Not that there’s anything wrong with Denny’s restaurants, but dining alone at the 24-hour diner on Christmas Day is probably not the event most would expect to ignite the Christmas spirit.
And it didn’t instantly make Vanderbilt basketball coach Kevin Stallings all warm and fuzzy inside on that long ago December evening in 1981. But it did change him. For the better. And permanently.
“I was still playing at Purdue,” he said Thursday. “I didn’t have the money to drive the five hours home to Illinois, so I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day alone in my dorm room.
“The only place I could find open to eat was Denny’s, and I barely had enough money to pay for my meal. I don’t remember what I ate, just that none of it tasted very good to me. It was one of the most depressing and lonely days of my whole life.”
But out of that dark moment came a cozy and caring idea. If Stallings was ever fortunate enough to run his own program, none of his players would ever be forced to eat alone at Denny’s or any other restaurant or dormitory during the holiday season.
“Because of that night, I was determined that my kids [players] would have Christmas with their families, if at all possible. And if not, they’d be with somebody’s family or my family on Christmas. But wherever they were, they would never have to spend Christmas alone in a dorm room.”
He could have seen it all differently. Though the 51-year-old Stallings has always insisted his family “wasn’t destitute or anything,” he’ll also say, “We didn’t have a lot of money. My experiences with Christmas are far different as an adult than a child, though.”
It wasn’t a childhood of poverty. His father took him to St. Louis Cardinals baseball games at least once a summer. His favorite Christmas present as a child was a white Schwinn bike he called a “cotton picker.”
Still, if money was tight enough that it was tough to find gas money home for the holidays, Stallings wasn’t awakening on Christmas morning to find a giant red bow attached to a BMW in his family’s driveway.
Yet he obviously never grew bitter or jaded or disillusioned for what he didn’t have. He didn’t bah-humbug his way through the holidays. Instead, he and wife Lisa set out to make their own family traditions with their children: Jacob, Alexa and Jordyn.
“Our youngest is 11 now,” he said, “And we still make room for the Elf on the Shelf.”
For those unaware of the Elf on the Shelf, it reports to Santa each night between the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, informing the big fellow about the behavior of the children in the house the previous 24 hours. He returns each day when no one is looking to a different spot in the home to monitor the kids silently.
That Stallings so enthusiastically embraces the elf says a lot about the coach and his Christmas spirit.
Not that he loves everything about Christmas. When it comes to the prospect of eating turkey and dressing, he stops with the bird.
“I absolutely detest dressing,” he said, laughing. “That’s just one thing I’ve never been able to eat. I don’t even like the smell of it.”
But otherwise, he’s about as into Christmas as Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman and the partridge in a pear tree combined.
“Christmas,” he said, joy apparent in his voice, “is still an exciting time around our house.”
It will be more exciting today than some Christmases because of the presence of at least two Commodores far from their homes — forward Lance Goulbourne from Brooklyn, N.Y., and forward Jeffery Taylor from Sweden.
“If my team is either with their family or with us, I’m happy,” Stallings said. “I’m never playing a game somewhere at Christmas. Christmas is at my house.”
This isn’t to place Stallings as the lone caring coach. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s John Shulman has long entertained various Mocs at his home over the holidays. Tennessee’s Cuonzo Martin is similarly known for his big heart. Kentucky’s John Calipari is another who tries to avoid scheduling any games too close to Dec. 25.
And the words of Vanderbilt’s Goulbourne show why such thoughtfulness is so appreciated.
Said the VU senior: “It’s great to have a place away from home to go and celebrate the Christmas holiday. As much as I’d like to be home this time of year, it’s really nice of Coach Stallings and his family to open his home to me and other players.”
Because if you can’t be in your home for the holidays, being asked to be in anyone’s home is really what the spirit of Christmas always has been about.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...