“Just a Game” Would be Best-Case Scenario for Pitt-Penn State

I promised I would keep my mouth shut until Saturday, so stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

In an ironic turn of events, the dominant story of Pitt-Penn State week has become Pitt’s self-imposed media blackout in preparation for an opponent already notorious for silence.

I told you stop me…

Pretty much how McQueary told Paterno…

Hey! I told you…

Okay, maybe I’ve made this a little too much about me. Maybe there are other Pitt fans who have made this a little too much about themselves. I shouldn’t be happy about what happened at Penn State. Nobody should. I apologize.

In that respect, I suppose I’m no better than the media who have made the Pitt-Penn State game a little too much about themselves.

I really don’t mind what Pitt has done, surprising and unconventional though it is. And even if I were still a member of that group, I wouldn’t give a damn.

But how will Pitt get any national exposure? This is a rare opportunity, and they blew it!

What, you mean like this?

Or this?

Okay, so why can’t the players handle a few questions? Last time I checked, the game itself is a lot harder.

It’s a long season. They’re going to have plenty of chances to answer tough questions. I doubt the players will regret the lack of media scrums this week. This is one way in which athletes, even the most habitual creatures of habit among them, go with the flow.

Personally, my only regret is the noon kickoff. Despite my cynicism toward television networks’ overdoing of late-afternoon and/or prime-time college football, this is a game that, for obvious reasons, should have been better isolated. If anyone, blame ESPN for burying this game, not Pitt. Or perhaps better yet, blame Major League Baseball for scheduling a 7:00 Pirate game this Saturday night, of all nights.

But you just said it–the noon game isn’t enough. You want attention? Get the media to pay it. Nobody does that to a successful program that unconditionally embraces the attention.

I’m sorry, didn’t Notre Dame have to play a noon game at Heinz Field just a year ago? And again five years ago? Gee, I thought “nobody does that” to Our Lady.

But this could be the only time all year the national media would pay attention to Pitt. What does it gain by shooing them away?

How do you know that? Did Doc Brown tell you we’re finishing fourth in the Coastal?

I’m a big fan of ESPN’s 30 for 30 on the rise and fall of Miami Hurricanes football–the first one, in particular. There’s an apt quotation early in the film about the decrepit state of that program before the Eighties: “When you’re in a city [as opposed to a college ‘town’], you’d better win.”

If Pitt wins and rewrites the script (no pun intended) by continuing to win, the Panthers will have all the eyeballs they can handle.

No they won’t. Houston is a successful team in a city. It just beat Oklahoma. How many of those guys can you name?

They’re fairly new to the whole “hey, look at me” thing. So is Pitt. Have some patience.

Oh, and, friendly reminder: they’re in Texas. I’d wager they have just a teeny bit more intrastate competition than Pitt does:

Fine, just don’t complain about a “lack of coverage” of your team next time.

Who’s to say I ever did? Don’t get me wrong, local media has too many PSU ties for my comfort–another conversation altogether–but that doesn’t affect my feelings about how Pitt is covered. Maybe this strategy won’t make Pat Narduzzi’s team play any better, but let’s stop pretending it’ll make them play worse.

I don’t want my friends in the media to think I don’t empathize. When I was one of them, I was raised on the same wholesome values of minimum wage and self-importance that made that industry–nay, America–great. (And we didn’t even need the stupid hats.)

During my time in “the business,” the Steelers and Penguins were classic cases of live and let live. The two entities that were, by far, the most paranoid about their respective images were the Pirates and Pitt. No matter who was truly at fault, I didn’t agree with that. As far as I was concerned, neither was in a position to complain about anything. This, however, is different.

In a sane world, Saturday’s game would be “just a game,” and Pitt could get away with treating it like any other. The events leading up to this game have made it not sane.

I respect Pitt’s awareness of the volatile political atmosphere surrounding this game, and under these mitigating circumstances, I respect Pitt’s desire to protect itself from itself. This is one instance in which the program and its administrators need to be forgiven, if not commended, for wanting their student-athletes to be more focused than usual–to be above the noise, and above any temptation to be part of it.

