Let me get this out of the way right off the bat. In my opinion, Pitt has one of the most underachieving football programs in the country. The local Pittsburgh media chastises the program after every coaching change by saying that the Panthers were only a national power for roughly a decade some thirty to forty years ago, and that the Pitt administration are fooling themselves into thinking they can do it again. While I agree that the Panthers have not been a national power for thirty years, I disagree that that has to always be their fate. In this article I will attempt to prove that everything is in place for Pitt to be a national power again. That's not to say it will happen, because other programs also has what it takes, and not everybody can be a national power. But as long as Pitt takes the right path, and stays focused on that path, they have a legitimate shot at making it happen.
1. Get a great head coach- Is Todd Graham that guy? Time will tell. The Pitt administration did not make it easy to have confidence in them after the Mike Haywood debacle. It's hard to decide which was worse- that they had to fire Haywood days after hiring him, or that they hired a mediocre journeyman with off the field issues in the first place.
But Graham could make everybody forget that if he lives up to his potential. And he at least does have potential. He turned around perennial loser Rice in just one year, taking them from a 1-10 record the previous season to their first bowl season in 45 years. At Tulsa, he took over for Steve Kragthorpe, whose last season ended in an 8-5 record. Graham went 10-4 in his first year, and finished in double figure wins three of four years.
Graham's offenses have been juggernauts at Tulsa, and had actually achieved some NCAA records. Detractors would say that was achieved because of his former offensive coordinators Gus Malzahn (now at Auburn), and Chad Morris (now at Clemson). Both are considered two of the most elite coordinators in college football, and both were hired by Graham. Malzahn was one year removed from high school and Morris came directly from high school. It wasn't a fluke that Graham employed both. It shows that he can recognize, and hire, talented offensive minds.
Pitt's current co-offensive coordinators are Mike Norvell and Calvin Magee. Norvell, who is about to turn 30 in less than two weeks, is considered one of the best young assistant coaches in the country and coaches the passing game. At Tulsa, he was the passing coordinator last season as the Golden Hurricane finished 13th in the nation in passing, and 5th in total offense. Magee's rushing offense finished in the top four all three seasons he was the coordinator at West Virginia, and he was also named the national Assistant Coach of the Year. At Michigan, Magee's final offense led the Big Ten and finished eight nationally. Throw in quarterback coach Todd Dodge, who just happens to be the most legendary high school coach in Texas football history, not to mention a well respected offensive mind and quarterback guru, and you can see that there is no reason why Pitt's offense shouldn't eventually be amongst the best in the country. I don't care what the offense looks like now, there is no way this amount of talent won't eventually get it done offensively at Pitt.
Even great programs need great coaches to succeed. How good was USC with Paul Hackett as coach? Oklahoma stunk with John Blake, Texas with John Mackovic, Nebraska with Bill Callahan, Alabama with Mike Shula, and LSU with Curley Hallman. And there are more examples. On the other hand, how much of a power would Virginia Tech be without Frank Beamer? Kansas and Texas Tech were only a power with their two crazy former head coaches, Mark Mangino and Mike Leach, respectively. Pitt has not had an excellent coach since Jackie Sherrill, and that's why they haven't had excellent teams. Pitt will always be as good, or as bad, as their current coach.
2. Get great talent- This is pretty obvious, I know, but let's see if Pitt is even capable of bringing in great talent. In my opinion, the obvious answer is yes, but Graham has to step up the recruiting to a higher level.
Even though the Panthers haven't been a national power for three decades, the amount of talent that has come through the program has remained high. Larry Fitzgerald and Darrelle Revis are both arguably the best at their positions in the NFL right now, and both are possible Hall of Famers some day. Curtis Martin is a guaranteed Hall of Famer, probably in the next class. Eight-time Pro Bowler Chris Doleman and nine-time Pro Bowler Ruben Brown will also get there some day. And I've yet to mention current NFL superstar LeSean McCoy, first rounders Jeff Otah, Jon Bladwin, and Sean Gilbert, and current starters Jabaal Sheard, Jason Pinkston, Henry Hynoski, Lousaka Polite, Andy Lee, Clint Session, and return man Larod Stephens-Howling. Throw in All-Americans Chris McKillop, H.B. Blades, and Dorin Dickerson recently, plus past stars like Antonio Bryant, Curvin Richards, Alex Van Pelt, Dietrich Jells, Dion Lewis, Tyler Palko, Rod Rutherford, etc., and you can see that there is a lot of talent that comes through the university even after the so-called "glory days".
One of the most common excuses as to why Pitt can no longer be a national power is because the WPIAL is not as strong in talent. While the depth is certainly down, if the staff can keep the top stars in the area, they will go a long way in returning to prominence.
