario Lett jersey and a couple of his buddies. I had seen two of those dudes a few hours earlier at the Primanti Bros. down the hill on Forbes Avenue—one of the few indicators around campus that there was even a game to be played.
Pitt basketball’s descent began slowly, when the economic realities of big-time college sports—a business the NCAA pretends is not a business—forced the university to abandon what was then a crumbling Big East for the ACC, beginning with the 2013-14 season.* The hiring of Kevin Stallings to replace Jamie Dixon as head coach in March 2016 effectively gave the program its final shove down the mountain.
Just two years ago, in Dixon’s last season, the Panthers won 21 games and reached the NCAA tournament, their 13th appearance in 15 years. Pitt is certainly not a blueblood on the order of Duke or Kentucky, and it lacks the gilded history of North Carolina, Kansas, or UCLA. It hasn’t reached a Final Four in nearly 80 years, long before the Final Four was even really a thing. But in this century, the Panthers had established themselves as consistently top-tier: At one point, they appeared in the AP top 10 in 11 consecutive seasons. The Pete, which opened in 2002 on the former site of the on-campus football stadium, regularly sold out. It wasn’t uncommon for Steelers players to be seen sitting courtside. Until fairly recently, The Pete was still drawing comparisons to Duke’s famously hostile Cameron Indoor Stadium. Pitt often didn’t attract the best high school prospects in the country, but it kept getting players who fit its efficient, defense-minded system. Pitt won a lot of games. Pitt was fun.
And then it wasn’t. Pitt finished this season with 19 consecutive defeats, and it went 0-19 in the ACC, including a season-ending loss to Notre Dame on Tuesday in the first round of the ACC tournament. The Panthers are the only Division I program not to win a game in conference play this year.
I want to show you a play. Just one. It happened 11 days ago, at the end of the first half of a home game against No. 1 Virginia. Pitt was down by 23, had scored just seven points, and was holding the ball for the last shot. That possession ended with Pitt’s big man, his feet planted somewhere near Shadyside, chucking a slab of concrete in the direction of a light fixture.
That right there is a major college basketball program in a Power 5 conference looking more like a junior high team that can’t wait for its postgame ice cream cone. How did this happen? And can Pitt ever recover?
I didn’t go to Pitt, but I’ve rooted for the Panthers my entire life. My father went there, and so did both of my brothers. I grew up a few miles away, and I attended grade school and high school just a few blocks down Fifth Avenue. We were regulars at Pitt football games, and even though Pitt hoops was always a tougher ticket, we’d get to Fitzgerald Field House occasionally, and I loved the place. I came of age in the 1980s, when Pitt and the Big East were the best show in sports: the brawls, the personalities, the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden where even the early round games packed the intensity of a prizefight.
I picked Pitt’s game against Wake on Feb. 21 because it felt like the perfect opportunity to soak in the ennui that now grips the entire program. Screw getting a credential; I wanted to sit in the stands with my cousins, two brothers named Pat and Dennis McDaniel, and Pat’s friend, John Enright. A Pitt Law grad, Pat has been a season-ticket holder since 1982, the year Pitt started playing in the Big East. He told me a story about sitting near the basket that first year or so as Villanova’s Dwayne McClain delivered a ferocious up-and-under dunk right in front of him, the sort of big-time move one typically didn’t see in Pitt’s former league, the Eastern 8. “We’re in the Big East!” Pat remembered thinking at that moment.
My dad died four years ago. Any youthful enthusiasm for Pittsburgh sports that still infects my siblings, my cousins, and me is largely due to my old man’s influence. Pat’s son Joe went to Pitt and also loves the Panthers. Pat’s pal Enright, a few years younger, was the editor-in-chief of Pitt’s student newspaper back in the day. The night Jerome Lane murdered a backboard, Enright was doing stats for ESPN on behalf of the athletic department. When “Send it in, Jerome!” came tumbling out of Bill Raftery’s mouth, Enright was sitting right next to him.
Enright’s the kind of Pitt fan who frequently DMs reporters to ask questions or to offer his thoughts. He has an encyclopedic memory on the topics of Pitt football and basketball, and he’ll often pepper conversations with random asides. “I was out at Oklahoma for the game there a couple days before Lane broke the backboard,” he told me at one point. “We lost like 86-83.” Yes, Enright was calling up a game from 30 years ago, and he managed to nail both the date and the score. Yes, Enright attended every Pitt home game this season.
