Where is the Lower Limit for Football?

Where is the Lower Limit for Football?

With the firing of Suzie McConnell-Serio from the Pitt women’s BB program yesterday, and the earlier booting of Kevin Stallings, there have been some wonderings about this new Pitt administration’s limit for poor or non-performance.

Since Pitt hired Chancellor Pat Gallagher four years ago, and AD Heather Lyke last year, we have seen some major changes happen in our athletic department.  AD Steve Pederson gone; Narduzzi Hired; AD Barnes gone; BB HC Jamie Dixon gone; BB HC Stallings hired; Stallings gone, BB HC Jeff Capel hired and now the firing of McConnell-Serio.

Clearly there is a tolerance level in place for non-performance at Pitt these days as well there should be.  When that happens it usually entails an across-the-board standard for all parties involved, but in the case of a college’s athletic programs that isn’t always feasible or even wanted.

First is because not every principal leader has the same amount of quality of resources available to them to effect success in what they do.  Secondly, and this is true in almost every college in D1 especially, and in the Power Five P5 division, many times both sports don’t have the same amount of importance attached to it by the administrations itself.

I believe that imay be the case at Pitt.  I have stated many times over the years that Pitt is a “Football School” and I say that regardless of how well either football or basketball teams have been playing.  When we discuss Pitt athletics we talk about Pitt football all year around, 24/7 and 365.  Aside from the drama of this last BB season Pitt fans talk about, and I believe really care about, Pitt BB only when it is actually being played.

Again – as I said this BB season was very different from any we had seen since Dixon was hired back in 2003.  For 16 years we’d follow Pitt BB from Midnight Madness prior to training camp and then for maybe a week or two after Pitt got thumped out of the NCAA tournament (if indeed we made it that far).

So from early November until sometime in March Pitt fans care about BB  – but even then not as much as the FB program while the FB team is still playing out their own schedule. C’mon – you know that’s true.  Things were overemphasised lately because of the firing/hiring drama but most years it plays out exactly that way.

In addition whenever we talk about past Pitt athletic mega-stars (I can’t bring myself to call any athlete a ‘hero’)  from the past the first names who crop up are always football players.  That is just the way it is at Pitt – good or bad we care and follow Pitt FB more than we do Pitt BB over the long run.

Which brings us to the questions asked by fans after both Stallings and McConnell-Serio were fired; what would it take for Pitt to pull the plug on Pat Narduzzi’s tenure at Pitt for non-performance or otherwise?

It is an interesting question albeit one I don’t think we have to worry about right away, but for discussion’s sake – what would be the lower limit of production for a Pink Slip to be issued?

Personally I feel that without any sort of illegal actions or scandal attached to a head coach each should have a full four years in play.  That is unless a program has tanked so badly under the coach that changes have to be made for the long-run health of the program itself.  We just saw that with Stallings’ firing – the BB program was in danger of losing much more than we did with his quick termination – and it was quick after only two years.

With football we have seen a different sort of parting of the ways.  We’ve seen Pitt usher out the door (well, fired for cause actually) the two best and winningest HCs in modern program history with Walt Harris’ departure in 2005 and then Dave Wannstedt’s firing in 2011.

Harris was the only HC to take the Panther’s to a BCS bowl in 2004 and we have yet to have a HC take us to the new four-team NCAA playoffs so far.  That may not happen for some time at Pitt.  So we see the older Pitt administrations making moves not so much based on winning percent – after all Harris was 52-44 (54% wins) overall and 28-27 in Big East Conference play and Wannstedt was a only a titch better at 42-31 (57%) and 24-18 in the BE.

Yes friends, unfortunately a mid-50% winning percentage is considered good at Pitt which really shows just how inept we have been since our Glory Years 40+ years ago.  But those administrators kept the reputation and proper actions of the program first and foremost in their decision-making with those terminations.

In the interim from Wannstedt to Pat Narduzzi we ran through a botched hiring and subsequent quick-firing of wife beater Mike Haywood; a trip around the grease pile with Todd Graham and then a settling in time with Paul Chryst.  Both Chryst and Graham left on their own accords but the circumstances were different between the two.  Pitt fought hard to keep Graham under contract (thank goodness that didn’t work out!) but then we pretty much knew all along that Paul Chryst was coming to Pitt for on-the-job training in anticipation of the head coaching spot at Wisconsin that was being groomed for him.

