Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Why Pitt is Failing- and How They Can Succeed

It's been over thirty years since Jackie Sherrill left the University of Pittsburgh for Texas A&M University and the Pitt football program has never recovered. In the 33 seasons since Sherrill left, including this season, Pitt finished in the top 25 just six times. They've also only finished in the top 10 just once and that was No. 10 the year after Sherrill left. After that there have been three decades of mediocrity for Pitt. Why, and what can be done, if anything, to change this long futility? What does the program possess that could help them be a power, and what does it need that it doesn't have now? And most importantly, will the university ever identify and then improve on their weaknesses? Some of those answers follow.

What Pitt has:

1.  Tradition- At first this seems contradictory to what I've already written and what will follow, but believe it not Pitt does have tradition. Western Pennsylvania loves football, and Pitt is still the most popular college football in the area. The high school kids now haven't experienced Pitt at their best, but their parents, coaches, teachers, uncles, etc. grew up with, and have an affection for, Pitt. Good luck talking to any Pittsburgh sports fan that doesn't wax poetic about Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino, Ironhead Hayward, Larry Fitzgerald, and many others. 

2.  Recruiting area- We've heard many times that the Pittsburgh area doesn't have the same amount of top prospects now than they did in the 1970s, and that's true, but it's also an overrated problem. Even in the loaded 70s and early 80s, the program usually would only land 7 or 8 WPIAL prospects, not the 20 that many assume. But then most of the top prospects went to Pitt. Very few were lost to an outside program, including Penn State. 

If the Panthers landed the top programs in the WPIAL from recent years, Aaron Donald would have been paired with Delvon Simmons at defensive tackle, instead of having to be a one man wrecking crew. Simmons went to Texas Tech and currently is at USC where he's starring. Robert Foster and Troy Apke would join Tyler Boyd at wide receiver instead of Boyd being the only wide receiver that is currently capable of producing. The current weak secondary would be loaded with Demetrious Cox, Montae Nicholson, Malik Hooker, and Dravon Henry. Chase Winovich and Khaleke Hudson would be huge additions to the future linebacker corps. 

Paul Chryst has landed some good WPIAL prospects, and even a few excellent ones, but most of the top five prospects from the WPIAL, i.e. the ones with great options, usually go elsewhere. This also happened to a lesser degree with Dave Wannstedt, too. When Pitt was a top program, it wasn't even an option for most kids to go elsewhere. There was an excellent program right in their own backyard so why go anywhere else? 

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that Pitt can live with local prospects alone. But the elite Pitt teams didn't either. Many of the best Pitt players ever came from outside the WPIAL. And that's what Pitt still has to do but that's possible because the recruiting regions outside of western PA are still good. There are many excellent players in eastern PA, Washington, DC, Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina, Michigan, and of course like everybody else, Pitt can try to get players out of the unbelievably fertile state of Florida.

3. Conference- The ACC has been a disappointment as a football conference, but it's still a Power 5 conference, and any football program in one of the five major conferences should be capable of being at least a top 25 program. In other words, Pitt is one of the haves in the college football world when it comes to a conference. That's a huge advantage. Just ask UConn or Cincinnati. 

4. Campus and city- Not every kid wants to go to school in a city but on the other hand many do. And it's a world class city at that. Any real Pittsburgher knows that the city routinely finds itself on favorable top 10 lists. In fact, hardly a month goes by that Pittsburgh doesn't find itself on a top 10 list that shows how awesome the city is. Enormous advantages can be gained by going to school in a major city. Do you want to be an FBI agent some day? Well, as luck would have it, you can possibly intern at the Pittsburgh FBI office like some past Pitt athletes have. You want to work in medicine? Well, UPMC is one of the highest rated hospitals in the country. Law is your dream? Pick a major law firm because you'll get a lot in a major city. Bottom line, you have more career advantages in a major city like Pittsburgh than you would in someplace like Morgantown or State College. 

As for the campus, it's beautiful and dominates an entire section of an exciting, busy section of a wonderful city. The Cathedral of Learning is one of the most famous school buildings in the entire world and it rises above the horizon like a beacon. Like I said, it's not for everybody, but most kids that actually visit are very impressed by both the city and the campus.


5. Money- I get asked all the time if Pitt has the money to be a major college program. The answer is yes. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise. But having the money and the willingness to spend it are two different things.

How much money does Pitt have? Well, let's start with a 3 billion dollar endowment. No, that's not a misprint. Pitt gets 3 BILLION dollars to invest and to run the university. That's the same as the entire Penn State school system. It's also just a hair under Ohio State, one billion more than Wisconsin, 700 million more than Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Washington, three times more than West Virginia, Baylor and Iowa, and more than twice the amount of Michigan State, UCLA, Florida, Missouri, and Nebraska, just to name a few.

In a 2011 article by Forbes Magazine Pitt was rated the second fastest growing endowment of any university in the country. And it's gone up a half of a BILLION dollars since then, just three years ago. Pitt has the 29th biggest endowment in the country, as of 2013, and the 13th biggest endowment of any Power 5 conference. You read that right. Only 12 universities that play major college football in the entire country have a bigger endowment than the University of Pittsburgh. Throw in the fact that the university's tuition was also just named the highest for any public university in the nation and you should scoff at any notion that Pitt can't afford to be a major college football program.

Of course it's true that that 3 billion dollars is allocated for the university and not for just the football program. But it's naive to think that the above mentioned universities, with much less endowment, can pay significantly more for their football programs. And don't use the argument that Pitt doesn't have a Phil Knight or a T. Boone Pickens. Do you know why every college football fan knows about their extravagant donations for their respective football programs? Because it's an anomaly. They're the only two who have given obscene amounts of money for sports. No, Pitt doesn't have a single over the top booster, but neither does just about anybody else.



What Pitt has to do:

1. Spend the money- All that money is useless if the school won't spend it. And Pitt has a long history of not spending it. Remember that Jackie Sherrill reference in the first paragraph of this post? The reason he left was because Pitt wouldn't pay him to stay. That was 33 years ago. At the time they decided that Foge Fazio, a great defensive coordinator, would merely be promoted. The university figured that they could save the money it would have to pay Sherrill with the assumption that Fazio would not miss a beat. But Fazio did miss a beat, and the result is that Pitt's football program has been beat to death ever since.