After a good run in the late 1980s, during the Big East’s heyday, Pitt hoops cooled off for much of the ’90s, at one point missing the tournament eight straight times. That changed in 2000-01, Ben Howland’s second season as head coach, when the Panthers made a run to the final of the Big East tournament for the first time. The next year, they would crack the AP top 10. Howland twice guided Pitt to the Sweet 16 before bolting for UCLA, with Jamie Dixon—his top assistant—taking over. Very little would change over the next 13 years—including Pitt’s inability to reach a Final Four.
For all its relative success this century, Pitt hoops almost always underachieved in the tournament, advancing as far as the Elite Eight just once. Most any Pitt fan can cite, chapter and verse, the NCAA disappointments over the years: Kent State, Dwyane Wade’s jump stop, Oklahoma State, Bradley, Scottie Fucking Reynolds, Jordan Crawford, the stupid ending to that stupid Butler game. Hell, reach back as far as 1988 and there’s Barry Goheen. All of this put added pressure on Dixon as time wore on, and the jump to the ACC only ratcheted everything up.
Dixon and his staff used the Big East to their advantage by largely recruiting players from New Jersey, Philadelphia, and especially New York City. The proximity was one draw. The chance to play in the conference tournament at MSG was another, and in the eight years from 2001-08, Pitt reached the Big East title game seven times. Pat and Enright almost always made the trip.
The move to the ACC five years ago, which Pitt made with Syracuse, was done to pursue the much more lucrative revenues offered in football, at a time when realignment was completely reshaping the college sports landscape. But the decision ripped Pitt hoops from its roots.
“The change in league does have an effect because it’s not as easy to recruit the Northeast anymore,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas told me. “I’m not sure that generally—and, again, [I’m] saying generally—that all those players are quite as fired up to play Clemson or Wake Forest, as they were to play Villanova. But things change, and that’s the way it goes. And they chased the money.”
(Let us pause here to note that while the Old Big East is often remembered with nostalgia as the symbol of a more innocent time, the league was in fact a marketing creation designed to tap into the possibilities of a newfangled platform known as cable television. Its breakup was really the logical conclusion of founder and first commissioner Dave Gavitt’s vision.**)
Recruiting got progressively worse. By Dixon’s final season, he was rounding out his class with graduate transfers from Brown, Richmond, and Coppin State. Pitt fans often seemed to be divided between those who viewed Dixon as an underachiever and those who appreciated the program’s consistency. In the past, Pitt had sweetened the pot to keep Dixon, but by the time TCU, his alma mater, came calling in the early months of 2016, Pitt instead negotiated a smaller buyout.
The Pitt job was an attractive one, but there was near-universal outrage when the school hired Stallings, the longtime former Vanderbilt head coach. Stallings had only modest success at Vandy, which was one thing, but his hire also involved murky circumstances: Athletic director Scott Barnes had used a search firm whose president was both Barnes’s former boss and the ex-athletic director who had hired Stallings at Vandy. And during his time at Vandy, Stallings once tried to block Western Pennsylvania native Sheldon Jeter from transferring home to Pitt.
From the beginning, the knives were out. Even Stallings’s introductory press conference—what should have been a celebratory affair—turned into an inquisition, right from the first question:
Craig Meyer, the Pitt hoops beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, told me he “felt bad for Kevin” that day. “All he did was take the job that he was offered. It was more so the AD,” Meyer said. Barnes would leave for Oregon State just nine months later; he spent a total of 18 months at Pitt. Among certain segments of the fan base, there’s a conspiratorial attitude toward Barnes’s tenure, as though he were a plant from an old rival like West Virginia or Penn State sent to wreck the Pitt hoops program. The idea is ridiculous, but given how bad things have gotten, it also has a strange air of plausibility to it.
Kevin Stallings got off to an okay start in 2016 by winning 12 of his first 15 games, including an upset of then-No. 11 Virginia. That was the high point.
The Panthers stumbled to a 16-17 finish, the nadir a 106-51 home loss to Louisville. That one drew the wrath of former Pitt great Levance Fields, who vented his frustration on Twitter by voicing his preference for Brandin Knight, another Pitt legend and longtime Dixon assistant now on the staff at Rutgers:
Stallings also openly criticized his players, which created some obvious tension. One example: “We have an older group that is sometimes happy to hit that cruise control button when they think they can instead of keeping the throttle down and trying to put somebody out of their misery.” Another, in reference to the team’s leadership, from the same postgame presser: “I wouldn’t call it great. I think it has gotten better. It’s a work in progress. I talked to them a little bit after the game tonight. I think they like each other just fine off the court and even on the court, but there’s another level of chemistry and togetherness we need to get this group to achieve.”
