A commenter asked me a question yesterday that was basically “Reed – if you were the Athletic Director what would you do to help the football team?”
Well, since I have been following Pitt football for a very long time and have been writing about it for years also you’d think I’d have some opinions on this subject… and I do. My first official statement as a new AD would be this:
“It is important for every Pitt fan to know and understand that the intent and business of the University and the Athletic Department is that the football program be self-sufficient in financial terms”
That is the at the center of almost every fan’s complaints about the state of Pitt football today. If you don’t understand that premise then you can’t understand the true state of Pitt football. And that isn’t unusual in Division 1 schools either; it is more the norm than a deviation actually.
Look – Pitt has the 29th largest endowment fund in the U.S at $3.52 Billion dollars and none of it will ever go towards athletics and it shouldn’t.. That says something right there about where priorities lay…
First let’s go over the major complaints and/or reasons Pitt fans have as to why Pitt football is the way it is. Which begs the question what exactly what is Pitt football’s state right now; was in the in the modern past and will be in the near future?
We know about the past. With a two-year exception over 2008 – ’09 when Dave Wannstedt was the head coach and had a nine then a 10 win season along with a singular 2002 nine win year under Walt Harris Pitt has topped off at eight wins. Put another way Pitt has won eight or more game only nine times in 30 years.
I read somewhere that Pitt was one of only three D1 colleges who had only one 10 win season in that time period… out of 129 D1 schools. That is low company folks.
On the flip side Pitt has won five or fewer games 10 times in that same time period. So you can see that over the last three decades Pitt has been an average football team with bouts of good play and bouts of poor play. Pretty much middling and mediocre ball when every season is averaged out. As discussed below over our last 34 years we have a 207/201 record or just above .500 ball – so we Pitt fans aren’t unfamiliar with averageness at all.
We just saw that writ large over Pat Narduzzi’s first three years when he had back to back eight win years followed by a drop to a five win season. Personally I believe that inherited players Narduzzi was handed had more to do with those eight win years than his coaching did. But that isn’t the first time that has happened in Pitt history. If Foge Fazio were alive he could talk about that.
So that is where we are today. Coming of a five win season and looking at a new 2018 season with a tough schedule and question marks throughout the team.
So let’s take a look at some of the reasons Pitt fans feel we are in this position of mediocrity.
- Not enough financial and administrative support from the Pitt administration for athletics and football in particular
- No on-campus stadium
- The drop in quality of WPIAL football quality
- We have too hard competition in our out-of-conference scheduling
- The Football Gods are out to get us
Since I’m now the AD and have been one long enough to see the inner-workings of the Pitt athletic department and to try to do something about, it here’s my answer to those.
First off Pitt fans really don’t get exactly how Pitt football fits into the University of Pittsburgh’s overall mission areas.
The University of Pittsburgh, founded in 1787, is one of the oldest institutions of higher education in the United States. As one of the nation’s distinguished comprehensive universities, the resources of the University constitute an invaluable asset for the intellectual, economic, and social enrichment of Pennsylvania, while the international prestige of the University enhances the image of Pennsylvania throughout the world.
The University’s mission is to:
- provide high-quality undergraduate programs in the arts and sciences and professional fields, with emphasis upon those of special benefit to the citizens of Pennsylvania;
- offer superior graduate programs in the arts and sciences and the professions that respond to the needs of Pennsylvania, as well as to the broader needs of the nation and the world;
- engage in research, artistic, and scholarly activities that advance learning through the extension of the frontiers of knowledge and creative endeavor;
- cooperate with industrial and governmental institutions to transfer knowledge in science, technology, and health care;
- offer continuing education programs adapted to the personal enrichment, professional upgrading, and career advancement interests and needs of adult Pennsylvanians; and
- make available to local communities and public agencies the expertise of the University in ways that are consistent with the primary teaching and research functions and contribute to social, intellectual, and economic development in the Commonwealth, the nation, and the world.
The trustees, faculty, staff, students, and administration of the University are dedicated to accomplishing this mission, to which they pledge their individual and collective efforts, determined that the University shall continue to be counted among the prominent institutions of higher education throughout the world.
Not a single word about athletics.
Sorry to disappoint but football at Pitt holds a very small place in the scheme of things and as such gets rather small budget aside from monies earned from the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and Pitt’s cut of sales from marketing Pitt gear and memorabilia (very small as compared to the other bigger schools around us like Penn State, Ohio State and West Virginia who rake in apparel money.)