The salary of every head coach that followed was just as average as the next. Even Dave Wannstedt, a big name, famous alum, and former NFL Coach of the Year, was paid an average salary for a major college program.

Pitt's style is not to pay big money for a better shot at a sure thing. Instead they try to find a sleeper that they can get for a little less money. That's okay if you have the ability to find those coaches, but Pitt can't. There have been a lot of desperate times over the last three decades when the administration really needed to step up and pay money for somebody to stop the bleeding. Instead they were thrifty each and every time.

They've never went out and outbid another school for a big time coach. Mike Gottfried was hired after he turned lowly Kansas into a 6-6 team. Paul Hackett they got cheap because he merely got promoted and had no head coaching experience. The second stint of Johnny Majors? How awful this hire was, as well as the others, will be discussed later, but for now let's just say it was a cheap hire.

After Majors' second stint Steve Pederson made what turned out to be a solid hire in Walt Harris but the program was at an all time low then. If there was ever a desperate time to pay a big time coach to come in and right the ship this was the time. A quarterback coach from Ohio State and an unsuccessful head coaching stint at Pacific really doesn't match that criteria. But against all odds, and much to his credit, Harris turned Pitt into a better than average program.

Harris was replaced by Wannstedt, who didn't command the salary that many think. He wasn't going to get paid more by anybody else because he just quit on the Miami Dolphins in midseason and people weren't lining up to hire him as their head coach. It was a good hire by Pitt, but it was also a relatively cheap one. If Wannstedt wanted to be a head coach he was not going to get better than Pitt. He was used up as far as being a head coach. After he was fired came Michael Haywood, who was coming from that college football juggernaut Miami, OH. Needless to say, he didn't cost much.

After Haywood was dismissed (more on that later), Pitt was forced to pay a little more to go back to their first choice Todd Graham.  First Pitt offered 1.3 million for Graham, an amount he was already offered at Tulsa. Apparently the Pitt administration thought their 1.3 million came in crisper bills. When Graham said no, the administration upped it to 1.6 million. Graham still balked so Pitt eventually got to nearly 2 million. Graham finally said yes.

Graham got the going rate for somebody with his resume, though it took Pitt awhile to get there. In fact, Pitt was so cheap on their first attempt that they ended up hiring Haywood instead. Their initial refusal to give Graham he was worth cost Pitt many headaches with Haywood.

Of course the university should not just throw money at a prospective head coach just to do it. It has to be the perfect candidate. But Pitt doesn't even look to take an established major college head coach. Arkansas, who has an endowment of less than one billion, paid Bret Bielema almost 3 million a year to leave Wisconsin, and also paid for his buyout. Tennessee paid Butch Jones 3.2 million to leave Cincinnati, while also supplying the buyout. Washington paid 3.4 million to Chris Petersen to leave Boise State. Cincinnati paid Tommy Tuberville 3.2 million to leave Texas Tech. Clearly Cincinnati was a school that was sick of coaches leaving and they paid a lot to a coach that was desperate to get out of Lubbock. But they wanted to make sure they got a proven winner who wouldn't leave and they made it happen by paying him accordingly.

Chryst makes 1.8 million, and because he has no track record it's understandable why he makes less than those coaches. But then that's the point. Why pay almost 2 million a year for somebody with no head coaching experience when one to one and half million more, Pitt could land a coach like Bielema, Jones, or Petersen? All three coaches were hired at schools that has a significantly lower endowment. Of course it takes more than just salary to land this level of head coach. It takes commitment in every facet. But it's the first very big sign that a program is serious.

Of course that's just one way to land a top coach. Pitt could also target the right coach from a smaller program, as Mississippi did with Hugh Freeze, Baylor did with Art Briles, or Wisconsin did with Gary Anderson. But more on that later.

As for a staff budget, since Pitt does not disclose how much they pay (pretty revealing), it's hard to say just how they compare for sure, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it's average at best. Past coordinators like Matt Cavanaugh, Phil Bennett, and Frank Cignetti, Jr., had enough on their resume that they probably got the going rate, and Joe Rudolph probably got a nice amount to follow Chryst, but it's no secret that the Panthers don't keep hot assistants for long.

Bottom line, Pitt pays what their head coaches and staffs are worth. The problem with that is, because both the head coaches and their staffs are only average they are only getting paid an average amount. It's not rocket science. You get what you pay for and what Pitt is paying for is mediocrity.

EDIT: Apparently some are misunderstanding about what I'm saying with the endowment. Just to be clear, it's not as if Pitt gets to spend 3 billion dollars. It's an investment used to run the school, give out scholarships, etc. My point is that any university with that much of an endowment has large amounts of money moving through it. That money is not necessarily for the football program, and in fact only a small percentage would be allocated for that by donors. But it is indicative of the massive amounts of money that donors give to the university. And even if that money is not for the football program per se it shows that the football program has the potential to tap into the same donors for football if the university gives them a reason to do so. In other words, the money is out there.

2. Fire the athletic director- Of all the things that the university can do immediately to get things back on track, this is the quickest. Fire Steve Pederson. Do it as soon as possible. And then don't look back. The case can't even be made that Pederson is polarizing because the truth is, he's almost universally disliked by fans, alumni, and former players.

Let's start with his decision to change Pitt's brand. This was the first sign that Pederson was completely out of touch with not only the university but also with how major college football is run. A team's brand is essential. It's so essential that Jamie Dixon resisted moving from the Big East to the ACC at first because he was worried that it would hurt the Pitt basketball brand. And that's just from moving from one excellent basketball conference to another.

A unique brand lets you stand out from the masses. Schools would kill to have a unique brand. Pitt was one of the lucky few that had one. Everybody in college sports knows of "Pitt". So what does Pederson do? He changed from "Pitt" to "Pittsburgh". No matter how many excuses Pederson makes, this was a truly awful idea. "Pitt" tells people that it's the University of Pittsburgh. "Pittsburgh" makes people think of the Steelers, rivers, and steel mills.