Simply put, Graham and his staff must give the local elite talent no reason to go elsewhere. And the best way to do that is to win. The reason Pitt of the 70s and 80s got so much talent is because there was a buzz around the program. Players knew they could win and become first rounders. Even Penn State could rarely get a great player over Pitt in the WPIAL. And that's when Joe Paterno was only in his 50's. Now that he's in his 80s there's no excuse for Pitt to lose a player to him.
In the next two classes, there are three big time players in the WPIAL- Hopewell running back Rushel Shell this year, and in the 2012 class, Central Valley wide receiver Robert Foster and North Allegheny offensive lineman Patrick Kugler. Fox Chapel offensive lineman Adam Bisnowaty, Sto-Rox linebacker Deaysean Rippy, and Jeannette safety Demetrius Cox are three more locals that Pitt can't afford to lose in this current recruiting class. If the Panthers can't even keep the excellent local prospects at home, then Graham will be in big trouble. (Update- Bisnowaty verbally committed to the Panthers today)
But, let's not forget that it's not all local recruits. Many of Pitt's greatest players came from outside of the WPIAL. Larry Fitzgerald came from Minnesota, and Hugh Green from Mississippi, Ricky Jackson came from Florida. Chris Doleman, Burt Grossman, Marc Spindler, and Bill Maas were all great defensive lineman that came from eastern PA, as was All-American cornerback Tim Lewis. Craig Heyward, Tony Woods, and Keith Hamilton came from New Jersey. Mark Stepnoski came from Erie. Mark May from New York. Alex Van Pelt and Curvin Richards came from Texas. Ruben Brown from Virginia. Randy McMillan from Maryland. I think you get the point. Even when Pitt was flat out loaded, a large portion of their stars came from outside the Pittsburgh area and Graham will have to do the same.
3. Style/speed- These two don't always go together but in this case they definitely do. Let's assume that Pitt never recruits as well as they did in the 70s and 80s, and to be honest, that's a good assumption. When former head coach Mike Gottfried and former head basketball coach Paul Evans sullied the university's name in the late 80s the administration put the clamps on both programs, making it impossible to ever take highly suspect kids again. With higher standards, it will be nearly impossible to have another top five recruiting class in the new future.
What that means is that Pitt is not going to be able to go head to head with top programs on the field because those elite programs will simply have too much talent. That fact is the biggest reason why the Dave Wannstedt regime failed, and it's the biggest reason why Graham may succeed.
As I've written before, Graham's offense is Pitt's best chance to get back into the top 10. At its best, it is both fast and complex, two attributes that make it difficult to defend. And just as importantly, it lends itself to excellent players that may get overlooked at the more elite programs. Alabama wouldn't take a 6'0" quarterback, even if he was one of the top five quarterback prospects in the country. Pitt would, and did, with Chad Voytik. At 6'4", Voytik probably ends up at Tennessee, his hometown school. At 6'0" (he actually measured 5'11" this summer so I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt), his size means nothing at Pitt. If a school like Alabama did take a 6'0" high school quarterback it's because he was a such a great athlete that they would make him change his position. Pitt has the advantage of letting him be a quarterback. That's exactly how West Virginia got 6'0" Pat White. LSU wanted him as a wide receiver, but he wanted to play quarterback. West Virginia, because they ran a spread offense similar to Pitt's current system, let him play quarterback, and he nearly led them to the national championship game.
That same West Virginia team also starred 5'9" running back Steve Slaton, 5'8" running back Noel Devine, and 5'9" wide receiver Darius Reynaud. That fast, athletic, and small quartet went 33-5 from 2005-2008, including bowl wins over Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Oklahoma, three programs with more elite talent. They were also three programs that couldn't handle West Virginia's combination of speed and style.
A Pitt offense that features Voytik at quarterback, Shell at running back, and Foster at wide receiver is even better than the Mountaineers quartet potentially, but also realistically since all three will enter college as top ten prospects at their respective positions, and maybe even top five. And that doesn't including incoming highly touted 5'9" Penn Hills receiver Corey Jones, and Ohio twins Chris and Demetrius Davis, two more fast and coveted 5'9" receivers.
The defense under Graham will probably never be as good as the offense, but it also should appeal to potential prospects because it is also a fun system that promotes speed. Blitzing and big plays are (theoretically) what the Pitt defense will eventually look like. Better, and faster, linebackers and defensive backs are imperative. If Dan Mason returns fully from his gruesome injury, and Bryan Murphy returns from being academic ineligible, they could form with youngsters Juan Price and Todd Thomas to form an potentially excellent linebacking corps. But Mason and Murphy are no guarantees so more fast, athletic linebackers are needed. Speed, speed, and more speed. Same with the secondary. Transfers should shore up the secondary nicely next season, but more speed is needed. Cox and Ohio safety/linebacker Bam Bradley (Ohio State, Penn State, Stanford offers) would be huge additions. Cox is a highly talented local and Bradley is the brother of talented freshman Nicolas Grigsby. These are the types of prospects that you can't afford to lose.
