Now that we are at the halfway mark of Paul Chryst’s contract to be the head football coach at PITT and entering his third season in that position, it is a good point in time to step back and take a semi-detached look at where the football program was, is now and what the future looks like.
There is no real need to get into the details, weeds, swamp or muck about what has transpired at PITT after the 2009 season. We PITT fans know the history like the back of our hand. But, for clarity it is important to understand the situation PITT was in, why we were in it and what Chryst stepped into as his first job as a head coach.
The upshot is that when PITT offered Chryst the head job we had just run through four different ‘real’ HCs in the 13 month period after Dave Wannstedt was fired (the slowest firing in the history of football by the way). Four head coaches in a bit over one year might have been a Guinness World Record. Granted a couple of those HCs were blips on the radar; Mike Haywood didn’t even have time to buy any PITT gear before he was fired and Todd Graham, he of the “High Octane” offense, lasted one season before he pulled chocks and left in the dead of night. Trey Anderson said it best with this quote “I take a nap for 2 hours; wake up to find out my head coach is gone.”
We can debate forever the wisdom of firing Wannstedt after his run as the most successful coach in the last 25 years. Then again PITT has a track record of jettisoning and/or not fighting to keep successful head coaches. The decision making in dealing with Jackie Sherrill right up through Walt Harris and ending with Dave Wannstedt are examples of PITT’s administration acting in ways some fans don’t understand or agree with. Whether it isn’t offering a truly competitive salary (Sherrill) or firing for cause including issues external to football itself (Harris and Wannstedt), PITT has danced to the beat of its own drum.
Those decisions angered PITT fans royally when they happened but that antagonism has been tamped down now that we are able to look at them with some distance in our rear view mirror, you know – the rear view mirror you have with the nine national championship mini-trophies dangling from it.
After the 2010 season PITT administration considered Chryst for the top job but then went in a different direction, straight into hell actually. I feel we’d all be a happier bunch had our Athletic Director Steve Pederson and Chancellor Mark Nordenberg hired Chryst back in early 2011 instead of choosing the demon Beelzebub. It is reasonable to think that this year we’d be starting Chryst’s fourth season and, I’m projecting now, most probably satisfied with the direction of the program.
Which brings us to the meat of this article; ‘What position is PITT football in with our current athletic department, coaching staff and player personnel?’ Onto the fun stuff…
Chryst was hired with strong direction from the university’s administration to change both the football program’s shortcomings in play and the negative perception the public, including some of our own fans, had developed of the program. There is no doubt the coaching carousel had a harmful impact to our football reputation but also impacted negatively on the recruiting front; two things a winning program needs in order to have continued success. Big money donors don’t just want a victorious team; they also need to know that their money is indeed going to a good cause. Our fans want to know that the university is adhering to the tenets of student-athlete traditions while striving to win on the field of play. Additionally, we all want the local and national sports media to point to PITT’s glorious football past of pre-World War II and the 1976 through the 1983 seasons but also have PITT be part of the current national conversations about college football.
Has this happened yet? I believe it’s getting there. Every season that passes and we don’t have negative headlines is a good year for us, sad to say. Setting aside normal occurrences that any major college program has with suspensions and transfers, PITT has been on an even keel since Chryst’s hire. Some might say that the keel is too even considering Chryst has a perfect 13-13 wins and losses. Others look at the 360 degrees of the program and see tangible advances.
A college head coach who understands and believes that he is truly a key component in his employing university’s life looks at his responsibilities through a wider lens than seeing only the boundaries of a football field. Paul Chryst is this kind of coach. You can tell from his recruiting choices and his expanding walk-on program that academic ability is an important part of the staff’s player evaluation process. He has stated this publically and then has put it into action.