Then there is the stadium issue, which I will go into more detail below. The idea of sharing a practice facility was an excellent one, as was building an excellent arena for basketball and other school functions. But the move to Heinz Field is hurting the program, and Pederson's stubborn refusal to admit this is a slap in the face to anybody with a brain.

The most important job for an athletic director at most major college sports universities, including Pitt, is supplying an accomplished football program. Football is where the money is. A well run football program can help fund all of the other sports. One that is badly run can make a university bleed money. And the best way to have a successful one is by hiring an excellent head coach. Unfortunately for Pitt fans, Pederson has proven to be a disaster at the process.

Pederson's first football hire at Pitt was Harris. As I stated before Harris did a great job of getting Pitt back from embarrassment and Pederson deserves credit for that. It wasn't a home run hire, but ultimately it has to be considered a success. Harris was eventually left go by then athletic director Jeff Long after Harris went 25-13 in his last three years.

Wannstedt was hired by Long but then fired by Pederson after six seasons. Wannstedt was 42-31 at Pitt, but 25-12 in the last three seasons. Wannstedt was not Pederson's hire and it seems pretty obvious that Pederson was looking for the chance to get rid of him. That chance came when Wannstedt was 7-5 for Pitt in 2010. The two previous seasons Wannstedt was 9-4 and 10-3.

To be honest, I think the firing of a Wannstedt was a good decision. I personally called for it myself just before it happened. Wannstedt had peaked. He was not going to get the Panthers back to anything more than an occasional borderline top 25 team, and frankly Pitt has the potential to be better than that. For that reason I had no problem with firing Wannstedt if Pitt came up with somebody better. But that wasn't the case.

Not only did Pederson make an egregious error by letting Wannstedt turn his departure into a near coup at his press conference, but Pederson followed it up by "improving" the coaching situation by hiring Michael Haywood. If there's anybody out there that still questions whether or not Pederson should be fired, first pity them, then say "Michael Haywood".

Haywood was a career assistant until a two year stint at Miami, OH, had the personality of a garden slug, and had red flags in his personal life. Pederson inexplicably either didn't know about Haywood's red flags or chose to ignore it. But the red flags were known. ESPN national football writer Pat Forde reported that at least one school shied away from Haywood because of those red flags.

When I heard that Haywood was hired, I did something I've never done and that's immediately come out against it as a horrible hire. Haywood was such a bad candidate that I didn't even have him on my list of 30 possible candidates. When Haywood gave his introductory press conference the fans saw why. To call it a disaster is an understatement. Haywood babbled incoherently and at one point I'm almost positive that he was speaking in tongues. Even the Pitt players at the time were baffled by what the administration was doing. When Haywood was fired two weeks later after allegedly beating his girlfriend the current players publicly admitted that they were shocked by how incompetent Haywood seemed.

After Haywood was dismissed, Pitt was forced to go back to Graham, who Pederson wanted in the first place. Graham eventually reached a deal with Pitt after Pederson allegedly gave Graham the budget he wanted. It wasn't long before Graham, according to him, apparently realized that Pederson was not living up to his promises, and that he was not fitting in at Pitt. Obviously a lot of that is on Graham and his lack of commitment. He's a pathetic weasel. That itself does not eliminate somebody from being a head coach, obviously. There are a lot of big time coaches that are not overflowing with morals. And Graham is obviously a good coach. In fact, he's the most talent Pitt head coach since Sherrill left. But Pederson is the guy that sat down with Graham before hiring him. And his instincts told him that he was a good fit. Clearly he was wrong. A head coach and an athletic director have to have a symbiotic relationship for them to have success. But Graham and Pederson were like oil and water. Graham despised Pederson so much that he snuck out in the middle of the night, as weasels do.  But Pederson hired that weasel and should have known that two weasels don't get along well.

After Graham left, Pederson wanted Al Golden or Paul Rhoads. Golden wouldn't even talk to Pitt and Rhoads had no desire to leave his alma mater for Pitt. By this time Pederson made the Pitt coaching job a toxic situation and anybody that had options were not interested in working with Pederson. The final three of Mario Cristobal, Paul Chryst, and Luke Fickle were not exactly a scintillating trio. Even so, the apparent next in line was Cristobal, and that fell through too.

Finally, boosters got even more involved, including one that is close with Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez, who was pushing his offensive coordinator, Chryst, to Pitt. The plan worked for them. Whether it will work for Pitt and Chryst is still to be determined, but it's pretty telling that Chryst was not even responsible for this hire. Pederson desires head coaching experience, which Chryst did not have, so he didn't even get the type of candidate that he likes.

So Pederson wasn't allowed to hire the last head coach and now they've obviously gone around him to bring the "Pitt" back to Pitt. Why exactly is he still there? Especially since so many dispise him. There's not many times that an athletic director has routine coups against him from boosters and former players, but that's what has happened with Pederson.

One of the main excuses to keep Pederson from his apologists is that Dixon likes him. It's true. Dixon does like him. After all, Dixon gets paid a large amount of money for a basketball coach and his team is playing in a beautiful arena. And in the past Dixon may have taken another job if Pederson left. It's no secret that I highly respect Dixon but keeping a hated and incompetent AD just to appease him is not a good way to do business. It's football that needs to pay the bills at Pitt, not basketball. If there was a choice between a great football coach and a great basketball coach, Pitt should go with football. If Dixon would need to be sacrificed then so be it. But that is the worst case scenario. And it assumes that the new AD couldn't also work well with Dixon, who's not a petulant child. If you give him a competent AD who pays off his promises then Dixon would not go anywhere. And now Dixon won't be going anywhere anyway. His last contract was so lucrative in money and years that now he's cemented in at Pitt for a long time.

When all is said in done, the most successful basketball coach (Dixon) and the most successful football coach (Wannstedt) that Pitt has had in decades were both hired when Pederson was at Nebraska.

3. Get commitment and competency from the top: Chancellor Mark Nordenberg is an excellent man and was fantastic as the president of the university. Unfortunately he was also awful for the football program. And that begins with his total commitment to Pederson.

As discussed previously, Pederson is despised by most people that follow Pitt. That's enough to dismiss Pederson. After all, they are paying for the tickets and the merchandise, and they are donating  the money. But Nordenberg showed often that he was delusional when it comes to Pitt football. After all, this is the man who sat down with both Haywood and Graham in his office and then gave his approval. Pederson has stunk in his hirings but Nordenberg kept letting him do it, even after his failures were obvious. How oblivious was Nordenberg to what was going on? Let's examine some quotes he made after he announced his retirement.