Next week, it can be business as usual on the South Side. Just not this week.

So, for those you who have acted like you own the narrative, please stop. The narrative will be there with or without you. The narrative will be written organically, on Saturday, by the players who decide this game. This game should not be all about you. It never was.

This game is about those up-and-coming Panthers finally getting a chance to walk the walk on something other than the recruiting trail. It is about those Nittany Lions, Pennsylvania’s self-proclaimed “unrivaled” team, actually getting to experience a real rivalry. It is about growing up a Pitt fan during all those years of verbal abuse from Penn State folks.

About how much Pitt sucked. About how “unimportant” and “irrelevant” we were relative to a team that was fortunate to finish with its own head barely above water. About how Penn State was so much “better” than us. About how Joe Paterno was so much better than us and our merry-go-round of coaches. About how some five-star linebacker could fart in a Baptist church in Bellefonte, and how Joe would know the instant it happened while he was calculating the light bill for the Lasch Building. About how, when their coach-is-king culture collapsed, horrifically, in their faces, they were noticeably dismissive of what else he knew.

I really don’t care that Penn State is honoring him next week, though I would encourage you to check out Paul Zeise’s spot-on deconstruction of their bullshit (I know because I’ve seen Pitt treat certain news the same way) in the Post-Gazette. It’s like watching Batman chase the Joker for pulling a bank job, then he catches him doing 60 in a school zone. It’s not so much the crime, it’s just the idea that nothing is sacred to some people who, sadly, will never change.

The best way to embarrass a team, plain and simple, is to beat it. This is about Pitt fans letting their team, the football gods willing, do their talking for them. Pitt fans would do well to remember that.

They would do just as well to forget the 9.5-point offseason line, which was a bit much. It said more about national faith in Narduzzi compared to James Franklin than anything it said about their respective teams. If it’s truth you’re after, coming off season openers that left a few things to be desired, there probably isn’t much separating these teams at all.

They’ve shown they can run. They’ve shown flashes of excellence on special teams. They’ve shown they need to tighten up their passing games. They’ve shown they can defend the pass, maybe even better than given credit for. Loyalty aside, I’m guardedly optimistic about Pitt’s chances, but whoever wins will likely have to out-ugly its opponent in a low-scoring game dominated by the defense–not unlike the last time these teams met.

This shouldn’t be about the media. This should be about reviving a grand spectacle of college football that died for the wrong reasons. I only wish Joe had lived long enough to see it.

After he had to face the truth.

Featured images courtesy of SBNation.com via Matthew O’Haren/USA Today Sports and Lance King/Getty Images.

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Prediction: Pitt Not Just a Stepping Stone for Narduzzi

It is sobering to see another summer near its end, but just as exciting to see fall near its beginning. September brings with it the start of college football season, one last playoff push from the Pirates and the start of Penguins training camp (already?!).

One summer sporting event I admit I enjoyed more than I thought I would, considering the shitshow it was setting up to be, was the Rio Olympics. The next Summer Games won’t be for another four years, when they shift to Tokyo.

I wouldn’t even want to guess how my life will be different by then. My head spins just thinking about how much my life has changed in the previous four years. But that doesn’t always stop us from looking ahead.

A couple of Facebook friends recently posed such a question–a darn good question, at that. Which of these Pittsburgh sports figures will still be here four years from now?

  • Clint Hurdle
  • Neal Huntington
  • Mike Tomlin
  • Mike Sullivan
  • Jim Rutherford
  • Pat Narduzzi
  • James Franklin
  • Kevin Stallings
  • Greg Brown
  • Bob Walk
  • Steve Blass
  • Bill Hillgrove

Another friend heard, at the time, a prediction from the family of a Pitt football player: that the “resignation” of Dave Wannstedt would set the program back five years. It has taken roughly that long for Pitt football to find stability, no thanks to opportunistic coaches and a couple delinquent ones (not necessarily mutually exclusive). Pitt fans should consider themselves lucky Pat Narduzzi is in a different place, because, as a result, the program is in a different place.

