WILF: Why the Mark Byington hire should bring donors back to Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball

The NIL market is very much like the Wild West and Vanderbilt needs donations toward its NIL fund more than ever before.
Mark Byington walks at his opening press conference on March 28, 2024. (Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics)
Mark Byington walks at his opening press conference on March 28, 2024. (Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics)
Vanderbilt Athletics

Mark Byington was named Vanderbilt’s next Men’s Basketball head coach on March 25, 2024. The hiring came 10 days after Vanderbilt and Jerry Stackhouse parted ways. Stackhouse, who coached the Commodores from 2019 to 2024, had a 70–92 record at Vanderbilt and failed to lead his team to an NCAA Tournament appearance. 

Byington, the 29th head coach in Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball history, will look to bring the Commodores back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2016-17 season. Vanderbilt’s seven-season dry spell from the NCAA Tournament is the longest time the Commodores have gone without making the Big Dance since the 1986-87 season.

When Stackhouse was hired in 2019, he had no prior experience coaching collegiate athletes. Byington, on the other hand, has 11 years of head coaching experience at the D-1 level. The Virginia native most recently led the James Madison Dukes to an NCAA Tournament victory over the Wisconsin Badgers en route to a 32-4 season. During Byington’s four-year tenure at JMU, he won 61.6% of his games coached.

Byington also served as Georgia Southern’s head coach for seven seasons, where he had four years with at least 20 wins. Byington’s resume is highly regarded in the college basketball circuit. While he has plenty of success at the collegiate level, he has yet to coach a team in the Power Six. His time has come and he will now be tasked with loading up a roster ready to compete in the SEC.

Aside from the 2022-23 season, Vanderbilt has struggled to make much noise in the SEC over the past five years. The Commodores went 28-60 in SEC play during Stackhouse’s tenure as head coach. In most of these games, especially this past season, Vanderbilt had a clear talent disadvantage with its SEC counterparts.

After Vanderbilt’s 22-win season two years ago, which featured an 11-7 record in conference play and a semifinal appearance in the SEC tournament, the Commodores lost many of its key contributors. Liam Robbins, a seven-foot center who led Vanderbilt with 15 points per game, was signed as an undrafted free agent by the New Orleans Pelicans. Jordan Wright, a forward who scored 1182 points at Vanderbilt across four seasons, elected to use his final year of eligibility at LSU.

The Commodores’ main offseason acquisition came on June 1, 2023, when Tyrin Lawrence returned to Vanderbilt. Lawrence’s return came at the hands of a big push from Vanderbilt’s NIL collective, Anchor Impact. Lawrence was back on Vanderbilt’s roster to command a backcourt with fellow veteran Ezra Manjon. 

Vanderbilt’s offseason included adding Ven Allen-Lubin and Tasos Kameteros, who were both players that could fill the void lost by Robbins and Quentin-Millora Brown’s departures. The Commodores also signed Evan Taylor to replace Jordan Wright. Taylor, despite averaging 14.2 points and 6.5 rebounds while shooting 43% from deep for Lehigh, was a clear downgrade from Wright.

This past season, Wright had 15.1 points per game and led LSU in rebounds with 5.2 rebounds per game. Evan Taylor, who came to Vanderbilt as a sharpshooter from the 3-point line, was 45-of-146 (30.8%) from beyond the arc this season. 

Taylor was asked to fill a role too big for an SEC basketball team. Vanderbilt, if it had the donations from its alumni and fans like its SEC counterparts did last season, could have been able to attempt to replace a player like Wright with Dalton Knecht. As teams like Ole Miss brought in Allen Flanigan and Kentucky brought in Tre Mitchell, the Commodores brought in Taylor. 

The NIL market is very much like the Wild West where there are not many rules. In today’s college basketball, teams win by paying to play. 

— Andrew Wilf

Since the NCAA put NIL rights into effect on July 1, 2021, the disparity between Vanderbilt and its SEC counterparts has been further highlighted in men’s basketball. The Athletic’s definition of NIL states: “NIL stands for ‘name, image and likeness’ and has become the universal shorthand for college athletes’ ability to become paid endorsers and monetize their success outside of their school-funded scholarships and benefits.”