This kind of candor made for good copy, but it didn’t resonate with Stallings’s players. Five wound up transferring out, and another was kicked off the team. Pitt began this season with 11 new players, including seven freshmen, and no returning starters. Then came the early January loss of power forward Ryan Luther—Pitt’s lone frontcourt player with any experience, even if he’ll never remind anyone of DeJuan Blair—to a season-ending foot injury. Stallings hadn’t exactly filled the void with a wealth of ACC-caliber talent, and strangely, he seemed to be satisfied with that.
“We could have tried to quick-fix it and make it a better team this year but not have any ability to sustain success,” Stallings told ESPN last month, a comment I’m still trying to process. He never explained why a bridge strategy that included graduate or junior college transfers might have been unwise, especially given how disastrous the results have been.
Pitt lost at home to Montana. Boston College came to town lugging a 23-game ACC road losing streak; the Eagles left with a 23-point win in which Pitt finished with just two offensive rebounds, which ought to be impossible. The Panthers’ best win came against Duquesne.
Stallings has tried to “accentuate the positive,” as he put it. But back in January, when asked to give an example, he cited the fact that Pitt had just four turnovers in the second half against Duke—a game the Panthers lost by 27.
There are positives to be found. Somehow, according to stats guru Ken Pomeroy, Pitt isn’t the worst Power 5 team of all time, or even the worst this season. That distinction belongs to California.
“The Bears have two conference wins but in a league significantly worse than the ACC,” Pomeroy told me via email.
Congratulations, Pitt. Quantitatively speaking, you’re not the worst.
During the two days I spent in Pittsburgh, I heard wholly unconfirmed rumors suggesting Pitt was indeed planning to fire Stallings, and that one or more players would transfer if Stallings were retained. Publicly, AD Heather Lyke has said only that she will evaluate the situation after the season. But it’s not as simple as pulling the plug. Stallings’s deal reportedly includes a $10 million buyout—remember, amateurism is a racket for everyone but the players—and there have been multiple reports about Pitt trying to bargain that number down. [Update: Stallings has been fired.] Between the buyout and whatever it will cost to land its next coach, Pitt stands to shell out a lot of money. Then there’s the obvious uncertainty that will surround the next hire, whoever it may be.
“If you want to make a change,” Bilas asked me, “at what cost are you willing to do that?”
As Craig Meyer wrote this week, it’s rare for a college coach at a major program not to be given at least three seasons before getting shitcanned. Billy Gillispie’s two-year run at Kentucky from 2007-09 was the most noteworthy example. But, much like the Gillispie-Kentucky mess, the Stallings era may already be beyond hope. “I think,” Meyer told me, “there’s too much working against him.”
The night of the Wake game, my cousins, Enright, and I were able to sit wherever we wanted, so we parked ourselves in the lower level along the free-throw line, a few rows behind the Oakland Zoo, Pitt’s famously rowdy student section. There was a decent student turnout—their tickets are discounted—but the Zoo mostly spent the evening going through the motions. The official attendance was listed as 2,420 (capacity is more than 12,000), but there might have been about 1,000 people in the building. Most seemed to be dead-enders like Pat and Enright.
I asked Enright why he still bothers. He said that with the football team no longer playing on campus, the basketball games offer a chance to get back here, where there are some enjoyable bars and restaurants to hit both before and after the game. Also: “They’ve built up a lot of goodwill because they were so good for the last 15 years,” Enright said.
Stallings’s strength is supposed to be his ability to coach offense, but if he can do that, I didn’t see it that night. Pitt likes to launch threes, like a lot of teams these days, but it had several possessions in which it simply ball-screened aimlessly along the perimeter before rushing a shot or seeing the shot clock run out. Down by three with 27 seconds left, Pitt caught a break when Wake was whistled for a foul after a defensive rebound. After freshman Shamiel Stevenson missed his first free throw, I’m sure not every person in the building slapped the seat in front of him in frustration, but it definitely seemed that way. One section over, I swear I heard someone yell “I can’t take it anymore!”
Pitt’s final possession ended with a missed dunk. At that point, pretty much everyone reached for their coats and headed for the exits. “I have friends who laugh and ask why I still go,” Enright told me as we filed out. With everyone leaving at once, the concourse suddenly, finally seemed to be filled with people. “I’m not going to give up on them,” Enright added. We made our way downstairs. One of the two escalators was broken.