Let’s not stomp all over his predecessor, though. Paul Chryst was a warm, well-meaning person who genuinely wanted to win at Pitt. He also wanted very much to mend fences behind the scenes as he became aware of the polluted political climate created by Steve Pederson. The alumni gift baskets Narduzzi frequently sends, as seen on Twitter, were one thing that started under Chryst. But the fact of the matter is, he didn’t finish what else he started.

Narduzzi is different. His decision to take this job, as his wife has corroborated, was a very calculated one. He’s not from here, but he has western Pennsylvania ties, making his emotional investment that much stronger. While contracts in college football these days aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, Pitt’s financial investment in Narduzzi through the 2021 season will prove to be the right one.

His former boss, Mark Dantonio, also signed a revised contract recently, one that guarantees him short-term employment if he retires before 2020. Dantonio is no spring chicken, and, as successors go, Narduzzi would be an obvious choice. Still, a national championship has eluded Dantonio, who has built a program at Michigan State that seems imminently capable of winning one. It’s hard to imagine a changing of the guard in East Lansing without Dantonio at least seeing that opportunity all the way through.

Who knows where or what Pitt will be by the time Dantonio calls it quits? We do know Pitt is on a good trajectory entering the 2016 season, a trajectory it wouldn’t be on if not for Narduzzi and his staff. He has marketed the program better, embracing non-traditional ways (i.e.: social media) of doing so. He has recruited better, re-energizing top locals and tapping into new markets. Most importantly, his team has played better. And he’s just gotten started.

We also know nobody was going to change the DNA of that program in just one year, let alone two or three, and so does Narduzzi. Nevertheless, he talks of winning championships at Pitt in the present tense, which players have said is one of his most endearing qualities–and a stark contrast to Chryst.

Maybe that’s because Chryst quickly realized the shitstorm he walked into and knew he was in over his head. Maybe that’s because he knew he wouldn’t be here as soon as Barry Alvarez said it was okay to come home. It’s immaterial. Narduzzi has shown a commitment to Pitt and to winning. He believes it can be a flag-bearer for the ACC, and now his team believes it. On the field he has taken chances Chryst wouldn’t dream of taking. Off the field he won’t dream of leaving for MSU, another school or, dare we say, the NFL, until he gets his chance to finish what he started.

Four years from now, Pat Narduzzi will still be here, honoring that contract and thriving with the Panthers. And even if Pitt is just a stepping-stone job, it will still have an administration in place that knows what the hell it’s doing.

Besides, as my own alma mater has demonstrated, if being a stepping-stone school means you average nine or ten wins a year and find your way into a major bowl game every couple of seasons, being a stepping stone isn’t so bad.

Right, Coach Dantonio?

Oh, and by the way, here’s what I think of the rest:

James Franklin has longer to go than Narduzzi at Pitt to improve his stead at Penn State. I have a lot of respect for Bill O’Brien, whom he replaced. In my gut, I just don’t have as much respect for Franklin, who comes off as Todd Graham Lite, and I don’t think Penn State has fully recovered from O’Brien’s quick exit, either. Fans are starting to lose patience, and when Franklin realizes he can’t compete fast enough, he’ll split.

Meanwhile, hockey coaches, in the truest sense of the phrase, are hired to be fired. However, I foresee Mike Sullivan having a career here longer and more respectable than most, even after the champagne-soaked honeymoon ends. He will outlive the average NHL bench boss because he is, for lack of a better word, a “middle” man. He’s neither a player’s coach like Dan Bylsma was, nor his captain’s puppet like Eddie Johnston was back in the day. He also doesn’t come from the school of Bowman and Brooks, or to a lesser extent, Michel Therrien, who were drill sergeants. He’s somewhere in the middle. He is equal parts good and bad cop, and he proved this past spring he knows which is called for and when. Sully has gotten the Penguins to be their optimal selves. Furthermore, he got through to his superstars, which seemed like a pipe dream under Mike Johnston, and Sidney Crosby has a Conn Smythe Trophy and second summer with Stanley to show for it.