Graham’s record as the HC at Pitt was an even 6-6 in his one season and Chryst’s three-year record was 19-19 for another .500 average record.

Which brings us to the current HC Pat Narduzzi.  Narduzzi was hired after Chryst left us for Wisconsin as mentioned above.  He started off rather strong with 8-4 regular seasons in his first two years – the best we had seen since DW’s nine and 10 win run over 2009-10.  However, post-season bowl losses in those first two years capped the win total at eight with five losses in each season also.

In his third season Narduzzi hit a rough patch – but the question is how far along the Pitt highway will that rough patch extend?  He went 5-7 in 2017 but was looking at a four win season until the last game of the year where he pulled another rabbit out of his hat in beating #2 ranked Miami at Heinz field.  He’s good at that isn’t he?  Beating one team a year no one gives him a chance to.

That kept Narduzzi from being the first Pitt coach in 19 years to win less than five games… but he did win five with the Miami win and good for that because it was about the only true bright spot on the year.

Getting back to the original question here then is this; since we see Pitt has been firing other head coaches for under-performing what would be the lowest limit to the football program’s results before a head coaching change is made there?

My thoughts are these: I don’t think we have to worry about any sort of extremely bad publicity or negative personal actions on the part of Pat Narduzzi to force Pitt’s hand in firing ‘for cause’ in that way.  He’s a good leader of young men; recognizes and take disciplinary action when needed and is a good person all-around.  So whatever changes made would be based on his on-field performances I believe.

But some questions remain such as how long a leash does he have and what would be the ground floor if the team really tanked a season – let’s say three or less wins in 2018.  Would I as the AD feel that things were going to change back around to winning football under his coaching?

That is the crux of my long-held argument which states a HC in football gets a full four-year pass, then is given a truly harsh evaluation for assessing the future of the program.  As AD I would have to look at just how he succeeded in those first two seasons and then why after those consecutive successes did things go south over the last two years? Again – this is a theoritical  question based on if we have another poor season, or even worse, in ’18.

Forget about any extensions that were done on a contract, initial or re-drawn – those are for recruiting purposes mainly and there are always descending amount buyout clauses attached.  ex-BB HC Stallings’ buyout was so large because his termination was in the middle of his initial contract. Narduzzi’s, after four years, would be a lot less.

Let’s be clear that I am not advocating firing Narduzzi now nor have I ever done.  I do think that, as stated above, you have to look at lots of different angles before deciding to cut someone loose – especially a fan favorite like Narduzzi.  But where does the realization of diminishing returns kick in?

Again in our post-1970s & 80’s history we look back to see how failure in the football program has been handled by previous Pitt administrations.  Most newly hired coaches do less well in their first few years rather than later on – Dave Wannstedt is a good case in point.  Pitt stuck with him – the university’s Favorite Son – through a rather horrible first three years when he went 5-6, 6-6 and 5-7 again and that after inheriting an 8-4 BCS team from previous coach Walt Harris.  Given the high expectations we all had with Wannstedt’s hire that three year run felt a lot worse than it was.

But Pitt had faith and extended his employment during that losing 2007 season with a new contract signed the very night before the infamous 13-9 win against WVU.  That proved to be a good move as he then went on to have the best winning three-year run Pitt had in 30+ years.

But then there is another Panther Favorite Son in Foge Fazio who took over the reins from highly successful Jackie Sherrill (who was 33-3 in his last three seasons at Pitt) and slowly sank from an inherited 11-1 Sherrill team to his own 9-3 then 8-3-1 and 3-7-1 before a slight rebound to 5-7-1. But by then the handwriting was on the wall and Pitt felt we needed new people in place to right the ship.

Should Narduzzi drop down below .500 ball again I could see the same type of situation shaping up – at least the idea that Pitt would have to really take an unbiased look at what transpired over his last 2017 and 2018 years should that happen.

Many times when a new HC comes in and does well right off the bat you can point to two distinct things that caused it.  One is that he is usually left a good nucleus of returning players to build around.  That certainly was the case with Narduzzi’s 2015 and 2016 years – especially on the offensive side of the ball with a great OL, WR Tyler Boyd, RB James Conner and FB George Aston.

