Here is a rather long and in-depth piece, part Bio and part look at the state of the program, by our reader and some time Commenter Troy (UlteriorMotifs). The thoughts and writings are all his…
How does the Pitt football program compare to its peers and what are its prospects?
First time caller, long time listener. Actually, I’ve commented several times on Pitt POV and Pitt Blather, but very infrequently. I’ve been a daily reader of both sites for many years and finally decided to cast off my lurker status and participate in a significant way.
To establish my bona fides (or lack thereof), let me state quickly that, apart from a pair of summer school courses, I never attended Pitt. I have, however, been a fan of the program practically since birth. I grew up in the area, went to grade school about 10 minutes away, and my father and one uncle have Pitt degrees. I started going to basketball games at Fitzgerald when Pitt was still in the Eastern Eight – not just the marquee contests, but also scintillating matchups against powerhouses like Westminster and St. Francis (PA).
I was a regular presence at various Pitt summer programs and the proud winner of the hustle award from Pitt basketball camp. For my efforts, I received a poster of Bernard King doing a reverse dunk, his head just under a rim illuminated like a halo, with the inscription St. Bernard underneath. That poster hung on my wall for many a year and may have marked the pinnacle of my athletic achievement.
The first number I ever wore in youth sports was #13 (you know why) and I attended the vast majority of Pitt football games from the time I was a toddler until I went away to high school in Westmoreland County. By this time, I was estranged from my father, yet I chose to hang on to the best memories of our relationship, which involved parking in random driveways absurdly far from Pitt stadium to save a few bucks (Dad was Costanza-like when it came to paying for parking) and walking down from the Hill into the mass of humanity surrounding the stadium.
We probably started going to the games together when I was four and it took me years to figure out why the college students mobbing all around us were acting so strangely. At the time, I just assumed they were excited about Pitt football; I didn’t realize chemical enhancement was in play.
I was years away from sampling the good stuff; I just loved devouring every morsel of information in the program guide, hearing the roar of the Panther over the PA, the steep climb up Cardiac Hill on those rare occasions when we scored a parking spot in the flatlands of Oakland, the Panther icon painted brightly on the building behind the stadium, the Golden Girls (we always brought binoculars), one side of the stadium chanting “Hugh” and the other responding “Green”, and, of course, post-game trips to the “O” for cheese-drowned, artery-clogging curly fries.
So, I stayed with Pitt as I came of age – even though that coincided with the shockingly rapid descent of program from elite, to good, to average, to outright putrid. I’m not old enough (43) to really remember the glory days, but as someone who achieved consciousness just afterward, the glory days were recent enough to think Pitt might someday reclaim those dizzying heights. 30 years of average performance – and that’s what’s it been really apart from the national embarrassment of the Hackett/Majors 2 period – has tempered my expectations.
While I still hope against hope for the magical season where everything falls into place, I am (largely) resigned to the idea that Pitt will never win another national championship and I’d say the chance of Pitt making the college football playoff in my lifetime, if I live another 43 years, is probably about 50/50.
This may sound defeatist, but consider that the last time a team from outside college football’s elite hoisted the National Championship trophy, was in 1991, nearly 30 years ago. And even that year, the upstart team was Washington (a pretty strong program historically) which split the title with the mighty Miami Hurricanes.
The previous year, Colorado and Georgia Tech, in arguably the most unlikely outcome ever, shared the crown. But the sport has changed since then for many reasons, some of them related to demography, but most of them related to money, and since the early 90s, it’s been nothing but a stream of the usual suspects. Could Pitt break the glass ceiling? Sure, it’s possible, but exceedingly unlikely.
I don’t say this merely because of the last three decades of on-field results, although historical record plays a part. I’m not considering the team’s performance (fewer than 10 wins virtually every year) in a vacuum; looking at it in the context of Pitt’s commitment to athletics, as well as how the competitive landscape and local, regional, and national demographics have evolved in the nearly four decades since I started walking up that hill to Pitt Stadium.
There are a lot of accomplished people on this board, people who have led projects and teams successfully. Given that, I’m sure most of you appreciate the value of assessment both in setting objectives and in evaluating performance. That assessment, at a minimum, includes the organizational or group mission, allocation of resources, institutional support, internal capacity (talent), contextual or environmental factors, and unforeseen circumstances.
When evaluating the Pitt football program and its prospects, I like to use a similar process and see how Pitt stacks up in this regard against its competitors.
For the purposes of this exercise, I’ll consider Pitt’s peers to be the Power 5 conference schools and Notre Dame (as an ACC affiliate). You could also toss in BYU, Boise St. & the service academies and perhaps a couple of others, but it wouldn’t materially affect the project and it would raise the question of where to draw the line, so I kept it clean with simply the Power 5.
I then graded the Power 5 teams in the following categories:
Defined not merely by the most recent record, but by the period that will be memorable to a 16-year old recruit. That’s basically the last seven years or so, with more recent seasons and division/conference championships/BCS /playoff appearances weighing more heavily. I also was more forgiving of a bad season (say 4-8) if it was balanced by a couple great ones (11-2) than I was of a run of 6-6 type seasons with no positive outliers (just a personal preference).
Financial support, demonstrated willingness to secure top talent and build facilities, perceived willingness to bend the rules (beyond the norm).
Strength of local recruiting base amplified in the case of a few national powerhouses by their ability to go to any part of the country and realistically compete for a recruit (USC, Notre Dame, etc.)
