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.
We can only hope…and wait.
Featured image courtesy of Sports Illustrated via Michael Shroyer/Getty Images.