My Top Pittsburgh Sports Moments of 2015: The Year that Actual Coaching Took Place

Pirates home opener, PNC Park

6. Birthday Baseball with Burnett –

I’ll begin my countdown by breaking an unwritten rule and underlining my own ego right away: Is it any wonder the Pirates started turning around their season at the same time my girlfriend treated us to a game for our shared birthday? One fine Saturday afternoon at PNC Park saw the Dark Knight go to school, and Batman was the professor:

In addition to Courtney and I winning just about every gameday freebie imaginable (including free tickets to a later A.J. gem and walk-off victory over the Padres), McCutchen and Alvarez both hit balls that needed clearance from Pittsburgh International to land, and the Pirates won en route to a pivotal sweep of the Mets. Perhaps the only thing that could have made the experience better would have been a repeat result five months later.

Although that didn’t happen, it doesn’t change the fact that one of my favorite stories of the year was watching one of my favorite Pirates of all time return with flair to the franchise–and the fanbase–he helped resuscitate.

5. Popping the Pitt Cherry –

A shout-out to Pitt Athletics wheeler-and-media-dealer E.J. Borghetti seems necessary here. I promised him at Fan Fest that I would get Courtney to her first Pitt football game in due time, which I did, on the first weekend of the Pat Narduzzi era. Despite intolerable heat, it proved to be a good time and a prudent pick for my other half’s first game, because it featured exactly what I’ve come to except from Pitt–a little bit of everything:

The sudden and sobering end to James Conner’s season was offset by the ominous (and, in the former’s case, unforeseen) debuts of Qadree Ollison, the eventual ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year, and Jordan Whitehead, the eventual ACC Defensive and Overall Rookie of the Year. In addition, the Panthers’ much-hyped new coach passed his first big test: For the love of all things holy, don’t do what the last guy did in his first game against Youngstown State.

4. Taming the Tigers –

I’ll continue with my overly self-indulgent theme–Courtney and I were at this game, too, thanks to a wonderful Christmas present from her parents–though there isn’t much I could say to do further justice to the majesty of a Pirates home opener. Especially this one.

Josh Harrison reminded us all never to [mess] with a Bearcat, and Gerrit Cole delivered one of the most masterful performances by a Pirate pitcher I’ve ever seen in person. Sitting in our veiled seats along the first base side, I told my girlfriend, in so many words, we were watching a legend in the making. For all the hyperbolic statements I’ve made, I wasn’t wrong about that one:

3. Meet and Greet –

Okay, no more horn-tooting after this, I promise. But I almost completely forgot another even more unique sports experience from my past year, and I’m kicking myself for doing so, and so now I can’t brag for very long about the experience and the person who helped engineer it, because I have to go to work in the morning. (Sorry, dear.)

Popchock with Clint HurdleAnyway, two friends of ours share a Pirates season ticket plan, and one of the mid-season perks was an impromptu photo session with several random players that, regrettably, they were unable to attend. So, as a surprise, Courtney drove my unsuspecting rear end down to the North Shore one summer Sunday and spilled the beans once we got in line.

Our side of the line, in case you’re curious, got to take selfies and shake hands with, among others, Starling Marte, Mark Melancon and Francisco Liriano. Not a bad haul for not knowing what we were walking into, eh?

Oh, and I had to get a photo with that guy up there. I don’t care what anyone else says–what he has done for baseball in this town is historic.

2. Stickin’ It to St. Louis –

There’s a recency bias toward hating the Chicago Cubs. I’ll do us all the courtesy of not reviewing why. But it’s the Cardinals who provided the feel-bad ending to baseball’s best feel-good story a couple years ago. It’s the Cardinals who keep putting the Pirates at the mercy of buzz-saw pitchers in the Wild Card by squeaking past them in the Central, thanks in large part to a few head-to-head games over the years that could easily have gone Pittsburgh’s way instead. It’s the Cardinals who are the one thing every other rival fanbase in the National League can agree upon. It’s the Cardinals who the Post-Gazette‘s Craig Meyer once perfectly described as “that rich kid you knew in high school [whom] everything always seemed to break for.” But for two nights right before the All-Star Break, things didn’t break for the Cardinals at all, and it was awesome:

Both wins represented an emotional high-water mark for Pirate fans in 2015, while turning the fabled Twitter account Baseball’s Best Fans (@BestFansStLouis) into CLO-caliber theater. If not for another wet-fart ending to another otherwise impressive season, the Pirates might top my list, even if for no other reason than that exhilarating July weekend on which little brother got a couple good licks in at big brother.

