“Now Sir! Time doth bring sad changes, for people often change and seldom do better”
When I was in my 20s there was a West Coast fusion band I loved named Tower of Power and one of their hit songs was titled “What is Hip?” Here is the refrain from that…
“What is hip?
Tell me, tell me if you think you know
What is hip?
If you was really hip
The passing years would show
You into a hip trip
Maybe hipper than hip
But what is hip?”
The point is that being that “hip” is flexible, it differs and is unique to you. You can be hip one day and things change and you are on the outside looking in. Unless you create your own style. Then you are hipper than hip because you own it.
I immediately thought of that on Friday when I was reading the comments to that article written about the aftermath of the Bowl loss up in NYC. The phrase SOP or “Same Old Pitt” came up, as it regularly does, about a hundred times a day when talking about Pitt football
I wrote then that SOP ‘has no real definition and a thousand faces‘ because I think that it is one phrase we throw out, usually in dismay, as it is seen and processed through our own individual lens. If those lenses are blue and gold then you most probably didn’t see much SOP over the course of the season that just ended.
However, the more pessimistic fans saw SOP under every bush and around every corner from September until last Wednesday. It is a hard question and answers differ so let’s take a look at the Pitt football program itself before we start to try to pin an answer down.
When I look at Pitt football history I see four distinct eras. The “Old Glory Days” which is pre-WWII and when we had giants like Jock Sutherland and Pop Warner striding around Oakland and winning national titles. Eight of those to be exact. For me, since I was a student at Pitt in the 1970s those day were to far removed for me to have any feelings for other than as a fan of Pitt history as I have always been.
But for my parents and grandparents, Pitt students and administrators all, those were their Glory Days and they never stopped talking about them so I grew up hearing every story and cliché there was about The Pitt Football Powerhouse in those days of my youth.
For them as students in the 1920s to the 1940s “Same Old Pitt” was pretty freaking fantastic. Take a look back at those days via this site. We had eight straight years with eight or more wins which is quite the accomplishment considering they only played a nine game schedule.
Pitt’s second era , let’s call it Pitt’s ‘modern era’, was from the 1950 up to the 1970s. There are a few of us older folks on here who have that time period as a basis for our ‘hands on’ Pitt experience. That is when I was on-campus; Dan 72 and other readers also have that period as our student frame of reference.
We saw and were close enough to the worst and the best of what ever happened in Pitt Stadium including the decade of 1965-1974 when we averaged only 2.8 wins per year. I went to every home game from 1955 until 1978 and heard all about the dismal ’60s. Then Pitt turned things around and ramped the program up to give us those glorious winning seasons run under Johnny Majors. He took us to the pinnacle of college ball with an undisputed national championship.
So of course we know first hand how wide and savage the swings of Pitt football can be. But that was also a spoiling time for us because after we left school Pitt did something they didn’t normally do – they kept winning for another stretch of time.
With Coach Jackie Sherrill and Oakland’s own star QB Dan Marino and those great supporting casts they had, mostly from the local tri-state area and so were hometown favorites, Pitt ripped off a three-year 33-3 record and was on top of the world. Now we had a “New Glory Days”.
Then came what I like to call the “Post-’80” past. I look at that as from when Foge Fazio was fired until when Walt Harris was hired to take the program over from a faltering Paul Hackett. Pitt had an average at best record during that period with an eight win season stuck in the middle of mostly four and five win years.
But that’s not so bad in comparison to the decade from Hackett’s arrival in 1990 until 1999 when Pitt averaged only 4.4 wins per year; another mediocre at best time in Pitt history. We’ve had our share of those, haven’t we?
But since we are discussing the ‘Same Old Pitt’ syndrome now we have to have a firm time span to use as a reference for us to look back from today and so I think 1997-2016, those 20 years, is a good basis for that.
It has been a weird 20 years for sure. Some of you younger readers on here went to school back then; we have commenters who were students during the totally ridiculous and in my opinion embarrassing “Back to the Future” or the “Majors II” years when we had 3, 3, 2 and 4 wins. That sucked for sure and I feel for you guys.
But we have also seen some pretty interesting and sometimes amazing stuff happen with the program from our last five real head coaches. That’s right, five working head coaches in the last 20 years beginning with Walt Harris followed by Dave Wannstedt, Todd Graham, Paul Chryst and now Pat Narduzzi.
That change-over is part of why I think it is hard to get a true handle on what SOP actually means because the main circumstances of Pitt football kept morphing so much. Which ironically created its own SOP conditions regarding staff stability – there was none. It wasn’t just the HCs who changed places, it was the accompanying seven or eight staff and position coaches also.