Another is that he grabbed the team by the emotional strings and led them to victories.  I think Narduzzi has done that well also, but the question remains that because of the poor showing in 2017, and it sure was a poor season, if that replicates itself in 2018 doers he still have command of the team the way he did in his first two seasons?

And of course the big question being ‘has his own recruiting been good enough to get the team back to an eight win season’?  That is a huge question mark going into this September.  Personally I don’t believe it has… by a long shot.  I believe we saw the lack of star power and talent depth on the team last season contribute to a poor year and I very much wonder if it is going to be much better in 2018 when even more of the two-deep are his own players.

And tagging along with will be the burning question of just how well did his Narduzzi’s own vision of the team in Year Three and Year Four come to fruition?  This is a fundamental basis for keeping or firing a head coach.  Did he do what he told you he was going to do once he started getting his own recruits populating the roster to execute his schematic approach to winning football?

We know Narduzzi has failed in that on the defensive side of the ball, which was supposed to be his great strength he was bringing to the program.  Parse it any way you want to as a fan but his defenses have been average at best and more often horrible.  Last year wasn’t an exception much either except for a few games at the tail-end of the year – but by that time we had already been assured a losing season.

If that trend continues into his fourth year at Pitt, that is fielding a defense which was supposed to carry the team to victories based on his prior professional work that isn’t playing anywhere near anticipated and we strill lose more games than we win – is Pitt supposed to sit back and twiddle their thumbs wishing that things may get better?

Because fans that is exactly what we were promised when we hired Pat Narduzzi; a strong defensive team that would carry us thought times when the offense wasn’t up to par and he hasn’t delivered that on any sort of consistent basis since he’s been here.

So there are a lot of moving parts that have to be reviewed and talked about by the administration before a decision is made to fire a HC.  Stallings was an easy decision for AD Lyke – in truth she’d have been on very thin ice herself had she not done it.

But that is basketball at Pitt not King Football where there are a lot more fans with investments in season tickets and travelling to away games than we have in BB. Factor in that a lot more money is at stake with FB (conference payouts and possible fan and alumni donor income) and it isn’t as cut and dried.  But it may well have to be addressed if Pat Narduzzi follows this last year with another disappointing season.

What would I personally do?

Well, considering the fact that I believe the football program is being handled the best it has been for some time concerning off the field issues such as fair, quick and strong disciplinary actions, along with a very positive emphasis on leadership of these student/athletes as evidenced by continuing rise in out graduation rates for football, I would take all of that under very serious consideration on the plus side.

Even more so than the won/loss record which apparently sets me aside from the majority of Pitt fans who live and die by the Won / Loss column.  I would have to look at what sort of losing season it was – should we dip down to four, three or less wins and considering I think his recruiting isn’t going to turn that downward track around I’d take that fact seriously also.

But all said and done I feel that I would err on the side of good leadership and positive experiences by our Pitt football players and give him a single year more.

Anything past that is truly even more wishful thinking than college football usually is (especially at Pitt) and I don’t hold with the belief that it has to be Pat Narduzzi at the helm or the program will slip backwards.  He’s already shown us that he can win more games than not in any given season – and that he can lose also win fewer games than his predecessors for the previous ten years.

So let’s not put Narduzzi on a pedestal.  He’s a football coach who is also an employee of the university – and as such has to prove his worth to the university on a continual basis.  I wouldn’t be shocked if after another poor, or  worse even,  season Pitt would fire Narduzzi just as I wouldn’t be shocked if they didn’t – but save any scandals or truly negative reflections on Pitt, which I very much doubt would happen with him I’d keep him around for that 5th year.

But after doing that and if not seeing a dramatic upswing in wins the next year… then it’s goodbye.

2nd Annual POV Golf Outing!!

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We are starting to finalize the details for the 2nd annual POV Golf Outing. Here are the particulars as they stand right now so placehilders into calanders please and let’s have another great day… and it really was one of the most fun times I’ve had in years…

Location: Champion Lakes Golf Course in Western PA near Latrobe. (15 hotels located within 17 miles of the course)

Date: Saturday, June 9th

Time: 1st tee time is 11am

 Cost: $89 (includes golf, cart and a sit down dinner after the round is completed).

The POV Golf Committee (really just Erie Express) asks that you get him your fees by May 19th – I’ll do an article on this with more details later this week.  It was a blast last year and should be better this year also.

I am trying to arrange a tour of the Southside football facilities if possible – and will keep you all informed on that also.