Speaking of hockey coaches, Mike Tomlin just might be the black Bylsma. In the next few years I could easily see him being done in by his own hubris, just like Disco Dan was after the magic of Cup No. 3 wore off. Having said that, the Rooneys don’t fire coaches. Steeler fans might as well embrace Tomlin, warts and all…obviously.

Trying to get a read on how the Pirates do business is another matter. Scoff all you want, but facts are facts. The Nutting-Coonelly-Huntington regime has overseen a period of on-field credibility that just didn’t exist under previous management, and they’ve been willing to stand by unpopular decisions to do it. Frankly, I could see Hurdle and Huntington both lasting until 2020. I could see Hurdle canonized after the Pirates chance their way into a championship. I could see Huntington’s magic running out before then and him getting canned. Would it be all that shocking if Huntington stays and Hurdle goes on his own after losing patience with the front office? The futures of both are almost a coin flip to me at this point.

One of the only sports figures in Pittsburgh more universally questioned than Huntington this year has been Kevin Stallings. His hiring was met with never-before-seen hostility by armchair ADs on social media, and he hasn’t even coached a single basketball game at Pitt. He has also pumped the brakes on his anxious fanbase more than the Pirates have, and that’s saying something. Stallings handled well his relationship with homegrown star Sheldon Jeter, and, like Narduzzi, he has shown a better, more open-minded attitude toward recruiting than his predecessor. It may take time for Pitt hoops to regain the credibility it had in Jamie Dixon’s prime, but my crystal ball says Stallings will still be turning heads at The Pete in four years.

Greg Brown and Bob Walk will stay for as long as the Pirates will have them, or until Brown sees one of the professional teams he has covered finally win a world championship. Then, if all goes well, he’ll stay to see if they can win another. He’s a company man and loyal to a fault (not unlike the Rooneys).

Blass, though I could easily say the same about him, will have retired, ditto Rutherford and Hillgrove–hopefully not too late.

Question answered?

We can only hope…and wait.

Featured image courtesy of Sports Illustrated via Michael Shroyer/Getty Images.

Heinz Field Can Still Be “It” for Pitt

The bar has been raised by Pat Narduzzi in his second year at Pitt, hence the program’s adoption of the hashtag #ThePursuit. Imagine if, one day in the not-too-distant future, his vision were realized, and #ThePursuit led to Charlotte–or beyond.

Imagine the celebration that would take place at Heinz Field if the Panthers punched a ticket to the ACC championship game in front of their fans. They would become heroes, rivaled only by those hardy enough to still show up at Heinz Field on Saturdays long before Narduzzi, his players, his staff and his bosses made it a thing.

Their reward, besides getting to play for the school’s first(!) outright conference title since shedding its independent football status a quarter-century ago, would be the eternal gratitude of this fanbase. I was there “that day” against Cincinnati. For a while I wondered when Pitt would ever sniff such an opportunity again.

Their punishment: the vocal minority that will probably still complain because it didn’t happen in an on-campus stadium.

You know who you are. You buckled at attendance jokes; heck, you might have even cracked a few yourself. You bemoaned the Steelers logo that bled through midfield. You complained about The Panther Pitt using “Sweet Caroline” as a stage direction (exit right) instead of the strange, borrowed battle cry it is so it could catch a shuttle or cram for finals. To a certain degree, the ball is in your court–or on your occasionally divot-filled natural surface, as it were–to make Heinz Field what Pitt always dreamed it could be.

Granted, if 2016 ticket sales are any indication, many of you have already taken that ball, run with it and spiked it in the faces of the naysayers. Kudos.

For the rest of you Pitt fans, a friendly reminder who will be there, with a remarkably clean bill of health, this Saturday (lest we forget who will be there the Saturday after):

So as far as I’m concerned, you have few acceptable excuses not to be.

This is not to say Heinz Field is without some of the issues fans have raised. It was built on the cheap. It lacks the character of modern football stadiums, regardless of the makeshift Pitt decor on game days, and it fails to take advantage of its surroundings. Heinz Field will never sell itself like PNC Park did in the lean years.