1. (Tie) Rise of the Riverhounds/Dawn of the ‘Duzz/Slammed by Sullivan –

While attending a tailgate prior to the Riverhounds’ U.S. Open Cup match against the Tampa Bay Rowdies, I asked my old colleague Dan Yost, a longtime Steel Army member and organizer, why the Hounds, a notoriously slow-starting team time and again, were playing so much better to start the 2015 campaign. His response: “This year, there’s actual coaching taking place. There’s an actual system being taught. It isn’t just ‘everybody get the ball to our best player,’ whoever our best player is that night.”

I’m a big believer in the adage that, ultimately, a team assumes the personality of its coach. We’ve seen it in the Steelers under Mike Tomlin, which has produced its fair share of good and bad. We’ve seen the resourcefulness and the heart of the Pirates under Clint Hurdle. We’ve seen it in the Penguins, who went from Dan Bylsma, a former Jack Adams Award winner done in by his own hubris, to my freshman English Lit professor on NyQuil–or, as he was known in these parts, Mike Johnston. Of the positive Pittsburgh sports moments of the past year, the most common one seemed to be that three teams that sorely needed coaching changes, and, by proxy, personality changes, got them.

Take nothing away from former interim coach and current assistant Niko Katic; one of the most prudent offseason moves made by Riverhounds management was not to burn that bridge. But new manager Mark Steffens, though failing to rid his team of all its bad habits, did put a more entertaining and more poised team on the field. That aforementioned night at Highmark Stadium, his boys beat the Rowdies of the NASL, the no-longer-undisputed second tier of American pro soccer, thanks to late heroics by USL scoring title contender Rob Vincent:

Furthermore, they looked like the more diligent and more desirous team for much of the ensuing round versus MLS powerhouse D.C. United in front of a capacity home crowd before seemingly running out of gas in extra time. They later capped their season with a return to the playoffs and concurrent Keystone Cup title over Harrisburg City Islanders that was previously aided by, arguably, the greatest win in franchise history:

Don’t look now, but if Steffens finds a little more goaltending depth and a steadier back line, the Riverhounds could win a championship before any of Pittsburgh’s other teams do.

Pat Narduzzi openly set the bar at a championship level when he took over Pitt football. He didn’t win any titles in his first year on the job, but it was still a successful year insofar as he achieved something much more practical with that program; he put a team on display that was watchable. The Panthers, in nailing my preseason prediction of 8-4, went from a team that dreamed of winning to a team that believed it could win. The belief was evident, as was their newfound poise and toughness:

The 2015 Panthers were a fascinating mix of resurgent seniors and exciting underclassmen who seem to be setting the tone for a bright future. They went from inventing increasingly infamous ways to lose to finding unique ways to win. Imagine what Pitt could do with those underclassmen maturing, with Narduzzi further growing into his first-ever head coaching role and with the firm support of an engaged and non-divisive administration that actually knows what the hell it’s doing.

One of the two moments most wonderfully symbolic of the multi-sport coaching revolution in Pittsburgh in 2015 happened in that penultimate home game. Terrish Webb jogged toward the Pitt sideline following a Louisville touchdown after being burnt like toast for the second or third time in the first half. Narduzzi immediately made a beeline for Webb and gave him an earful. On Louisville’s next drive, a different player had Webb’s assignment. It’s one of a number of things Narduzzi did this past season that his predecessor wouldn’t have dreamed of doing.

The other one involved the merciful swapping of the Mikes by Pens GM Jim Rutherford, who had just replaced Johnston with Sullivan after the latter had guided the once under-the-radar Baby Pens of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to a red-hot start to the 2015-16 AHL season. In Sullivan’s second game with the big club, a ho-hum loss at Boston during which I fell asleep (figuratively and literally), Ian Cole was beaten on the back end for the Bruins’ second goal of the game, which stood despite a coach’s challenge. While officials deliberated, NBC Sports Network cameras captured Sullivan giving Cole the first tongue-lashing I could remember seeing from a Penguin coach in a long time. The scolding, to say nothing of Cole’s deer-in-headlights reaction, was priceless.

No new coach was going to change the DNA of the Penguins in the time that has passed since Sullivan was promoted. Friendly reminder: they were tolerable, and, at times, even entertaining, for the first few months that Johnston was on the job. But as 2015 has transitioned into 2016, Mario’s time-tested ship, with that big for-sale sign attached, at least appears not as rudderless anymore.

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