This past weekend was horrible for Pittsburgh sports fans, but the truth is, things are looking up at Pitt. Anybody that follows me knows that I am not a homer. I have criticized Jamie Dixon for his recruiting and have said that he needs to break through to the Final Four before he's considered a great coach. And I've trashed the Pitt football program for many years because they've underachieved.
I consider myself a realist, so these following comments are how I see things realistically. I am not writing them to be positive. When I see other Pitt writers continually act like cheerleaders it makes me a little nauseous. No, these thoughts are positive because that's how I feel about Pitt football and (with a more weary eye) Pitt basketball.
1. Mark Nordenberg was a great guy who did wonders for the university as a whole. Unfortunately, he was blinded by his allegiance to former athletic director Steve Pederson for some strange reason. His sweetheart deal to Pederson has been discussed so let's move on to the fact that new chancellor Patrick Gallagher seems to know what he's doing.
Gallagher fired Pederson almost immediately, eating his large contract to boot. It showed awareness, smarts, and aggressiveness. At least with a small sample size he seems like exactly the kind of leader that Pitt athletics has needed for decades.
2. With Pederson gone, the university will now have a new athletic director. Even though we don't know who it is yet, with Gallagher leading the way I am optimistic that it will be an improvement over the divisive Pederson.
3. From sources I have heard that the budget has increased to "a very competitive level". That does not mean that Pitt is on par with the football factories, but I'm told that it's enough to compete with pretty much everybody outside of the top 10-15 programs. Even better I'm told that boosters are very encouraged by what's happening and are not against going higher should the program take off. Which is usually the case. The football factories get a lot of money from boosters because they win a lot, which makes people happy, and then they want to pay money to keep that feeling going.
4. There's a new sheriff in town and his name is Pat Narduzzi. Of course the suicidally depressed faction of Pitt fandom will say they've seen this before, but to be blunt, those people are clueless. No, this guy hasn't been a head coach yet, and there's also some trepidation because of that, but if there's anybody that was born to be a head coach it's this guy.
Narduzzi's dad was a college head coach, he's been the right hand man for one of the best head coaches in the country for the past eleven years, and he's practically had head coaching duties for half of the Michigan State team for many years. Some coordinators work under the head coach. Narduzzi was left on his own. The result was that he was probably the best defensive coordinator in the country.
Narduzzi does not appear to be Paul Hackett, Foge Fazio, or Paul Chryst, three men who became head coaches basically because they were excellent coordinators and it was the next logical step. Narduzzi is excellent in the X's and Os, but he also has the gravitas that the great head coaches do. Players not only want to play for him, but they will do anything to please him. They love him, they respect him, and they believe in him.
I keep hearing about the "losing culture" for Pitt football, and that's ridiculous. First of all, in the last fifteen years the program has had only five losing seasons so there's hardly a losing culture. Yes, there's been embarrassing events that the program has undergone in the past, but they've still won more than they've lost.
It's the fans and the media that talk about ridiculous things like a Pitt curse, but take it from somebody that's interviewed high school prospects for twelve years, these kids don't think like that. They are much more resilient, and much more positive, than cynical and bitter adults. They think that wherever they are they are going to win big. And for Pitt, I can guarantee you that as soon as they talked to Narduzzi, they though they were going to win big at Pitt. They don't harp on lost leads or fleeing coaches. Unlike the rest of us they have short memories. I even talked to recruits that were considering Penn State literally a month after the rape scandal and they didn't even think about it. If they didn't think about something like that, then Pitt's problems are minuscule by comparison.
5. There's every reason to believe that Narduzzi will have an excellent staff to support him. He wouldn't take the job until he had the budget to compete at a high level, and he went on record saying that he has that. The money is there and Narduzzi is very highly respected in the coaching community. People are lining up to work with him. This is obviously very different than Paul Chryst's staff. One of his biggest weaknesses was his terrible staff hirings.
6. Narduzzi, an excellent staff, and the area, means the recruiting should be the best it's been in a long time. Dave Wannstedt had recruiting classes in the 25-30 range. I see no reason why Narduzzi doesn't at least do that well, and quite possibly better. It's actually easier to recruit to Pitt than Michigan State because of the geography. His reputation alone should enable him to recruit his share of elite defensive recruits.
7. Pitt's youth is beneficial in many ways. In just a general sense, Pitt had the youngest team in the country this year and common sense should tell you that most of the players will get better every year. In a more narrow sense, the defensive players won't have to unlearn a lot. Narduzzi and his staff can form them the way he wants, and if he can't do it, then nobody can.
8. The defense could get good in a hurry. I know I will lose many people here because the bowl game is still in their mind but the Pitt defense is usually at least pretty solid, if not good. They weren't good this year but they weren't as awful as many think either. I would call them average for the most part but that's a step or two up from terrible at least.
While the transitional period with a new coach sometimes makes a unit go backwards, I think it would be pretty shocking if that happened with Narduzzi on defense. And make no mistake about it, there is some talent on that side of the ball.