Nordenberg: "People today are more proud of Pitt then they were in the mid-1990s... I think within the athletic department we've seen that same kind of change of culture. There's no comparison of what we had 20 years ago."

Truth: Pitt's facilities throughout their sports programs are better, though they were so bad a few decades ago that it's almost impossible not to improve.  And they are now down a football stadium (big negative).  But other than wrestling and basketball (and don't think for a second that Pederson would have promoted Dixon to coach), none of the sports are nationally recognized. And let me ask you Pitt fans. Are you proud of how Wannstedt exited? What about the hiring and firing of Haywood, or the disaster that was Graham? How about that loss to Akron this year or a 28 point loss as a favorite on homecoming? Sorry, but Pitt fans are anything but proud of the football program.

Nordenberg (on moving to Heinz Field): "People would say to me, 'This has got to be the hardest decision you've ever made.' I would say, 'It was actually one of the easiest decisions I've ever made and one of the hardest to sell.' Far more students attend games at Heinz Field than we had at Pitt Stadium. Now, it's an event for our students."

Truth: Ugh. I don't know if it's delusions or denial, but the kids weren't going to Pitt Stadium in the mid-90s because the program was at an all time low. Now students stand in long lines to get to and from the stadium and few stay around for the fourth quarter. Pitt football is anything but an event for the few that even bother to attend.

Nordenberg hired Pederson originally and then went right back to him after Pederson's disastrous tenure at his alma mater, Nebraska. In between stints Nordenberg hired Jeff Long, who he then let leave to Arkansas. Long is now considered one of the best ADs in the country. Long makes 900k at Arkansas and is the 11th highest paid AD. Peterson makes about 600k and is the 34th highest paid AD. The difference between one of the most revered ADs in the country and Pederson is just $300,000. And it's an AD that Pitt let go because they didn't want to pay him. Like head coaches, staff, stadium, and recruiting budget Pitt paid a little less than what is required to get the best.

Now Nordenberg and Jerry Cochran are out of the picture. Cochran was Nordenberg's right hand man for twenty years. He also handled the business side at Pitt, including negotiating contracts. He was a powerful man behind the scenes. He also, like Nordenberg, hurt the development of the football program by trying to get a great deal instead of a great coach.

Whether or not the replacements for Nordenberg and Cochran will do any better, time will tell. But when your football program has been struggling for three decades, and the people responsible for two of those bad decades are gone, then you have a golden opportunity to run the football program the way competent people would run it.

4. Build your own stadium: Yeah, I said it. Deal with it. Students and players should get the most out the college experience and Heinz Field does not provide that. People want to feel like they're at a college football game, but watching Pitt playing at Heinz Field is like watching a semi-pro game. There's no atmosphere. It's like playing in a morgue. Even if Pitt was a winner it would not be as exciting as possibly every other major college program in the country.

Pitt's zenith at Heinz Field was during the Cincinnati game when Wannstedt was the coach and the Panthers nearly won the Big East and made it to a BCS bowl. It was much more exciting than it is now but it still paled in comparison to the truly exciting college football stadiums.

It hurts recruiting and it hurts when trying to land a head coach. Any kid that visits Heinz Field and then goes to Morgantown or State College notice a big difference in atmosphere. Pitt will never have over 100,000 fans like Penn State but there's no reason why they shouldn't at least have the atmosphere of a big WVU game. When Pitt and WVU both play big games at night at the same time, switch back and forth on your TV. The difference in atmosphere is embarrassing.

As for prospective head coaches, any coach with options will look down at Pitt for playing in an NFL stadium. It reeks of amateur leadership and it shows them that the university does not take the football program seriously.

The solution is a stadium in the 40,000-45,000 range. Can it be built on campus? I have no idea and unless you are professional stadium builder you don't know either. And if Pitt takes a serious look at it and says that it's not feasible then that's fine. But tell us why. Explain it to us. But Pitt doesn't do that. More than that, Pitt acts like fans are crazy for asking. They insult them by continually telling us what a great idea it is to play in Heinz Field, totally ignoring the fact that the number of schools that play on an off campus stadium that's not their own are dwindling by the year.

Tulane just built a stadium in the heart of New Orleans. Minnesota built a 52,525 seat stadium in the middle of Minneapolis. They took out four parking garages to do it. Tulane's is right in the middle of a residential district.

Maybe Pitt can do that and maybe they can't. But explore every possibility instead of continually telling people that there's no need for it. There is a need for it and it can be done. If not on campus then someplace close by that suits Pitt's needs better.

Imagine a perfectly sized stadium open on one end to show the Cathedral of Learning. Imagine outside festivities with people playing music, food trucks, and merchandise booths lining the streets to the stadium. Imagine new traditions. Maybe the players run through the tunnel and all touch a statue of a Panther. Maybe when Pitt wins everybody watches the visible Cathedral of Learning to see the victory lights come on. Those are the kinds of things the players and students should be remembering. What they shouldn't be remembering is being shoehorned into a school bus to go to a half-filled stadium.

The fact that Nordenberg, Pederson, and anybody else responsible for this either can't see that, or don't want to see it, is shameful. Their ridiculous devotion to playing in Heinz Field is depriving people of a great college football atmosphere as well as hurting the program by not attracting the best players and coaches.

5. If he doesn't show signifiant progress next year, fire Chryst: I'm sure I will get a lot of heat for this one, but if you want big time college football you need guys who can hit the ground running. Hiring a neophyte head coach when the program has been struggling so much was a bad idea even if Chryst does end up succeeding. As I proved in a previous article, coaches that turn 6 win teams into 9 win teams do it in an average of two years. Even coaches who take over 4 win teams do it in 3 years. Chryst is now ending his third year and there's still no signs of progress. Save the youth excuse or the "I really feel he's the right man for the job" garbage. This isn't a training program. Either win or get out. Chryst has yet to prove that he's a great recruiter, leader, or game coach. He can't land an elite quarterback despite being a well known quarterback guru, and his coaching hirings have been uninspired. An offensive minded head coach needs an experienced defensive coordinator. Instead Chryst fired the experienced Dave Huxtable because he yelled too much, then hired first time coordinator Matt House who doesn't appear to be good at his job.

