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.

Yes, the Pens are Better Off Under Mike Sullivan, But…

Wednesday was National Penguin Awareness Day. So here’s what I’m aware of:

As things stand on the third Wednesday of January, the Penguins haven’t been good enough. The product, in the big picture, has been beneath itself and the foundation of its fanbase for a while now. There’s just no putting a prom dress on that pig (and in the event of National Pig Awareness Day being a thing, I apologize in advance).

On the plus side, the biggest winners of the NFL’s Divisional Playoff weekend, from a Pittsburgh P.O.V., were actually the Penguins. While the Steelers were playing their guts out in Denver, the Pens gut-punched the Carolina Hurricanes in a battle for playoff positioning, and they went to bed Sunday knowing many Pittsburghers had been distracted by football until their season was more than half over.

However, whatever gas was in their tank that afternoon, they clearly ran out of in St. Louis, losing a game that was winnable through two periods. Sadly, this has been par for the course for this group.

(Sidebar: It’s a damn shame they couldn’t play that game on Wednesday. Back when both “Expansion Era” franchises were in their infancy and played in the same division, Pens-Blues was a very rancorous rivalry, and on history alone, much more appropriate for Rivalry Night than many of the NHL’s made-for-cable-TV “rivalries.” At least this time NBCSN gave us a worthy substitute with Blues-Red Wings.)

Losing to Ken Hitchcock is bothersome. I’ve never had much respect for him, between his Olympic team tanking and his pioneering of the nonsensical “Crosby is a diver” narrative when he coached the Flyers and his own hand-picked punk, Derian Hatcher, performed involuntary dentistry on Sid. What’s much sadder, though, is the constant spinning of Penguin tires that just won’t cease.

We’ve seen the Pens approach games the right way more often under Mike Sullivan, and yet we haven’t seen a winning streak of any kind since Steigy had hair–or early November, if you wish to split hairs. Even under Sullivan, they’ve been consistently inconsistent.

Sullivan has roughly a third of his $70-million team invested in three presumably elite forwards. He has the respect of all three, and of the rest of his players. He has an exact idea of the way he wants those players to play. One thing he doesn’t have, which could make a world of difference, is time.

Walking from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton into the shit-storm that’s been brewing in Pittsburgh the past few years is analogous to when Pat Narduzzi took the head football coaching job at Pitt. Eddie Johnston put it well; as a first-year guy, you’re just trying to put your best foot forward with what you’ve inherited, and hope you can instill a couple good habits along the way. We probably won’t know what the Penguins are really capable of under Sullivan until he has a training camp to further evaluate that talent and further instill those habits.

Count Crosby among those playing the right way under him, and looking, at last, like himself. Don’t buy that tabloid mularkey about him being a coach-killer. Right sentiment, wrong captain. Let’s just leave it at that.

If anything, Sid is guilty of being too obedient, and consider the style and disposition of the coach he was obeying before Sullivan. The shackles are off now, and Crosby is back to making Crosby-esque plays, aiding an improved power play, and scoring goals like this one:

Evgeni Malkin, also, has developed an immunity to the rest of his team’s sporadic offensive woes. His go-ahead goal against the Blues was a vintage one of his own. Alas, Geno giveth, and Geno taketh away.

Whether or not you agree with the call he was assessed in overtime last week in Carolina that cost the Pens a valuable extra point, Malkin has to realize when you do what he did right in front of an official–even an NHL official–you should expect to get whistled. Once again, it goes back to becoming a creature of better habit, which doesn’t happen overnight.

Sullivan, for his part, won’t get a free pass for his team leaving those extra points on the table with one overtime loss after another, especially if the wrong players are on the ice for 3-on-3, or if the wrong players are on the ice for shootouts. Nor should he. This team used to be money in the bank when games went beyond 60 minutes. Now, not so much. For as tight as the Eastern Conference is anymore, that needs to go back to the way it was, quickly.

There have been myriad problems with “the system” dating back to the middle of Dan Bylsma’s tenure. Sometimes, though, it isn’t the coach’s vision. It’s the people executing it.

David Perron just couldn’t shake “Edmonton Disease.” Patric Hornqvist has a nose for the net, but hasn’t always finished what he’s started–a recurring theme throughout the lineup. Role players like Nick Bonino and Eric Fehr, thought to be intelligent offseason acquisitions, have been invisible, Fehr’s above-the-line penalty killing notwithstanding. And there’s no reason Phil Kessel, who, despite the team’s struggles, got off to an okay start, shouldn’t be building upon that start under a more offensively-inclined coach–especially after playing well in Toronto under Randy Carlyle, a very strong-willed man, like Sullivan.

As often as they’ve let their team down, one offseason narrative that has come to fruition is that the Pens’ defense has let them down even more. There was no reason that come-from-ahead OT loss in Tampa Bay should have gotten out of hand the way it did, which started with usual suspect Ben Lovejoy again getting beat like he stole something:

Another embarrassing play by Lovejoy was a momentum-shifter in St. Louis as well:

He will be Jim Rutherford’s albatross until Rutherford makes it right, just as he potentially rectified his bad investment in Perron by trading him for speedier Carl Hagelin, who had success under Sullivan when the latter was an assistant with the Rangers. That said, how much worse could Adam Clendening have been than Lovejoy, given the same minutes? For that matter, how much worse could Matt Murray be in goal than Jeff Zatkoff?

It is not in the DNA of this front office to stray from its win-now course. To wit, when in the position of having to fight for every point, certain chances have to be taken. That’s on the guys in coats and ties–all of them.

The Penguins are better off under Mike Sullivan. Unfortunately, Mike Sullivan doesn’t pass, shoot, score or defend. Unfortunately, for this no-excuse organization, results still matter, and they still aren’t there.

On multiple levels, there’s no better time to start getting them than Thursday night.

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

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.