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Originally published March 17, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 22, 2007 at 4:16 PM

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Vanderbilt's second choice on top now

The call from the 206 area code that Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings received Friday didn't come from anyone offering advice on how to...

Seattle Times staff reporter

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The call from the 206 area code that Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings received Friday didn't come from anyone offering advice on how to beat Washington State, something the Washington Huskies haven't done in two years.

Instead, Washington athletic director Todd Turner was congratulating the coach he hired in 1999 for leading the Commodores into today's second-round NCAA tournament game against the Cougars.

"I'm really excited for him," said Turner, who was the athletic director at Vanderbilt from 1996-2003. "He deserves all the accolades he can get because Vanderbilt is a hard place to coach and win. But if you recruit the right kind of people and do it the right way, you can be successful there. He's been patient and overcome some adversity and some odds."

And in another Huskies-related twist to this story, it was former Washington coach Bob Bender that Turner originally sought to become Vandy's coach in 1999, hiring Stallings after Bender apparently turned the job down.

Turner recalled Friday how he met with Bender in New Orleans shortly after Washington's loss to Miami-Ohio there in the first round of the NCAA tournament, then later brought Bender to Nashville for an interview. Vanderbilt needed a coach after Jan van Breda Kolff resigned under pressure.

At the time, Bender was one of the hotter names in coaching, having led the Huskies out of the mire of the Lynn Nance era to four straight postseason appearances.

"Early in the process, he was the main target of our search," Turner said. "I would say he was moderately interested at first and the more we talked, the more I got him interested in it and then he made a visit to Nashville."

After several days of deliberation — and stories in Seattle newspapers indicating that Bender was all but gone — Bender decided to stay.

Turner won't go into detail about what happened with Bender, saying only that "we just decided it probably wasn't going to work out."

Turner then turned to Stallings, who was coaching at Illinois State — ironically, having succeeded Bender when Bender became Washington's coach in 1993.

Turner, though, said Stallings shouldn't be viewed as just a fallback candidate.

"He was not on my list initially because I didn't think he was available," Turner said of Stallings, who was a longtime assistant under Roy Williams at Kansas before taking over at Illinois State, where he went 123-63 in six seasons.

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Stallings said Friday he initially wasn't real interested in the job but became more attracted to it the more Turned talked.

"I had a good feeling with him, and that's why I became excited about becoming the coach," Stallings said.

In hindsight, Bender probably wishes he'd taken the job.

Bender couldn't keep the momentum at UW after the loss of Todd MacCulloch and Donald Watts to graduation and was fired three years later, paving the way for Lorenzo Romar to become coach, and opening the door for one of the greatest eras in Huskies basketball. Bender is now an assistant coach with the Atlanta Hawks.

Turner pondered what might have happened if things had turned out differently eight years ago.

"All things work out for the better," Turner said. "I think Vanderbilt got the best coach it could possibly get in Kevin and Washington is really well served with Lorenzo as our head coach."

Stallings worked under Turner until 2003, when Vanderbilt restructured its athletic department and dissolved the job of athletic director.

Out of work and wanting to get back in the field, Turner became UW's AD the next year.

Stallings and Turner, however, remain close, and Turner's son, Drew, and Stallings' son, Jacob, are good friends. "They probably text-messaged each other four or five times during the game [Thursday]," Stallings said.

Not that everyone in Nashville has always loved Turner's hire of Stallings.

Stallings made just one NCAA tournament appearance in his first seven years at Vanderbilt — a Sweet 16 run in 2004 — and this year began slowly when Vanderbilt started 1-3, including a home loss to Furman.

"I thought I might be getting fired," Stallings said Friday.

But led by SEC player of the year Derrick Byars, the Commodores rallied to get an at-large bid, going 10-6 to finish second in the SEC West behind defending national champion Florida, then blasted George Washington 77-44 in the first round Thursday.

Turner thinks those in Nashville should appreciate Stallings, saying the school's academic standards and the strength of the SEC make the job one that will always be "definitely challenging."

"When he got off to a bad start this year, it didn't surprise me in the least that they righted themselves," Turner said. "He's such a warrior. There is no give-up in that guy."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com. Read his blogs on Washington football and basketball at www.seattletimes.com/huskies.

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