But even with that there was a commitment back when the decision was made to move out of Pitt Stadium to build state of the art football facilities on the Southside. The UPMC Sports complex and the Duratz Athletic Complex found inside them are as good as almost any school in the U.S. save for the huge football factory schools like Alabama, Penn State, etc. It truly stacks up with the best in a lot of ways and money is spent on it every year (and even more when a new HC comes aboard to pee his scent all over the public areas) to keep it up to date and modern.
Believe me football facilities are not the problem at Pitt – if anything they are the bright spot.
As far as getting money and creating and feeding a separate budget for Pitt football that is way easier said than done at Pitt and mainly for three reasons. First our alumni donations to athletics are truly putrid – almost dead last in the ACC and poor in comparison to the other D1 schools. Donations to the university’s endowment are great but rancid to athletics. So that impacts perhaps the most important thing when it comes to field a top-notch football program – staff salaries.
You can pay anything you want to a HC and Pitt has been about average or a bit below with that over the years… but if you want to win football games in more than a one or two-year spurt you have to pay, and pay well, for strong and successful coordinators and position coaches. This is where Pitt has dropped the ball mostly in my opinion.
Then you have to allocate money to build a successful and efficient recruiting staff and program and give them resources to effectively do their job. Wannstedt was a true “Pitt Man” who played back when Pitt was getting good teams and who had a great relationship with the local high school coaches and had a reputation from his NFL days as HC of the Miami Dolphins. So with that he could recruit blue chip kids out of both WPA and Florida. Thus his recruiting was top-shelf and he won more games over three years than any other Pitt HC did since Jackie Sherrill.
But Pat Narduzzi has neither of those advantages (and hasn’t built those much needed local ties to HS coaches) so he needs to rely on a super-effective recruiting team and he hasn’t built one. His staff coaches have been re-treads for the most part with a gem or two thrown in (i.e. Matt Canada), but he hasn’t targeted superior personnel and gotten the AD to pay for them – which is as much a head coach’s job as directing the team itself.
So as the AD in this situation I tell him to do his homework and look outside his FOP (Friends of Pat) circle and hire quality for cost be it an up and coming youth or a coach with prior experience and success at a same-level school. They are out there; I just wonder how hard he’s working to get them on staff because they are the ones who are going to get the recruit’s actual commitment.
It is true that the WPIAL lacks the top to bottom quality it had when Pittsburgh and Western PA were different back before the mills and heavy industries left the area. That time can’t be brought back and the fact is that we have to live with that. But let’s also not kid ourselves that other schools aren’t pulling quality recruits out of the WPIAL right from under our noses and having success with them.
Penn State has gotten Bowers, Sander and Wade – 4* and 5* recruits out of this area in just the last few years to name just a sample. ND has been culling blue chip kids off our own campus lately also as has some other big programs. We used to get those recruits at Pitt.
And we should still be getting the lion’s share and to do that the Pitt HC and his staff have to build solid relationships with the HS coaches so that when a Pitt recruiter sits in a family’s living room talking with the parents and the kid’s coach they believe what that recruiter and, in turn, what Narduzzi is saying and promising. And that trust takes time and absolutely should have been worked on as Job One three years ago.
So as the AD I would order Narduzzi to go back to all the pertinent local high schools to try to rebuild their confidence in him and Pitt and to build a bridge from those WPIAL Schools to Oakland. Have the HS coaches attend some invited and targeted events and do more than just open up a practice to them every once in a while. Remember – the Pitt HC is by far not the only D1 HC trying to woo the local coaches and their players, James Franklin at PSU is a master at this – we need the upper hand and that comes from doing genuine extra-curricular efforts with them.
Changing recruiting is admittedly easier said than done because as stated above there is a finite pool of money for the football program, which includes a recruiting budget, each year. But other HCs at other schools have the same constraints and find ways to overcome that difficulty. This is where the administration and the HC have to drum out the donors who will pony up for general football expenses. We had a chartered jet for recruiting trips over the last two years – I would bet that was a donated flight timeshare given to Pitt.
That’s one example, but as the AD I am going to be as creative as possible in not just begging the wealthier Pitt alumni and fans to give but to give in unique and different ways that might not involve cash.
Then as the AD I will do exactly what both Chancellor Nordenberg and Chancellor Gallagher, and then AD Barnes and now AD Lyke have been stating publicly for years – tell the Pitt family that the issue of an on-campus stadium has little or no importance to the University. Fans need to understand that this issue goes far past just the football team or the football program and indeed even the university itself but impacts the city and the state as well as the character and face of the Oakland area.