You can also save the "Pitt needs stability" reason for not firing Chryst. Pitt fans act like nobody has it harder. All Pitt did was hire some bum coaches. There have been programs who have suffered a lot more who have turned it around in a few years. Two years is an eternity in college sports. If Chryst fails next year, then the only stability he's bringing is mediocrity. Stability is only a good virtue when you're actually successful. A new coach, if he's the right one, can turn Pitt around immediately. It happens all the time. And if Pederson joins Nordenberg and Cochran in being out of Pitt, maybe this time the university will actually get it right. 

Bullet points:

1. Keep Pitt script and keep the brand strong.
2. Fire Pederson and hire the best AD you can find.
3. Commit to excellence in the football program by spending the money that is required to be a big time college football program.
4. If Chryst does not make significant progress next year, hire the best head coach you possibly can by giving him a highly competitive salary for him and his assistants, as well as an increased recruiting budget.
5. Build a stadium.


Monday, October 27, 2014

Georgia Tech 56 Pittsburgh 28

The Panthers were terrible. I'm not going to get too much into this because I'm writing a much bigger post about what's wrong at Pitt, but nearly three full years into Paul Chryst's regime, and this was yet another disgraceful performance. Save the too young excuses, save the fumbling excuse. When an excellent team has a poor game, it's a fluke. When you have many poor games in a season it's a systematic failure. So far Chryst's teams have shown no growth at all in almost three years.

Panthers land giant center

Jamie Dixon landed a (very) big center for next year when 6'11" 310 pound Rozelle Nix committed to the Panthers yesterday. Nix, a Cincinnati native, is currently at Pensacola JC in Florida. He has two years of eligibility left.  His other two finalists were South Carolina and Loyola Marymount.

All schools want big centers so the fact that Pitt only beat out South Carolina and Loyola Marymount is very telling, and his 6 ppg and 5 rpg last year shows he is not somebody targeted to be a big star. On the other hand, big is big, and after losing a lot of weight he's now a better prospect than he used to be. If he continues to lose weight and improve his game (and he is a very hard worker), than he could be an asset to the program.

Bottom line, he probably won't be a force but he should at least provide some help in the paint.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Pitt Basketball Preseason Outlook and Prediction

GUARDS

Cameron Wright- The 6'5" fifth year senior had his best season last year with 10.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.6 apg, and 1.8 spg.  Not bad numbers on the surface but when you look further, you can see that Wright's shooting, especially at shooting guard, leaves a lot to be desired.  Wright shot 45.6% from the field, which is good for a guard, but that was mostly because most of his baskets came in close or in transition. From three point range, Wright shot an anemic 23.3%, which is awful for a starting shooting guard. His 67.0% from the FT line was also below average.

Wright is at his best in transition and when he's not called on to be a big offensive threat. That's not ideal for a starting shooting guard, and there's no denying that in the half court offense Wright has been a mediocre offensive threat at best. If he can suddenly find a more consistent jump shot he would end his career as a good all around player. If not, he will continue to be a solid player and nothing more.

A broken foot in the preseason will probably prevent Wright from playing in the first six or eight games, including the important Maui tournament, but if he has no setbacks he will likely be back in the starting position by mid-December.


James Robinson- The 6'3" junior came into Pitt with high expectations, and many are losing hope that he'll ever reach those lofty expectations. Those people may want to be a little more patient. As a sophomore, Robinson improved in every category, but for the most part fans still were looking for better offense. That could come this year. Jamie Dixon wants Robinson to look for his offense more, and this could finally be the year that he becomes more than just solid.

As a sophomore, he averaged 7.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 4.1 apg, and 1.5 spg. His free throw shooting was a solid 79.4% and a barely respectable 34.3% from three, but he shot just 40.1% from the floor. The numbers are (here's that description again) solid, and that's petty much how Robinson can be described in his Pitt career this far. He doesn't shoot often and when he does it's not good enough to be a plus. His defense is solid in most cases, but not good enough to compensate for his lack of offense. His assists stats are good, but for somebody who concentrates mostly on quarterbacking the team, they should be significantly better. His turnover ratio is one of the best in the country, but it's mostly because he rarely attacks. I think you get the point. Robinson has some good points, just no great points.

On the bright side, however, he's now a junior and will start for the third season. He's lost weight to get quicker and as I stated before there's more expected from him this season. If he's ever going to make a significant jump into an elite player, the time is now.


Josh Newkirk- This is where things get interesting. The 6'1" sophomore has more natural skills than both Robinson and Wright, and now that he's no longer a freshman he has a chance to take major minutes away from the veteran duo. With Wright injured, Newkirk should get the start at shooting guard, and if he lives up to his potential, Wright will have trouble getting minutes back.

As a freshman, Wright averaged just 4.6 ppg, but in the last seven games Wright got more minutes and averaged 8.0 ppg over that span. His only major weakness is his free throw shooting where he shot 44.7%. That's a number that obviously has to change if he wants to be on the floor at the end of the game. The rest of his game shows great promise, however. Newkirk shot a great 46.3% from the field and 43.4% from three. If he can continue his excellent shooting to pair with his blazing speed, it will be hard to keep him off the floor, especially if Robinson and Wright continues to struggle offensively.


Chris Jones- The redshirt sophomore has an impressive, athletic build at 6'6", and a sweet stroke. Now that he's in his third season with the program it's time to see if he is capable of capitalizing on those traits and turning himself into a bigger contributor. Last season he got just 7.4 minutes a game and if he doesn't improve significantly he's still going to be behind Robinson, Wright, and Newkirk. He did shoot 80% from the line last season so he has that going for him.

Jones will get his shot to impress in the first half dozen games or so. With Wright out, Jones will be the third guard, and he will have to produce against some good teams. If he excels he will battle for more minutes, but more than likely he will go from the third guard to the tenth player on the team once Wright comes back.


