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Rare But Well Done

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After a slow start to the recruiting season, things have picked up for new Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi.

Five high school seniors-to-be gave verbal commitments to Nadruzzi in a seven-day span last month, including a four-star wide receiver from Ohio and a Virginia linebacker who chose the Panthers over Georgia as well as several Atlantic Coast Conference opponents.

On June 17 only four power five football programs had less verbal commitments than the Panthers.  This recent surge, however, has moved Pitt squarely to the middle of the pack.

What does all if this mean?

Absolutely nothing, of course. It didn’t mean much when Pitt was near the bottom of the pack, and it doesn’t mean a whole lot more today.

But it’s a nice sign.

Local high school coaches seem to have a genuine affinity for Narduzzi, his staff and the way they are going about their business in their early days on the job. It’s rare, of course, for high school coaches to criticize their college counterparts. But it’s also rare to hear anything resembling boring “coach-speak” when discussing Narduzzi with the top coaches in western Pennsylvania. The praise—even from old guard who are known for being slow to compliment—is effusive and often unsolicited.

Local high school coaches genuinely liked ex-Pitt coach Paul Chryst too, but Chryst was a Wisconsin guy and everyone knew it. Not that anyone held Chryst’s Wisconsin ties against him, but it was clear to everyone that Paul Chryst was a placeholder at Pitt; a guy placed in the head coaching job to get him prepared for the day he eventually took over at Wisconsin. That day came a lot quicker than most suspected, but no one was surprised when it arrived.

Narduzzi doesn’t have Pitt ties either. He also has a real loyalty to Michigan State. But he’s at Pitt because he wants to be, not because he was placed in the position. He had perhaps the best coordinator job in college football, and he chose to leave because he wanted to be at Pitt.

For Pitt, that’s a big deal.

One of the things most football guys liked about Chryst was the simple fact that he was, indeed, a “football guy” first and foremost. In fact, Chryst was and remains a football guy almost to a fault. He doesn’t care much about the peripheral stuff – the interviews, the postgame press conferences, the glad-handling and elbow-rubbings with boosters and alumni.

Narduzzi is a football-first guy too, in a major way, but Narduzzi is also willing to play the game. He gets the necessity of social media, the value of coming across well on television and the need for platitudes and shoulder-slapping around the guys cutting the checks.
“Pat Narduzzi doesn't do anything for publicity,” is a common refrain from local coaches, and while it’s true to a point, it’s also clear that Pitt’s new coach is willing to play the publicity game for the sake of his program.

He invited the local media to watch and film his team’s 5 AM workouts prior to spring practice. He lets James Conner wear a helmet cam, tweets with the voracity of a middle school kid with a brand new phone and is on every radio show and speaking engagement he can fit on his schedule.

And that’s all OK, because Narduzzi also seems willing to prove himself. He seems ready and willing to prove himself to his players, to their families, to the high school coaches and to Pitt fans. Not only does he seem willing, but he is willingly embracing the challenge to do so.

Whereas Todd Graham was so eager to "prove" his worth by telling everyone he met how much was getting paid ("You won't believe what they're paying me," he told one local high school coach upon meeting him for the first time; "I turned them down initially but they raised the ante by a million dollars," he bragged to another), Narduzzi would rather show you than tell you.

“The Pitt staff is telling recruits, 'Wait and see how we improve this season, watch what we do differently,” one national recruiting analyst told me last month. “People need to see them prove it and Narduzzi likes it that way.”

Much like the recent uptick in recruiting, though, none of this means anything. It will mean even less if Narduzzi loses to Youngstown State in his first game as head coach, the way his predecessor did. Or if he goes to Akron the following week and loses on the road in the Mid-American Conference the way Chryst, Dave Wannstedt and Walt Harris all did.

But it’s a good start, and at Pitt, good starts are rare.

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