It is not going to happen so adjust your thinking about the football program and take that equation out of it. Personally I have had discussions with both past Chancellors and some city officials I know about this issue and have been firmly convinced this is not going to happen in Oakland – on some other bit of land Pitt acquires possibly but never back into Oakland or Panther Hollow.
And yes as an AD I understand that a lack of an on-campus stadium affects recruiting and perceptions of the program but again, the importance, or lack of, placed on football at Pitt doesn’t drive major decisions for the university as a whole. Look, when your Chancellor says this in one of his first media interviews: “ I’m certainly not looking at an on-site [stadium]. I’m sure to the dismay of some.” A statement which has zero ambiguity in it at all, then you better believe it. And the key words there are “certainly” and “on-site”.
And here’s a plain fact folks – Pitt has played much better football in the recent past at Heinz Field than we did in Pitt Stadium leading up to the move. If you look at our record since moving to Heinz in 2001 it stands at 121 -86 or a 56.5% winning rate – as opposed to the 17 years prior when we played in Pitt Stadium and went 86-108 for 44.6%. Pitt fans – that is a huge difference and I’d bet our attendance has been higher at Heinz than it was in Oakland also.
As the AD how will I schedule out-of-conference games for the Panthers to play year in and year out? That is a great and hard question for an AD to have to face. Here’s how I would do it… Continue to schedule two hard and one equal teams and one ‘softer’ team every year. Part of that decision is that Pitt has to do everything it can to draw the non-alumni or established Pitt fans to watch our football games and you do that by giving them quality opponents to see us play (and hopefully beat).
This is a case of what Pitt fans want as opposed to what is best for the football program overall. Case in point – look at the most well-attended games in both Pitt stadium and Heinz field and they are almost all OOC opponents. Pitt fans want to see us play Penn State, WVU, Notre Dame, Navy and other quality programs. Why else would a fan wish for the best possible opponent in a post-season bowl game? Because we want to beat the best.
Others want rent-a wins on the schedule as much as possible because they believe a winning record is all that matters – and it is important. But a large part of an AD’s job is to get more fans, more local interest and more financial gain and to do that we need more fans to come to watch us play (and to buy Pitt merchandise which is an underestimated funding by the fans). The AD needs to build the “Pitt Family” and that means getting people who didn’t go t or work at Pitt interested in Pitt football… and to spend money once they are interested and fans.
As much as Pitt fans hated the name change to “Pittsburgh” (and I did also) I believe the intent of trying to be inclusive toward all the local regions’ football fans was a correct one – just badly bungled in that attempt by Pederson.
And again, let’s be brutally honest here with rent-a-wins; Pitt has a track record of blowing games they easily should have won. If we are going to lose an OOC game I’d prefer we lose to a quality opponent rather than Bowling Green or YSU again. The intent of playing the season at all is twofold – first to win the conference for a big bowl tie-in and secondly to be ranked as high as possible at the end of the season for recruiting purposes. The polls are still a popularity contest and is still a ‘who did they actually win against’ mentality… Just as UCF about their 13-0 undefeated season with no playoff game.
As the AD I was well briefed about the fact that the football Gods hate Pitt. It is well documented over the years. I took the job anyway knowing I’d have to battle them and other outside influences like being the fourth major sports team in a small area. That may be even the fifth most popular team given that there are more PSU alumni in the Tri-State area than there are Pitt alumni so PSU wields a big stick here also.
Throw in the PSU-centric and sometimes anti-Pitt bias newspaper media and it is a tough road to hoe. But advancements can be made. I believe Heather Lyke is firmly on the right track as far as the whole of Pitt athletics go – but as the Co-AD now I can understand how her hands are tied by the University’s football budget – which is minimal aside from the aforementioned Atlantic Coast Conference receipts. There are certain parameters we ADs have to deal with that are unchangeable and the main one is the lower level of importance the football team and program hold in the 360° of the university stated missions.
As a first time HC Narduzzi has made mistakes that I believe (as an AD now) need to be corrected ASAP. He has the support of the AD and the fans to this point but that comes with a mandate to win or be cut loose. Contracts mean nothing in college ball these days and if he isn’t getting the job done on the field and if the program is trending downward he needs to be held accountable and treated just as every other HC is in college ball – win or be gone.
So finally as the AD I give Pat Narduzzi a ‘come to Jesus’ sit-down meeting with a verbal warning that he has this year to reverse the downward slope he started last season and that means a seven win season or better… but he needs to have a winning season. If he can’t do that then 2019 is the year he is mandated to do it or is fired. No ifs ands or buts…