FORWARDS



Durand Johnson- This 6'6" redshirt junior is my pick for the most important player on this team. A knee injury cost him the second half of last season but in 16 games he showed his skills by averaging 8.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg, and 1.4 apg. He also shot a fantastic 85.3% from the line. His reputation is that of an excellent three point specialist, but his 33.8% from beyond the arc was not at an elite level. But there were games when Johnson lit it up from deep. Against Savannah State (3-6), Lehigh (5-8), and Maryland (3-4), he showed that he's capable of being a dominating force in that regard.

Johnson is more than a three point specialist, however. He can drive and dunk, pass, and rebound a little. If he spent more time driving and using his excellent free throw shooting he has the potential to average well into double figures. That will also give him more space when he unleashes from three point range. But all of that is depends on his rehabbed knee. If he's healthy and lives up to his potential he should start at small forward and could reach 13-14 ppg this season.


Michael Young- The starting power forward started as a true freshman last year, too, but there's no doubt that he mostly struggled in his first year. He averaged just 6.0 ppg and 4.1 rpg, and shot 41.3% from the field, thanks mostly to not being aggressive or confident in the paint. But I expect a better season from him this year.

Young has a very impressive skill set on a 6'9" 235 pound frame. He has excellent range for a big power forward and shot 35.7% from the three point range. His very good range for the position is why he's better off at the four than the five. An occasional three pointer from Young will clear the paint for his teammates.

But make no mistake about it, Young needs to spend most of his team near the basket. His strong body is a major asset if he uses it as a weapon instead of being unaggressive. That should come this season with more experience and confidence. With that confidence he could easily be a 12 ppg and 8 rpg player this season.

Early word is that Young has a completely different attitude brought about by a year of going through the ACC wars, and he's approaching the season with renewed confidence. If he can stay primarily at the four and keeps his confidence, he should make a big jump in production.


Jamal Artis- Another true freshman last year and even though he didn't start he actually had more good moments than Young. On the season he averaged 4.9 ppg and 2.9 rpg in just 15 minutes a game,  and he also shot a very good 46% from the field. He also added 70.8% from the line. He shot just 29.6% from three but with more minutes that number should rise.

The bulky 6'7" sophomore has a high ceiling because he has the potential to be good at every facet of the game. His size helps him in the paint, but he also has good range and is an exceptional passer.

Artis played a lot as a backup to Young at the four last season, but it's more likely that he'll be more at the three this season. Ideally he will back up Johnson, but if Johnson's knee is not healthy he could find himself starting for awhile, and at the very least he should get more minutes.


Sheldon Jeter- The 6'8" Vanderbilt transfer has come back home to play for the Panthers, and his vast array of skills will help the team a lot. The redshirt sophomore showed a lot of promise as a true freshman in the SEC with 5.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg, and an impressive 47.1% from the field and 39.1% from three. He also had six double digit scoring games including five in SEC play.

After transferring he worked on his game so that he can be more versatile and play some three, something Dixon prefers in his players. His game is still mostly as a stretch four where he can rebound like a four, but shoot like a three.

He's long and an explosive athlete but putting the ball on the floor is still something he needs to work on. Even so, he can rebound, shoot, and pass. If he expands his game with defense and ball handling he will reach a higher level in his career. For now he will probably back up Young.


Cameron Johnson- The 6'7" true freshman was a bit of a surprise over the summer, and he has a lot going for him. He's not a great athlete but he is long, can shoot, he's an exceptional passer, and he even scraps for rebounds. He could be a very good contributor in his career, but barring injuries of those in front of him, he may be due for a redshirt this season. Not that he can't play some this year, but rather because he has so many more experienced players in front of him.


Ryan Luther- The local true freshman is listed at 6'9" officially which means he's probably 6'8". The good news is, he could legitimately end up 6'9" or 6'10" which changes his upside significantly.  A 6'10" forward that can shoot, rebound, and pass has a nice future. Right now, however, he is slated for a redshirt.


CENTERS


Derrick Randall- The 6'9" 240 pound senior has been a bit player thus far in his career, but this is his last chance to make a major contribution. Being a senior he may get the start at the beginning of the season, but it's doubtful that he will get a ton of minutes. One of the main reasons is because he's a fouling machine. He does play all out, which helps him defensively and in rebounding, but he's not a great athlete and subtlety is not his forte.

As a junior, Randall played just 8.6 mpg, and averaged 2.1 ppg and 2.4 rpg. He's expected to be one of at least three centers that get minutes, and Young may be a fourth. For that reason his stats again probably won't be significant. But if he plays well in 10 minutes a game and controls his fouling then he will help out in his last go around.


Joseph Uchebo- This may prove to be the biggest story of the season. The 6'10" 245 pound junior was all but written off by fans and everybody else because of a badly injured knee before he even came to Pitt, but to his credit he has battled back to the point that he may help the Panthers significantly this season.

Uchebo's limp is not as noticeable as it was last season, and even though he says he's in pain it isn't slowing him down.  Rebounding is his best skill. He is long, large, and he attacks the ball like it owns him money. He can't jump as well because of his knee, but his long arms, hustle, and width make up for that. His defense is also solid and he even has developed a nice drop step in the paint.

It wasn't long ago that people thought about who would replace him after he asked to leave the team. Now he may be a legitimately good center and will likely get the most minutes at center.


Tyrone Haughton- A junior college transfer, the 6'9" junior is thin, but he's athletic with very long arms. His offense is virtually non-existent but he's a good rebounder and a superb shot blocker. Because he wasn't with the program when they went to the Bahamas, he's a little behind the others, but he could eventually get some minutes this season due to his rebounding and defense.


Outlook: I like this team and I think they are going to be even better in the next two years. The core is very good, and young, but not too young. Players 1-5 may not a top 25 teams, but players 1-10 are. And that's the main storyline of this team. Many fans worry about who will be the main offensive options, but they shouldn't worry. The offense went through Lamar Patterson first last year, then Talib Zanna. They are gone, but others will pick up the slack. Young, Robinson, Wright or Newkirk, and Johnson are all capable of being double figure scorers this season. None may be a 15 ppg scorer but if Young gets 12 or 14 , Robinson gets 10 or 12, Wright or Newkirk gets 10 or 12, and Johnson gets 10-12 then they'll score enough. And then players like Artis, Jeter, and even Uchebo could add another 6 or 8. Does that mean again that Pitt won't have a go to scorer now with Patterson gone? Maybe. But good scoring, excellent defense, and outstanding rebounding will win Pitt a lot of games. Look for this to be the first of at least three excellent seasons in a row.