One who thinks this is unnecessary, or not desirable, because they believe the only job a head coach has is to win football games has a limited view of the situation in my opinion. Having players who are both good students and skilled athletes on the roster impacts the program in many ways. The ability to grasp and execute schemes, the detailed playbook and the program’s student-athlete policies helps to strengthen the leadership of those who are confident in reaching out to help underclassmen or the players who haven’t had a chance to play much yet. We fans talk a lot about the impact a positive atmosphere in the locker room has on the team’s identity and thus its accomplishments and this is an example of creating that.
With all that said the true test for any head coach is the ability to mold a roster full of those young adults he’s bringing to PITT into a winning team, preferably a championship one. Whether or not Chryst has done that yet isn’t in question because he hasn’t and it won’t get answered until we get through this 2014 season, hopefully with more wins than losses. Most PITT fans understand that the situation at PITT Chryst inherited would take some time to stabilize and then turn into a constant winning program. I think I speak for all of us in saying that 2014 has to be a winning season for us to stay optimistic about Chryst’s actual coaching abilities.
It was evident from the start of Chryst’s time at PITT that he wanted to remold the team into his own, with the roster and his two-deep lineup of players and with the reset of how the team and staff planned to play their opponents. We have read that PITT has the youngest roster in D1 football this year and that didn’t happen by accident. Chryst had a longer range vision of the team’s progress than many fans wanted, but he still recruited and played his own players as soon as possible. We addressed this issue in an earlier Blather piece when we looked at the attrition that has happened under this staff since December of 2012.
To quote from that article:
“That is at least 21 players (if my memory serves) and 21 scholarships Chryst had to use for more of his own recruits. That is also a 25% turnover generated by circumstances aside from the normal end of career attrition. You can assume that many of those recruited in place of the departed will get decent PT this year, especially when it happened last season as Chryst fielded 19 FR and true SO kids who were his recruits on the two deep listing. That folks is a young ass team and exactly how Chryst is building for the 2015 season and beyond.”
That is a bold move especially from a guy who is in his first ‘Big Boy” job. Of course it always begs the question similar to the chicken and the egg; did Chryst want to start playing FR and SOs right away or was he forced into it through lack of talent on hand and the recent departures?
I think the answer lies more on the first side of that equation because a lot of those player’s departures and transfers were accomplished ‘with a little help from their friends’ much like we see Coles doing now. In doing that Chryst knew that in his first two years on the job he’d be playing kids not far removed from high school.
This article so far has been about the underpinnings of the football program and what we’ve seen occur in the past two years. But what plan does Chryst have moving forward and playing the games with his current personnel? We all know that players play the game and if a coach doesn’t get the right fits there is usually a big problem.
I’ve stated before that IMO PC’s approach to recruiting has followed the Wisconsin model and that is to get the highest talent, most highly rated kids he can for the skill positions on offense. We have been watching that take place going back to his work keeping Voytik committed after Graham split. That was an interesting action in that Voytik really didn’t fit the mold of almost all the QBs Chryst worked with as the OC at Wisconsin. Forget about Russell Wilson in that discussion of QB types; Wilson reached out to Chryst and Wisconsin specifically to have Chryst tutor him in the NFL’s pocket passer style of play.
With that successful endeavor behind him Chryst knew that he could teach Voytik to take his natural talent and develop a different style himself. SoChrystwanted Voytik to stay at PITT as a QB he could start working with him right away and the fruits will pay off this season. The recruitment of QB Adam Bertke might be the steal of the 2014 recruiting class. Give him this year to redshirt and we’ll see some good play from him.
Our recruiting of the OL and the RBs has had the same emphasis. Everyone thinks Chryst recruited Conner as a DE but I believe it is more likely that position was only what the recruiting services projected Conner as playing in college. It could be that Conner was destined at RB as soon as he set foot on campus and the departure of Shell sped that process up. Either way he’s a good one with three more years to play. Grabbing Chris James was a coup and those dividends will pay sooner rather than later; Qadree Ollison is showing what he can do and making it hard to redshirt him given his eye opening play in camp and the recent commitment from Darrin Hall continues the string of solid and talented backs.