Admittedly a lot of projection here as I haven’t visited the majority Power 5 schools. I relied on personal knowledge of about 20 of these schools, along with general reputation and reports from conference beat writers.
Campus & Town
This was maybe the most difficult category to rate since people look for so many different qualities in a college campus and a college town, but I leaned toward schools that are widely acknowledged to have magnificent campuses (UVa), located in fun college towns (UNC), or generally exciting cities (Texas).
Producing Pro Players
Looked at the list showing the number of active NFL players for each school and stayed close to those rankings (which were surprising in many cases). Occasionally, I boosted a team slightly if I know it’s been putting more kids in the pros recently, as opposed to 10 years ago.
Not an attempt to determine the actual academic quality of various schools (a borderline impossible task with so much variation in school offerings and personal objectives), but an attempt to reflect how schools are perceived on a national basis. As such, I relied heavily on the U.S. News & World report rankings (which I hate) because for better or worse (worse), they have more impact on popular perception than any other institution. I did make small adjustments based on personal and professional knowledge of how snobby parents and educators view many of these schools.
Hard to define, but combination of success, location, atmosphere, reputation, and perceived appeal (beyond just record), particularly to the demographic group that tends to produce the most highly rated players, young black males.
Historical performance (21st Century weighted more heavily), plus recognizable traditions, rituals, etc. that provide a rallying point for students and alumni.
We will surely disagree on where Pitt ranks in relation to various schools in different categories and I’m happy to explain and debate my ratings – it’s what a blog is for! That said, I think it’s pretty clear that Pitt is a middling program in most respects and, coupled with the low-level of institutional support and diminishing recruiting base, is performing about as well as you’d expect.
The schools of similar profile that have surpassed Pitt are much more the exception the norm. No reason Pitt shouldn’t strive to be a positive outlier as well, but outputs pretty much equal inputs at Pitt and you could even argue the program has overachieved slightly. Unless Pitt absolutely strikes gold with a coach or a QB, the school will have to invest more heavily (in time, attention and, naturally, cash) to significantly improve its place in the college football universe.
An important item to note about the college football powers is that they’re remarkably stable. The elite teams of today aren’t all that different from 30 years ago and the nouveau riche are largely explained by major demographic shifts (e.g., the Florida schools), or the appearance of a major benefactor (e.g., Nike U of Oregon and T. Boone A&T/OK State), factors that are entirely or largely beyond the control of the university (yes, alumni development plays a role, but one has to be pretty self-motivated to give at that level.)
Yet, as in life, even having great natural advantages doesn’t guarantee sustained success. Over the past 30 years, look at UCLA, Cal, Tennessee, North Carolina (pretty much any year Mack Brown didn’t coach there), or Texas (also any year Mack didn’t coach there), just to name a few. Texas, which arguably has the best setup of any team in the nation (success, tradition, location, recruiting grounds, academic rep, etc.) only has the 7th most wins in the Big 12 over the last seven years!
Other luminaries like USC, Notre Dame, and Miami have had more than a few seasons in recent history where they’ve scuffled. Those schools, however, have also had outstanding campaigns when they won division titles and conference crowns and, in some cases, national championships. That sets them apart from Pitt, whose most remarkable quality is how unremarkable it actually is.
Since Walt Harris took the helm, Pitt is never truly terrible and never really good, just consistently mediocre in a way that’s hard to achieve at the collegiate level where the youth and immaturity of the players combine with high rates of player turnover to create a lot of variance. Pitt has defied the odds, though, and apart from the occasional upset, managed to be completely, consistently average.
Pitt’s defining quality of “averageness” holds true not just in terms of the program’s record, but also in terms of its public presentation – which brings us to branding. Pitt, with the exception of the recently revised script, has virtually no identity and, as a result, no real target audience for recruiting – which is the death knell in any form of sales or marketing. Who is the Pitt “customer”?
In the ACC Coastal Division alone, Miami has the bad boy rebel appeal and some of the great teams of this century to reference, Virginia Tech has a reputation for lunch pail play, rugged defense, and an intimidating home crowd, Duke can pitch a life-changing degree, Virginia can make an argument for the best public university and finest campus in the nation, UNC is not too far off that, Georgia Tech has a strong academic rep and is located in the current hip-hop Mecca and unofficial capital of Black America, Syracuse, while not in a good position, is at least different in an interesting way with the Carrier Dome. What true differentiator does Pitt offer? Consider this when pondering recruiting rankings.
Pitt, true to its Western Pennsylvania roots, is generally conservative in approach and decidedly risk averse. When Pitt takes a leap, à la Todd Graham, it’s generally because they’ve been pushed into that corner (often by previous bad decisions). The steady as she goes approach is sensible for successful programs or those with significant natural advantages – they have inertia in their favor. But when you’re trying to make a big leap, you need to be bold, define yourself, and take chances.
That’s what I’d like to see from Pitt. I’m not holding my breath for national championships, but in a league where Wake, Duke, BC & Georgia Tech can win divisional titles (multiple times in the case of the latter two), it’s not unfair to ask that Pitt does the same once in a while (unless Richt really gets it going at Miami, which would be a problem).
Finishing in the Top 25 seven years out of every 10, with two divisional titles, a pair of top 20 and one top 10 finish every decade is a good stretch goal for this program. In the (paraphrased) words of former Interim AD Randy Juhl:
“If Pitt can help cure polio and invent CPR, we sure as hell can win 10 football games!”
In support of this excellent article here is an overview of Pitt football by the years and where you can drill down to see schedules,stats, etc for each season.