Prediction: 28-9

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Pitt 21 Virginia Tech 16

Another ugly performance at times for Pitt, but luckily for them Virginia Tech was flat out atrocious on offense.

1. I'm not sure if this really proves anything in the wrong run.  Pitt won but the same questions are still there. Chad Voytik still is not passing well and the defense still hasn't proven anything because they play one bad offense after another.

2. On the other hand, Pitt wisely tailored the offensive game plan to Voytik's strengths, which basically means they had him run instead of pass. And run he did. I will say this much about Voytik. The man can run extremely well for a quarterback. He led the Panthers in rushing in the game with 118 yards rushing on 19 carries.  But like I said, his passing is still below average. On the night he completed 10 of 17 passes for 92 yards. He also had a TD and an interception. Oh, and he even caught a pass from Tyler Boyd for a 29-yard gain.

3.  For some strange reason, James Conner was not asked to run much and in fact he ran only 6 times in the second half. For the game, Conner had 85 yards on 16 carries (5.2 avg.), and 2 touchdowns.  He also continued the habit of running like a man possessed when he smells the end zone.

4.  Boyd continued his excellent play with 6 catches for 86 yards, including a beautiful 53-yrd touchdown.  But he had no catches in the second half.

5.  Defensively, the Panthers were led by Ray Vinopal, Anthony Gonzalez, and David Durham. The defense played well for the most part but the Hokies' offense is so putrid that it's hard to say how well the Panthers defense really did.

6.  Truthfully, the game shouldn't have been as close ass it was.  A lot of dumb penalties and turnovers hurt Pitt. They simply aren't good enough to make too many mistakes and win most of the time. They were very lucky that Virginia Tech was so awful.

7.  Pitt ran for 210 yards.  Virginia Tech ran for 26 yards.

8.  At the end of the day, what does it all mean? Pitt didn't play that well but they won. The coaches made some strange decisions and questionable play calls. But with a struggling team, this is at least a win. And there were many top recruits visiting so it's better to win an ugly game in front of a half-packed house than to lose an ugly game on front of a half-packed house.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Pitt Football Midseason Grades- Defense, Special Teams, Coaching

Defensive line: There was no doubt that this unit would not be a good without superstar Aaron Donald, but dropping this far was the worst case scenario.

Starting defensive tackle Khaynin Mosley-Smith and Darryl Render have been mostly average and opposing offenses have not been having much trouble running right up the middle of the Panthers defense. Rather pedestrian backs like Akron's Conor Hundley and Virginia's Kevin Parks ran all over the defense in the last two games. Render has 21 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, and 2 pass breakups.  Mosley-Smith has just 11 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, and 0 sacks. Mosley-Smith plays the nose tackle position and he won't get a lot of tackles, but the fact that many backs are gashing the defense proves that he's not holding the point of attack either.

The starting defensive ends have not been much better. The big hope at end was that Shakir Soto would make a big leap in production but that hasn't been the case. On the season he has just 16 tackles, with 0 tackles for loss, and 0 sacks. Needless to say that's pathetic. Even the other starting end, David Durham, who isn't very good, looks better by comparison. He has 12 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, and 2 sacks.

The reserves are younger, but they appear to be more promising in the long run. Massive tackle Tyrique Jarrett is almost as productive as Mosley-Smith, while in reserve, with 7 tackles. Justin Moody has 6 tackles playing behind Render, and also has a sack.

At end, maybe the most promising player of the entire unit, Rori Blair, flashes every time he's on the field. So far he has 10 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and 2 sacks, the latter tying for the team lead. He also has two pass breakups. And he's not even played much yet. Another young end with promise, Luke Maclean, has 6 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and a half of a sack. Devin Cook is also still hanging around and he has 3 tackles and a half of a sack.

The pass rush has been just as poor as the run defense. The Panthers are No. 65 in sacks with 12 in 6 games, but the line only has 8.

Bottom line: A few weeks ago the run defense was in the top 10, thanks mostly to playing poor offenses. Now that they're playing average offenses they dropped down to No. 40. And as the offenses get better one has to assume they will have an even harder time being productive.

Last Season's Final Grade: B
This Season's Preseason Grade: C
Midseason Grade: D+


Linebackers: There were hopes that this veteran unit would be strong, but with the defensive line below average the linebackers have been exposed as mostly mediocre.

Not surprisingly, Anthonly Gonzalez leads the team with 36 tackles to go along with 2 tackles for loss, and a sack, but he also has no interceptions or pass breakups. That's pretty pedestrian production for someone who was expected to be the most productive player on the team.

Todd Thomas is not going to be the star that was often predicted for him. We now know that for sure. He has turned into a good run defender for the most part, but as a senior he still gets out of position too often. On the season he has 31 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 1 pass breakup, and no sacks.

Middle linebacker Matt Galambos has also been a disappointment. On one of the great Pitt defenses of the past he would be more productive, but he's not good enough to compensate for the poor defensive line in front of him. He has just 23 tackles, a really low total for a starting 4-3 middle linebacker. He also has no sacks or no tackles for loss. He does have an interception and a pass breakup.

Bam Bradley may be a better option in the middle and he actually took over for Galambos against Virginia. He has 12 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, a sack, and a pass breakup in a reserve role.

Nicholas Grigsby had a special position created for him so that he can utilitize his speed to make plays, and while he does have flashes with his excellent speed, he's another player hampered by a below average line.  He has 16 tackles and 2 tackles for loss, but he only has one sack despite blitzing often.

Bottom line: Solid, if unspectacular bunch. To have a truly great defense you need playmakers at linebacker and Pitt just doesn't have that.

Last Season's Final Grade: C
This Season's Preseason Grade: B
Midseason Grade: C



Defensive backs: This was expected to be a below average unit and they've lived down to their expectations. Don't be confused by the fact that the pass defense is ranked No. 8 in the country because the best passing offense the Panthers have played so far has been Akron which is ranked No. 32. The other opponents are ranked 65, 79, 105, and 119.  Needless to say, if they play a good passing offense it could get ugly.