Its yellow seats, an homage surely paid with good intentions but an eyesore on television nonetheless, have only made Pitt an easier target for those attendance jokes, which hurt the program’s image without even ringing true. Of all the football attendance increases reported by FBS programs in 2015, Pitt’s was the greatest.

So why are we there in the first place? Furthermore, how do we make it better, short of playing political football with overly idealistic, if not fantastical, retro Pitt Stadium proposals?

Think back 20 years to when Steve Pederson took over Pitt athletics. Pitt fans resent Pederson for acting like he had them over a barrel. To be fair, when he began his first tour of duty at the university, he did.

The football program was so down and its stadium so dilapidated practically any change would be refreshing–even his doing away with “The Script,” which has since, in hindsight, rightfully returned. The facilities were about as competitive as the team was, and even as the team slowly reversed fortunes, people were using geography and accessibility as excuses not to come to games anymore. It was time to either build a new stadium or save money by sharing the modern one that was under construction just a few miles away.

We can debate the prioritization of basketball under Pederson, but we can agree the turnaround of that program probably doesn’t happen without a new, state-of-the-sport home of its own where Pitt Stadium once stood. He can share credit for that renaissance, at least, which began on his watch and continued when he returned for his ill-fated second tenure. If he was guilty of anything, it was not so much entering into a relationship with the Steelers, but not doing enough to accentuate its positives. His penchant for austerity would prove to be both his and his program’s undoing.

As time marches on, it will be harder for kids not already familiar with Pitt’s proud history to appreciate the names Dorsett, Ditka or Marino, but they will most assuredly know what the name “Steelers” means. Even Todd Graham, a scumbag in any other context, recognized the value in Heinz Field as a recruiting tool and butted heads with Pederson over its use.

Narduzzi and new AD Scott Barnes have done a fine job not just embracing the NFL, but selling Pitt as a preparatory path to the NFL. The new regime has brought the spring game back to Heinz Field, where it belongs, and where those kids get up for playing. Can you blame any of them for wanting to play in the home of a world-renown NFL franchise? Still, there’s an even simpler way to create a true home-field advantage for Pitt football.

The idea that winning cures all is one fans have seen put to the acid test. On “that day,” Heinz Field was as full and fired-up as ever when a top-20 Pitt team with 30 seniors and NFL talent up and down its offense hosted Brian Kelly’s Bearcats in a uniquely high-leverage situation for both programs. The winner would take the Big East crown and accompanying BCS berth.

We all know how that game ended. We all know how the next five seasons ended.

Pitt football stepped backward, and thus, stepped back into being background noise until the Steelers, Penguins and/or Pitt basketball got underway. Many times at Heinz Field there wasn’t much noise at all. The eventual ascent of that other team on the North Shore from the ashes of irrelevance didn’t help, either.

Remember what the Pirates were like when Clint Hurdle first got here? They started raising eyebrows, and fans started showing up. All was suddenly well on Federal Street…until the stretch run, when they returned to all-too-familiar form, and their fans tuned out all over again. If you kept going to Grand Concourse and they kept serving you steak that was under-cooked, would you want to go back there?

The 2016 Panthers are not a finished product. Narduzzi will probably need another year or two to turn the University of Pittsburgh into MSU On The Mon. Nevertheless, they laid the foundation last season, and we saw–and heard–what happened when the Panthers roared. If this talented group can build upon that foundation, those vacant yellow seats will be out of sight and out of mind.

The era of Pitt football from 2001 to present day has taught us, if nothing else, an abject lesson: people will come watch their product if they are given a product worth watching.

Hurdle said of PNC Park very early in that first year at the helm, “When we win, this place is going to rock.” Perhaps Narduzzi could pacify the Pitt Stadium 2.0 camp by making the same pitch for Heinz Field?

He doesn’t strike me as one to swing and miss very often.

Featured image courtesy of Pitt Football via Twitter @Pitt_FB.