While Stackhouse may have been dealt a bad hand with a roster not nearly at the same level as most of its SEC opponents, I speculate that a key reason for Stackhouse’s departure was due to Vanderbilt’s key backers wanting a new face at the helm.

The NIL market is very much like the Wild West — there are not many rules. In today’s college basketball, teams win by paying to play. 

I suspect that Vanderbilt believed that hiring a coach with proven NCAA coaching success would increase donors and allocations toward Anchor Impact. 

“We have all that we need to be the powerhouse program that we all desire,” athletic director Candice Storey Lee said at Byington’s introductory press conference. “ When we are firing on all cylinders, it’s good for this campus, it’s good for this city and it’s good for the SEC. Most of all, it’s what we deserve. In particular, our student-athletes.”

Lee also mentioned the effects of the Vandy United campaign, a $300 million investment initiative for athletics. The campaign will include a state-of-the-art Basketball Operations Center, which will feature a new weight room, an athletic training facility, new locker rooms and two practice gyms. 

“From a facilities point of view, we were not competitive,” chancellor Daniel Diermier told The Hustler. “That was true for our student-athletes and from the fan experience, and we found that Vandy United allowed us to address both.”

College sports today are pay-for-play. Last season, Vanderbilt did not have the financial funds to develop a roster to consistently compete with its rivals. Maybe with Byington at the help and the “Vandy United” campaign in full effect, more significant donations will come to give to West End.

The Commodore faithful hope that Byington will help spark new energy and inspire recruits across the nation to come to Vanderbilt. While the Commodores may have been at an NIL disadvantage for the past few seasons, this offseason feels different.

Vanderbilt is still a top-20 academic institution, in the heart of Nashville and in the SEC. In Byington’s short tenure as head coach, he has already secured three transfer recruits: Jaylen Carey, Tyler Nickel, MJ Collins and Grant Huffman. While it is undisclosed information, it can be assumed that all of these players were signed thanks to Vanderbilt’s commitment to NIL spending this offseason.

Now, the alumni base and all people who support the Commodores’ athletic pursuits will need to go into their pockets and provide Byington with a roster good enough to compete. 

— Andrew Wilf

While the Commodores likely remain behind their SEC opponents from a NIL viewpoint, especially state-rival Tennessee, a revamped roster and newfound energy via the Byington hire could result in a resurgence of donations.

“The way you get players now is totally different than the way you got players four years ago,” former Oklahoma State basketball coach Mike Boynton said

Aside from not having the NIL ​​ammunition to its SEC rivals such as Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas and Auburn, Vanderbilt’s academic requirements also harness the Commodores. 

Two of the best senior transfers in the NCAA this year were Kansas’s Hunter Dickinson and Arizona’s Caleb Love. Vanderbilt — even if it had the financial means to go out and get any of these players — would have a nearly impossible selling point because you cannot graduate with a Vanderbilt degree in one year.

A similar school to Vanderbilt with a comparable level of competitive rigor amongst Power Five schools is Duke. Duke — ranked the No. 9 national university according to U.S. News —  permits transfer students to graduate with a Duke undergraduate degree as long as they take 17 credit hours. From a sheer academic point-of-view, a school like Duke is at an advantage when getting upperclassmen to commit compared to Vanderbilt due to its relaxed hour requirements for transfer students. Syracuse, which is another private university in the ACC, requires 30 hours on campus to graduate. 

While changing academic requirements to cater to junior and senior transfers might help Vanderbilt in the short term, NIL should remain the main priority on West End.

I believe that the “Vandy United” campaign highlights that Vanderbilt is committed to winning at the highest level. 

Now, the alumni base and all people who support the Commodores’ athletic pursuits will need to go into their pockets and provide Byington with a roster good enough to compete. 

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About the Contributor
Andrew Wilf
Andrew Wilf, Former Sports Editor
Andrew Wilf (’24) is Sports Editor for The Vanderbilt Hustler. He is from Livingston, N.J., and is majoring in history and minoring in business. He joined the sports staff his freshman year, previously serving as a Staff Writer, Assistant Sports Editor and Deputy Sports Editor. Beyond writing for The Hustler, he is also the host of Anchor Analysis, Commodore Clash and Live From West End. In his free time, Andrew enjoys watching the NFL and playing golf. He can be reached at [email protected].
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