In Year 3 of Chryst, I don’t think there is yet a settled answer on Coach Paul Chryst. Some may have made up their mind about him one way or another, but I am definitely not one of them. There’s plenty I do like about him: the way he runs the program, the actual coaching, the message, the way he is building the team from the lines out. And there’s plenty that — to be kind — that I question. His hiring practices and recruiting being the biggest.
I think that unless Chryst had stayed at Wisconsin and taken over directly from Brett Bielema, he was going to be doing a full rebuild no matter what program he took over. He would have been determined to make the program the way he wanted. Even if it meant tearing some aspects down. That just seems to be the kind of coach he is. Given the state of Pitt when he arrived, that was fine.
The piece in the P-G today was a very positive one on the way he has been building the team and relations back for Pitt football. We all know the story by now. The coaching chaos. The lost recruiting classes. The mass transfers.
Chryst has done a solid job of rebuilding relations with WPIAL coaches who were still butthurt over Dave Wannstedt being fired.
Like most local coaches, Shady Side Academy’s Dave Havern was a fan of former Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt and was put off by the smooth-talking Graham in his one-year tenure.
It didn’t take long, though, for Chryst to win him over.
“I’m probably not real ready to welcome the new guy with open arms,” Havern, who played at Pitt in the late 1960s and early 1970s, said. “So you take that into consideration, not that I’m anything special, but he had to impress the hell out of me because of what the other guys had done. That speaks more for Paul that he came in and, at least in my case, I just felt eminently comfortable with him and his staff.”
For Woodland Hills coach George Novak, one telling moment came a few weeks back when he invited Chryst to speak at a football camp for young adults with Down syndrome. Not only did Chryst come, but he also stuck around for hours playing catch with the campers.
“I think he’s doing things the right way,” Novak said. “I think what he’s done with the high schools is good.”
The repairing of relationships has helped land good talent locally. At the same time, there were some notable misses. The aftermath back from January led to this Kevin Gorman column that pointed out that good relationships with the local coaches does not necessarily translate into getting their players.
After watching Aliquippa cornerback Dravon Henry pick West Virginia last week, the past two days have done nothing to alleviate that fear.
On Thursday, Pitt lost Gateway safety Montae Nicholson to Michigan State. On Friday, the Panthers lost Washington tailback Shai McKenzie to Virginia Tech.
“I think, perceptually, it’s not good,” Rivals.com national recruiting director Mike Farrell said. “It’s not like the kids are doing it on national television, but it sends a message that they can’t keep the kids home. I think they’ve done a pretty good job keeping kids home for the most part, but those definitely sting. People have the right to freak out.”
“The two best guys in Western Pennsylvania,” Farrell said, “are Dravon Henry and (Thomas Jefferson linebacker) Chase Winovich.”
Both are from pipeline programs. Neither picked Pitt.
That’s not just bad for perception but also reality. Pitt must own its backyard every year.
Many of Pitt’s best players of the past decade, from Tyler Palko and Darrelle Revis to Scott McKillop and Dorin Dickerson to Jon Baldwin and Aaron Donald, are Western Pennsylvania products.
In the cases of Dravon Henry and Shai McKenzie, losing them was annoying. But the real anger came from comments directed at Pitt by them or family members.
The article fairly pointed out the very good local signings. It was simply overshadowed by big misses late in the recruiting cycle. After the season, when the only football discussion centers around recruiting.
Most sports writers start out covering high school sports. In Pittsburgh, most of the media has local ties so they are especially biased to the local players and love seeing the local players do well. They have longer, better relationships with them. It makes getting the story easier; and whether they admit it or not, they are biased towards them because of it.
As a result, there is a bit of overstating the local player importance. We all know the demographics of the region at this point. Pitt can be a good team if they focus only locally. But they need to be wider in their recruiting if they expect to compete at a higher level.
As I stated at the beginning. There really should be no true judgment on Chryst — yet. That is changing. He’s got a lot more of his players in place. The coaching staff has shifted, and he has made all the calls. The team may be young, but it is definitely his at this point.
Fair or not, though, year 3 is when the opinions will start to harden.