Narduzzi likes his cornerbacks to be athletic and press at the line of scrimmage. Jordan Whitehead seems like an ideal fit, and Titus Howard, Avonte Maddox, Phillipie Motley, and early entrant Malik Henderson looks like players that Narduzzi can really make something out of. And safeties Reggie Mitchell, Terrish Webb, and Patrick Amara have the coverage skills at safety that Narduzzi requires also. And we have to assume that Jay Stocker and/or Johnny Petrishen could sign and be in that safety mix, too.
On the defensive line, one of the weakest parts of the entire team was the pass rush, or lack thereof. But imagine the potential of Rori Blair and Luke Maclean with Narduzzi's coaching. Would anybody be surprised if Blair had 10 sacks next year? He had 5 as a true freshman as a reserve. Both starting tackles are back, and Justin Moody, Jeremiah Taleni, and Connor Dintino are intriguing young talents behind them.
At linebacker, both Todd Thomas and Anthony Gonzalez are gone, but that's probably a good thing. Not that they weren't solid players, but now Narduzzi can concentrate on the faster, younger players in the unit. Kevin Givens, if he sticks at linebacker, has the potential to be a future star. Bam Bradley and Nicolas Grigsby move very well so Narduzzi has something to work with, and youngsters Jamal Davis, James Folston, and Quintin Wirginis should excel under Narduzzi.
8. The offense is already very good and, barring injury, should be good again next year. There's always a worry that the players on offense will have a hard transition to a new staff. But superstars James Conner and Tyler Boyd are two players whose talents seem pretty foolproof. Chad Voytik should only get better, the offensive line, despite losing TJ Clemmings and Matt Rotheram, looks like it's going to be a strength for the foreseeable future, and all of the tight ends are back. Maybe they'll even get thrown to now, too. Throw in the fact that Chris James has star quality, and Adonis Jennings and incoming freshman Quadree Henderson should really help to complement Boyd.
1. I find it very disheartening that so many people are ready to throw Jamie Dixon under the bus so quickly even though he's known around the country as one of the best basketball coaches in the country. Does he have to do better in the NCAA tournament? Yes. Does he need to land more elite prospects? Yes. But he's also been extremely productive in his career.
I've constantly been hearing that the program is done under Dixon. Let's get this straight. If you end up in the top 10 for a few years, and then don't, that doesn't mean that your program is done. It means it's hard to be in the top 10 every year.
Let's not forget that just four years ago Pitt was ranked No. 1 in the country and was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. In the two years prior to this season, they finished fourth in the Big East and fifth in the ACC. Not only is that not disastrous, it's something that all but a small percentage of teams of teams would kill for.
This year's team is weak for three reasons- they are young, they don't have a legit center, and Durand Johnson was suspended. The latter may be the biggest hindrance to a good season, and that was not Dixon's fault. The other two was his fault, because he did not manage the roster correctly, but that happens to a lot of teams. In the last decade Syracuse, beginning just two years after they won the national championship, lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament twice in a row, then went to the NIT twice in a row. The point being, sometimes through fault of your own, and sometimes through no fault of your own, your roster gets out of whack. It doesn't mean you are going to be out of whack in the future. The good thing about basketball is that your roster can good very quickly.
2. This current team is young. Very young. I think a lot of people forget about that. The top nine teams on the team are Cameron Wright, James Robinson, Michael Young, Jamel Artis, Josh Newkirk, Chris Jones, Sheldon Jeter, Ryan Luther, and Cam Johnson. Only Wright is a senior, and only Robinson is a junior. That means seven of the top nine players are sophomores or freshmen.
3. The young players are improving. Last year Young averaged 6.0 ppg and 4.1 rpg. This year he's averaging 13.6 ppg and 8.0 rpg. That's pretty good for a sophomore that's forced to play as an undersized talent. Artis averaged 4.9 ppg and 2.9 rpg last year. This year he's averaging 9.5 ppg and 5.1 rpg. Last year Jones averaged 2.4 ppg and this year he's averaging 8.9 ppg. That's three sophomores that made big strides this year. It doesn't take much of an imagination to think that over the next two years they will continue to improve.
4. Help is on the way. Not only is Durand Johnson expected back, which alone is huge, but Cam Johnson and Luther should be much bigger factors. Incoming freshman Damon Wilson should help at point guard and giant junior college center Rozelle Nix merely has to be competent to make the team significantly better. A player of his size will prevent teams from continually driving into the lane and will also let Young move to power forward. And I expect to see at least one more player in this class.
5. Recruiting has lacked the elite player for the past few classes, but that doesn't mean things will continue that way. Admittedly they better or Dixon will find it more difficult to get back into that top 10 range, but as of now he has top 25 prospect Mustapha Heron on the way in the 2016 class. He's also had top 5 center Cheick Diallo visit three times and top 25 big man Alonzo Spellman visit twice. Both have Pitt on their final list. These are some of the big names but the Panthers are involved in many more quality players. We'll see if Dixon, Brandin Knight, and Marlon Williamson can land any of them and if Heron sticks with his commitment. If they can then the Panthers will combine them with their soon to be veterans and the roster will get better very quickly.