Our WR corps is supremely talented and also very, very young. Sophomore Tyler Boyd needs no explanation as he’s already hit stardom. Perhaps the most anticipated true freshman on the roster is Adonis Jennings who, with his raw talent, could easily replicate what we lost in the departure of Street at least as far as number of catches (51) and number of TDs (7). Jennings will be the 3rd receiver within a few weeks of play.
Personally, even with the striking talent of Conner and Boyd, the unit I’m most looking forward to watching over the next few years is the offensive line and the young recruits we’ve brought in to bolster it. This year’s version will be advanced over 2013 I think but the real production from the young OL kids will be 2015-2017.
Youngsters Dorian Johnson (5*), Adam Bisnowaty (4*), Alex Bookser (4*), Mike Grimm (4*) and Jaryd-Jones Smith, who has kicked ass in camp, make an excellent nucleus to construct a talented two-deep around. These kids may just have a chance to replicate some of our OL glory years of the 1980s.
When looking at how the future PITT football teams are being built today one of Chryst’s better decisions was to use scholarships on kickers and then land two kids who were nationally ranked recruits. Chris Blewitt and Ryan Winslow are a SO and a rsFR respectively. Both are good and will be with us for years.
That’s the offense and I feel very satisfied with the personnel we have now but especially with the future starting lineups. The defense is harder for me to project as my opinion is that defense relies more on proper schemes and game planning than it does on individual player’s skills, so I won’t do it except to say it will be a question mark.
Which now brings us to the biggest question marks of all when discussing the current and future state of the football program, the coaching staff. My feeling is that I’m perfectly OK with how Paul Chryst has run the program off the field up to this point. Regarding his direct impact on our won-lost record is harder to gauge. As a first timer in the head coaching ranks I think it is safe to say he was learning on the job over his first two years. He made some glaring mistakes in clock management and some head scratching wins and losses.
From a loss to YSU and a win against VT in ’12 to losses to Navy and North Carolina and a win over ND last season this team has been maddeningly inconsistent and part of that is due the coaching itself starting with the HC. Chryst doesn’t have a hard time getting his players both up for the game and giving 100% during it. We saw just the opposite at time from his two predecessors when the team seemed to mail it in after falling behind in some games. That hasn’t happened with Chryst and I don’t expect it to.
It’s now year three and there can’t be anymore ‘new to the job’ reasons for not winning a football game. Chryst has his players in place, albeit their young ages. He has tweaked his coaching staff and it appears to be pretty well set as far as the OC and position coaches go. We lost a very good WR coach in Bobby Engram but picked up three good ones in Lewis (WRs), Settle (RBs) Palermo (DEs) and Douglas (Secondary). From what I gather this is a staff that Chryst wants to keep together as long as he can and after two years of tweaking it he has the personnel he feels comfortable with.
Of course the elephant in the room for this season and then for 2015 is how well our Defensive Coordinator, Matt House, does after his initial season in the position last year. I truly don’t know what to say about this except we need to watch and see how this season’s defense turns out before we can pass any real judgment on his abilities as a DC.
To summarize all of this I think we’ve a pretty bright future ahead of us both as an overall football program and with the teams we’ll field in competition. I’m the type of fan who cares as much about what happens off the field as on it and I think we’ve got a good handle on that now. I look at the roster and see not just youth but talented and smart young players who have their best years in front of them. Along with them we have some experienced upperclassmen showing the younger kids how to do things the right way and how to conduct themselves as student-athletes.
Finally I see a head coach who appears to really enjoy not only being the leader of the football program and a mentor to 100+ impressionable players but who also truly enjoys being associated with the University of Pittsburgh and the city itself. That is no small matter of importance. We have struggled by over the last three years and yet still maintained a decent won- loss record considering what could have been the start of a real downward slide. I’m an optimist at heart but even setting that aside I feel good about the program because I think some hard decisions had to be made and were and some good decisions in different areas of the program followed. I like what I see and am looking forward to this season unfolding and watching how the following years shape up.