Throw in two separate Chancellors and what will soon be a total three different Athletic Directors and you see that when the ground kept shifting under Pitt’s feet its hard to get a purchase and move forward.
In the paragraph above I count what had to be least 70 different personnel changes over that 20 years. I’m not talking about minor actors like departmental staff positions but people who had worked directly with the players themselves or were responsible for plans, programs and policies that directly impacted the players and the football program.
I’m not a college football historian but I’d like to know if any other D1 program ever had to deal with such constantly changing circumstance that Pitt has had to contend with especially in the past six years.
Yet through all of that we didn’t see the team or the program tank as we had seen Pitt do in those time periods directly before the Harris hire. We fans currently think things are not up to par, have been mostly negative and worse of all it has been SOP! But aside from a singular two win season in 1997 we have had only five seasons where we won less than 6 games in twenty years – those were with a minimum of five wins.
Get that? Aside from one really bad year the worst of it was five wins per season.
Folks – there are many, many programs who slide well below the .500 mark with none of those negative factors Pitt had to deal with. Some programs have prolonged losing seasons. Some powerhouse programs dip below the break even line with no external factors pressing on them at all.
For example Texas just had two 5 win seasons in the last two years. Michigan had 3, 5 and 5 wins seasons in the last nine years. Stanford had 1, 4 and 5 wins in that same period. It has happened all over college ball with programs great and small – yet not with Pitt in a long time.
Remember that lead-in quote from above ‘… for people often change and seldom do better” Well, that’s what happened to those big dog programs. They changed and quickly and not for the better.
Yet Pitt has a few 6 and 7 win seasons lately and we fans are tearing our hair out thinking that how bad that is and that nothing can be done to make things better. I do find it funny that the coach we all point to for having the winningest seasons in the last 20 years, Dave Wannstedt with his 9, 10 and 8 win years also had our last stretch of 5 win years.
Things were bad then for Pitt, but under the same coach things changed and we got better. Thus is life in sports.
So while we may be pointing to this year’s second consecutive eight win season and cry “Same Old Pitt” that isn’t entirely true. Yes, there may be a semblance of SOP because we didn’t progress in the number of wins from one year to the other. And it may be SOP because we lost a second bowl game we should have won; of course Lady Justice has the PSU and Clemson games on the other side of her scales in that regard. But really this version of SOP ain’t all that bad recent history-wise.
That’s the more macro view. Let’s put a larger magnification lens in our Pitt glasses and look at this last season in particular.
Two things jump out right away when I think about 2016. We had an eight game winning season and we set historical records on offense. Those are two damn good things to have accomplished my friends. I think it is safe to say that ending up 10th nationally in scoring 41 points a game is a real accomplishment.
This comes on the heels of these last three offenses we had with two different OCs:
2105 – 28.2 ppg (68th)
2104 – 31.8 ppg (46th)
2103 – 26.3 ppg (80th)
I’d say there was positive change there and a pretty dramatic one at that. Hell, even the ‘dropped like a rock’ defense we had wasn’t SOP – it was worse.
I am not the biggest Pat Narduzzi fanatic. I think he was a good hire and has done a good job but I haven’t been over the moon about his actually game day coaching at all. I wrote in the preseason that I wanted to see one more thing out of him; something that he didn’t get done in 2015 and that was to win a ‘big’ conference game.
Well he did that in beating #2 and possible National Champs Clemson on their home turf. That wasn’t SOP. Yes, we have had dramatic wins in the recent past. 2007’s 13-9 win over WVU comes to mind as does our 41-38 five TD pass win over ND back in 2004. But those were high points in a season with no other big wins. Narduzzi beat Clemson and also beat arch-rival Penn State earlier in the year and that wasn’t SOP either.
One of my benchmarks of a good head coach is how he handles the players off the field and how well they respond to his personal leadership efforts. Coach Narduzzi has had a solid 18 months without a player arrest – that isn’t SOP, but is a great thing to have accomplished.
Narduzzi also kisses his players on the face on national TV. That isn’t SOP but it got the job done when needed.
So through my lens I think this has been a darn good year in a lot of respects. If I had to say we saw SOP in any way I’d say that it was that we couldn’t capitalize on our great offense to win 10 or 11 regular season games because our defense dragged us down so badly. It truly was horrid.
Maybe that act of not being able to completely fulfill promises, in this case the promise of having a better defense then we did in 2015, is somewhat SOP and kept a good season from being a great one. Just as we couldn’t close the deals earlier in the decade by not being able to hold leads against Cincinnati and UCONN with those losses costing us conference championships – this season we couldn’t stop anyone’s passing game enough to win a conference championship either.
Oh – here’s the last bit of that song…
As you striving to find the right road
There’s one thing you should know
What’s hip today
Might become passe