4. Facilities- Most major programs, as Pitt is, have great facilities. Pitt has them. Facilities may not be a deciding factor in a potential recruit's decision, but bad facilities could hurt. Pitt won't be hurt. Yes, some recruits may be turned off by Heinz Field, but I can honestly say that I've interviewed hundreds of recruits over the years, and not one has mentioned it to me that it was a problem.
5. Location- Some recruits will simply not want to live in a city. There's nothing Pitt can do about those players. But on the other hand, city kids tend to love Pitt's location. No matter how you look at it, Pitt is a great city that ranks on dozens and dozens of top ten lists. All in all, the city is a major plus.
6. Academics- The university should be very proud of their academic excellence. It is considered one of the better universities not only in the country, but in the world, and it's superior academics are a great recruiting tool.
7. Conference- Well, no longer can it be said that it's too difficult to recruit to the Big East. And don't fool yourself, the ACC is a much better football conference. The conference is loaded with a bunch of underachieving programs but Florida State, Miami, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Clemson are all topnotch programs and universities that are always capable of greatness. North Carolina and Maryland are two more programs that should be a lot better. Being in the ACC also opens up the eastern seaboard for recruiting, and it's an area that has a lot of speed and talent. You want to go to a great school in the city, but want to get away from home while still wanting to periodically play in front of your family and friends along the coast? Come to Pitt. A few really good players a year that would buy into that would do wonders for Pitt's on field success.
8. Willingness- The university is currently spending enough to field a winner, but it's sorely lacking in recruiting expenses. In 2009, the last year that such records have been made public, Pitt spent 17.44 million on it's football program and made 22.51 million. By comparison, West Virginia spent 14.33 million and made 29.47 million. Rutgers spent 19.49 million, Syracuse 15.30 million, Cincinnati 11.60 million, Louisville 12.2 million, South Florida 12.18, and UConn 14.40 million.
In the ACC, Clemson spent 16.03 million, Boston College 17.97 million, Florida State 16.34 million, Georgia Tech 15.52 million, NC State 10.48 million, Duke 14.31 million, Maryland 9.86 million, Miami 17.86 million, North Carolina 14.79 million, Virginia 15.93 million, Virginia Tech 16.03 million, and Wake Forest 12.52 million.
As you can see, Pitt is near the top in either conference. The elite programs in the country usually spend significantly more. Notre Dame spends 29.49 million. Penn State spent 17.89 million (and got 70 million in revenues). Other expenses from big time programs are Ohio State (31.67 million), Michigan (18.33 million), Wisconsin (22.4 million), Nebraska (17.84 million), Oklahoma (20.15 million), Texas (25.11), Texas A&M (16.60), Oklahoma State (15.48 million), Stanford (17.24 million), Oregon (18.07 million), USC (20.82 million), Auburn (27.91 million), LSU (25.57 million), Alabama (31.2 million), Florida (24.46 million), and Georgia (18.31 million).
While some top programs in the SEC and Big 10 spend significantly more than Pitt, there are elite programs who spend roughly the same, including Penn State, Michigan, Nebraska, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Stanford, Oregon, and Stanford. And powers Oklahoma and USC aren't that far off. Boise State's expenses in 2009, by the way, were 6.85 million.
As previously stated, however, the expenses are not being used enough in recruiting- at least they weren't in 2009. While no numbers are available that show recruiting expenses for individual teams at each university, it's common sense that a large portion of those expenses are for football. For Pitt's seven men's teams, the programs as a whole spent 358k on recruiting. By comparison, West Virginia had six men's teams that spent a total of 670k. Needless to say, that's a huge difference. Syracuse, also with seven men's teams, spent 623k in recruiting expenses.
One possible reason for Pitt's low number is that then Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt recruited a lot locally. So I looked at Florida State, an ACC school that recruits almost entirely in the state of Florida and spent less overall than Pitt, and they spent 582k with seven teams. Texas A&M, another school that recruits almost entirely in their own state and spends less overall than Pitt, spent 533k in recruiting expenses. Texas, a team that rarely even leaves the state for a player, spent 752k in recruiting expenses.
Summary- As I think I have shown, Pitt has a lot of what it takes to be a national power. They are now in a more stable, more prestigious football conference, are in a major city that has a great reputation, are one of the best universities in the world, possess a great tradition, and still have a local recruiting area that's fertile enough if they can keep them at home. Especially since two of their biggest recruiting opponents are hurting. Penn State is a program currently on the decline and their future coaching situation is a hindrance. West Virginia is currently in an inferior football conference. But those are only temporary. Penn State will rise again and West Virginia may eventually find a more stable conference. Ohio State, Michigan, and Notre Dame, three huge powers that often come into PA to steal elite talent, are also less than stellar right now. This is a golden opportunity on the recruiting front and Graham has to take the opportunity to nab some big time in-state talent.
The infrastructure, and the opportunity is there. Now Pitt has to live up to their potential instead of going into a fourth straight decade of underachievement.