02 April 2012
Finding the right adjective to describe Pitt football's 2011 is challenging. "Turbulent" fits, but it really doesn't seem gloomy enough. "Disastrous" seems closer to the mark, but maybe a bit over the top considering expectations were generally pretty low for the season. But however you want to describe it, 2011 was a terrible year for Pitt football.
Firing Wannstedt in December of 2010 needed to be done. The program's momentum had stalled out after some moderate success. The off-the-field issues didn't help and actually seemed to be the nail in the coffin. The firing of Wannstedt was messy. The players loved him. A lot of the media liked him. He was a good face of the program and fit the whole "My City. My Panthers." mantra that the athletic department pushes to build a non-Pitt grad fanbase in the region. But it was clear after Jordan Todman converted on fourth down on a November night in East Hartford - and even clearer as WVU dropped the hammer the day after Thanksgiving - that Pitt had to make a change.
But that change has taken Pitt on an unprecedented spiral of bad news, bad decisions and bad luck. With one decision - the correct decision in my opinion - Pitt went from a relatively stable, albeit average program to a national joke complete with colorful characters. Mike Haywood. Penni Graham. The Fraud. Mike Norvell. "High Octane" transformed from a catchphrase to a punch-line. In the course of 13 months, Pitt had six head coaches. Six.
So here we are with coach #6. Paul Chryst. A near universally praised hire. But that doesn't mean huge challenges don't remain. Two years of hectic recruiting has left the offensive line woefully thin. Artie Rowell is the only offensive linemen in two classes. Besides Rowell, there's only two players with even underclassmen eligibility: Matt Rotheram and transfer Tom Ricketts. There are serious question marks at quarterback, receiver and linebacker. Depth remains at huge issue in both lines. There's enough work cut out for Chryst and his staff.
But not all is lost. Chryst wasn't my pick out of the finalists, but he's certainly winning converts (via the Trib):
Chryst won't coach a game for the Panthers until the Sept. 1 opener against Youngstown State. For all we know, he could be awful. He was a winning offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, but this is his first head coaching job. He could get run off like Dave Wannstedt for failing to win the big one. He could flee like Graham, with only a trail of cowardly texts to prove he was ever here.
But I don't think so.
Forget how Chryst immediately connects at the Pittsburgh level with his no-nonsense, "this ain't rocket science" approach.
Forget that, in lieu of posing for pictures to adorn the sides of Port Authority buses, he said this in our lengthy talk Thursday: "Truthfully, I think these players can help me grow as a head coach as much as I can help them."
Instead, just look at what's happening around Chryst.
On this day, it was the players most vocally engaged in full-contact scrimmages. They challenged, admonished, even shoved each other to make points. They tackled as if it were late November in Morgantown.
Sure, there was prodding from the staff — Chryst himself reamed out the defense after one early lapse — but the noise came mostly from a group of athletes that appears to have rediscovered its voice.
"This is all about the players," Jacobson said. "That's No. 1 with Coach. He wants to bring out the best in us. That trust is there."
In a lot of respects, he's similar to Wannstedt. It's an easy comparison to make with the contrast of Todd Graham sandwiched in the middle. But unlike Wannstedt, it seems as if the emphasis for Chryst is teaching the game. That's not to say that Wannstedt didn't do it - it would be silly to argue that DW's staff didn't do any actual coaching - but the emphasis for Chryst seems to be "coaching up" his players. On getting everything you can out of every position even if recruiting isn't filled with the "stars" of past classes. Chryst and Bielema built Wisconsin into a Big Ten champion out of mostly three star recruits who they turned in to all-conference players.
And reteaching the game how they want it played seems to be a recurring theme of the spring (via the PG):
That is mostly because this spring has been more about teaching fundamentals and basics, and evaluating team strengths rather than installing a system. As a result, the players are learning and progressing.
"I think the best thing about this spring is the coaches have high expectations for us and are pushing us, but they also are breaking it down so we can understand things and improve our skills," Pitt senior guard Chris Jacobson said.
"There is really an emphasis on getting us better and working on our footwork, on our fundamentals. We are indeed learning the new offense, but it has been in bits and pieces."
Chryst has said throughout the spring that he has seen plenty of evidence the players are learning and improving, but he also has seen some setbacks.
Offensively, the Panthers have been a bit sluggish at times and the quarterbacks have yet to distinguish themselves, but Chryst noted that they are learning a new system and it takes time for an offense to come together. That's why he has been adamant that the focus of his staff remain on teaching, not installing.
Ultimately, however, the players have to put into practice what has been taught.
"It's a broken record, but it's true. There's some good teaching, and some of the teaching is what you're doing during the playing," Chryst said. "I think it's important how you're responding after the plays. If you learn from it, it's a good day. There are some things where we need to keep going and grinding."
No idea if Chryst will be a good head coach. He may be a colossal failure. But right now, in a weak conference with low expectations, Pitt still has a lot of relative talent on the field. Cautious optimism is warranted.
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