Kentucky is Tennessee's biggest basketball rival, and not in that way Kentucky is everyone's biggest basketball rival in the SEC. The Vols have beaten Kentucky more than any other program and have a winning record against the Cats in Knoxville over the last ten years. But the Vols certainly aren't Kentucky, and even though they're closer than anyone else in this league there's little equality to speak of.
In this millennium Tennessee has run through a couple of secondary rivals. When John Calipari landed at Memphis the Vols and Tigers had their passionate fling. When Billy Donovan led the Gators into the national spotlight, Bruce Pearl helped the Vols get the best of them.
But as those rivalries have waxed and waned, Vanderbilt has remained the constant. And since 1999, Kevin Stallings has been the face of that rivalry. So now - sadly? - with Stallings heading to Pittsburgh, the rivalry takes a new turn.
We don't like Calipari because, among other reasons, he tried to duck us at Memphis. We didn't have much problem with Donovan because we were beating him more often than not. And there have been others along the way like John Brady or Thad Matta or maybe even Bruce Pearl as we go forward, but none of them have lasted very long. Stallings has been his same charming self for 17 seasons.
He was almost our coach in 1997, but a last minute change of heart left him at Illinois State and gave the Vols Jerry Green instead. Stallings then beat the Vols in overtime in their first NCAA Tournament appearance in nine years the following season.
I was a freshman at UT when Stallings moved to Vanderbilt and the Vols were strong that season, splitting the SEC title and going to the program's first Sweet 16 in the 64-team format. And Stallings beat us twice, including a 76-73 win in Knoxville where we got messed up by Dan Fulmerized Langhi.
This was a theme throughout Stallings' time: he had a way of stealing wins against the best Tennessee had to offer. Those first two Vol teams he faced as Vanderbilt's head coach were ranked 12th and 5th. Shan Foster beat #16 Tennessee at the buzzer in Nashville in 2007. And of course, the top ranked Vols fell in Nashville the following season one game after beating Memphis in the mother of all trap games. Two years later Vanderbilt went two-for-two in ranked battles against a Tennessee team that eventually made the Elite Eight.
His ability to win those games made it all the more fun when the Vols dropped the hammer on his Vanderbilt teams, which they did on a number of joyous occasions. In 2001 the eighth ranked Vols beat Vanderbilt by 22 just before Jerry Green's career unraveled. In 2007 the Vols got revenge on Shan Foster and #23 Vanderbilt with an 84-57 win in Knoxville. The first match-up in 2008 was a 20-point Vol victory featuring an 18-18 from Wayne Chism. And the Vols swept the Commodores in winning the SEC East again in 2009, including a 19-point win in Knoxville. Cuonzo Martin's Sweet 16 squad doubled up Vandy 76-38 at the end of the year.
Wins like those often brought out Stallings' personality. He was clearly no fan of Bruce Pearl and had an interaction with Tennessee fans after a 68-61 loss to Cuonzo Martin's first team that reportedly included him saying, "Enjoy the NIT!" Just last year he had an altercation with Wade Baldwin after the Dores beat Tennessee in the handshake line.
Baldwin is just the latest of a long line of Vandy villains under Stallings' watch, starting with Langhi. There was Matt Freije, Derrick Byars and Shan Foster, A.J. Ogilvy, John Jenkins and Jeff Taylor, and Festus Ezeli. But Stallings was always the magnet for Tennessee fans.
The Vols got the best of him in the long run, going 21-15 (Green 2-2, Buzz 4-4, Bruce 8-4, Cuonzo 4-2, Tyndall 2-1, Barnes 1-2) against the Commodores during his time plus the loss to Illinois State in the NCAA Tournament. It's interesting that Stallings' two best seasons during his tenure were also Tennessee's. But the biggest difference came in March: in 2008 and 2010 the Commodores earned a 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and both times were bounced by a 13. Those failures to capitalize on opportunities also played out the last two years against the Vols, who used a pair of late comebacks to beat Vandy in Nashville and the SEC Tournament last year, and of course got the last laugh at the buzzer in this year's SEC Tournament.
We are running short on villains around here. I have no idea if Vanderbilt will get better or worse from here, and really neither do they. But like all our good villains, we will miss the chance to beat him.