Cornerbacks Lafayette Pitts and Reggie Mitchell have not been beat on a consistent basis, but again that's because they haven't played a good passing team yet. Pitts still isn't sure how to play the position and almost never turns around to play the ball. He has 14 tackles, including a tackle for loss. He also has 4 pass breakups and one interception. Mitchell is new to the position, and while he's no better than average, he appears to be better than Pitts. On the season he has 18 tackles, while also having 5 pass breakups. He is not picked on nearly as much as Pitts is.

At safety, Ray Vinopal actually stands out more than anybody on defense, which says something about the rest of the defense. He has 28 tackles, 2 interceptions, and 4 pass breakups. The other safety, Terrish Webb, isn't noticed often, but he has quietly had a decent season with 29 tackles, 2 interceptions, and 2 pass breakups.

True freshmen Pat Amara and Avonte Maddox are showing promise. Amara has 4 tackles and an interception. Maddox has 8 tackles but no pass breakups. Both should make some progress in the second half of the season.

Ryan Lewis was forced into action, and has 7 tackles, but it appears like Amara has passed him up.

Bottom line: The weaknesses of this unit is saved by playing poor passing offenses so when they play somebody like North Carolina or Miami they may get exposed.  But at the end of the day, at least it's not a dumpster fire, and there was a real fear that could happen.

Last Season's Final Grade: C
This Season's Preseason Grade: C-
Midseason Grade: C-



Special Teams: Kicker Chris Blewitt is already a star and could be a future All-American. He hasn't missed a field goal yet this year, going 9 for 9, including 3 for 3 from 40-49 yards. But after that the unit is more hit or miss.

Ryan Winslow is No. 92 in punting and the team's net punting is No. 75 thanks to Pitt being No. 16 nationally in punt return defense.

The kick return defense is No. 71, punt returns are No. 75, and kickoff returns is No. 94.

Bottom line: The return teams are a major disappointment, and Winslow has been mediocre at best, but Blewitt and the punt return defense saves some of the grade.

Last Season's Final Grade: C
This Season's Preseason Grade: B
Midseason Grade: C



Coaching: Where the Paul Chryst era is headed deserves, and will get, it's own article, but right now he's 3-3 this season and 16-16 for his career. If that's not mediocre then I don't know what it is.

Last Season's Final Grade: B-
This Season's Preseason Grade: B-
Midseason Grade: C




Monday, October 6, 2014

How long it takes to get to 9 wins after taking over a team without a winning record

Since the late 1990s, 55 times a coach took over a .500 team, or worse, and eventually went on to win at least 9 games. Here is how long it took each.


Took over team with 0-2 games under .500 with how many years it took to get to 9+ wins, and what the record was the year before they took over as head coach.

Bob Stoops, Oklahoma 2 years (5-6)
Bronco Mendenhall, BYU 2 (5-6)
Brian Kelly, Notre Dame 3 (6-6)
Todd Graham, Arizona State 2 (6-7)
Urban Meyer, Utah 1 (5-6)
Urban Meyer, Florida 1 (6-6)
Urban Meyer, Ohio State 1 (6-7)
Nick Saban, Alabama 2 (6-6)
Al Groh, Virginia 2 (6-6)
Ralph Friedgen, Maryland 1 (5-6)
Charlie Weis, Notre Dame 1 (6-6)
Dirk Koetter, Arizona State 4 (6-6)
Dennis Ericson, Oregon State 2 (5-6)
Art Briles, Houston 4 (5-7)
Bo Pelini, Nebraska 1 (5-7)
Jim Mora, Jr., UCLA 1 (6-8)
Pete Carroll, USC 2 (5-7)
Bill Snyder, Kansas State (2nd time) 3 (5-7)

Average: 1.9 years



Took team 3-5 games under .500

Houston Nutt, Arkansas 1 (4-7)
Walt Harris, Pittsburgh 6 (4-7)
Pat Hill, Fresno State 5 (4-7)
Charlie Strong, Louisville 3 (4-8)
Mark Dantonio, Michigan State 2 (4-8)
Dan Mullen, Mississippi State 2 (4-8)
Troy Calhoun, Air Force 1 (4-8)
Kirk Ferentz, Iowa 4 (3-8)
Greg Schiano, Rutgers 6 (3-8)
Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State 1 (4-9)
Tommy Tuberville, Auburn 2 (3-8)
Tommy Bowden, Clemson 2 (3-8)
Mark Mangino, Kansas 6 (3-8)
Ron Zook, Illinois 3 (3-8)
Joe Tiller, Purdue 1 (3-8)
Nick Saban, LSU 2 (3-8)
Gary Pinkel, Missouri 7 (3-8)

Average: 3.2 years



Took over team 6+ games under .500

Art Briles, Baylor 4 (3-9)
Gus Malzahn, Auburn 1 (3-9)
Houston Nutt, Mississippi 1 (3-9)
George O'Leary, Georgia Tech 4 (3-9)
Chuck Amato, NC State 3 (3-9)
Tom O'Brien, NC State 4 (3-9)
Gary Anderson, Utah State 4 (3-9)
Tommy Bowden, Tulane 2 (2-9)
Jim Grobe, Wake Forest 6 (2-9)
Skip Holtz, East Carolina 4 (2-9)
James Franklin, Vanderbilt 2 (2-10)
Lou Holtz, South Carolina 3 (1-10)
Jeff Tedford, California 3 (1-10)
Paul Johnson, Navy 2 (0-10)
David Cutcliffe, Duke 6 (1-11)
Jim Harbaugh, Stanford 4 (1-11)
Al Golden, Temple 4 (0-11)
Nick Saban, Michigan State 5 (0-11)
June Jones, Hawaii 1 (0-12)
Steve Sarkisian, Washington 4  (0-12)

Average: 3.4 years


Average of all 55 examples: 2.8 years


Notes:

Only 19 of the 55 (34.5%) took longer than three years and 11 of those 19 took over a team that lost 6+ games in the previous season. 

Only 8 of 35 (22.9%) that took over for a team that had lost 0-5 games the previous year took longer than three years.