CAN PITT BECOME A NATIONAL POWER?
Perhaps Pitt football began its long, agonizing downward spiral on a January day in 1982 when Jackie Sherrill walked into the office of chancellor Wesley W. Posvar and, with all due respect for a man he admired, said, “I’m gone. Thank you.”
Perhaps the program took an upward turn about 33 years and three university administrations later when Pat Narduzzi entered the Cathedral of Learning just before Christmas 2014, shook chancellor Patrick Gallagher’s hand and accepted an offer to be the next Panthers coach.
The hiring of Narduzzi, one of the most respected and sought-after coordinators in the country, created excitement around the program.
Yet with the 2016 season opener 13 days away, the question hovering over the program remains: Will Pitt ever again become one of the elite programs in college football?
Six years before Sherrill resigned, Johnny Majors led the Panthers to their ninth national championship. From 1979-81, Pitt went 33-3 under Sherrill. The Panthers were mainstays in the top 10, a regular in top-tier bowl games, a national power constantly in the discussion of college football’s best teams.
Sherrill’s departure triggered a downfall from which Pitt never has recovered.
The (campus) environment in Pittsburgh is different than the environment at Penn State or other places. Pittsburgh is a very unique place. It’s not for everybody.
-Jackie Sherrill, former Pitt football coach
In the 34 seasons since Sherrill left, the Panthers have finished a season ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll just six times. They had a winning record in fewer than half of those seasons (16) and advanced to a top bowl game once since playing in the Fiesta Bowl after the 1983 season.
Have Gallagher, athletic director Scott Barnes and Narduzzi done enough in terms of raising and spending money, recruiting players and promoting the program to lift Pitt among the Alabamas, Florida States and Ohio States of the college football world? Those programs consistently are mentioned among the country’s best teams and often are in contention for the national championship.
Reaching that level is not easy. Only 16 FBS programs have finished in the top 10 of the final AP poll even three times during the past 10 years.
For sure, there are obstacles for Pitt. Chief among them: trying to lure recruits to campus and fans to Heinz Field, a facility just 5 miles from campus. Pitt has had trouble filling Heinz Field since on-campus Pitt Stadium was demolished in 1999.
The Tribune-Review researched revenues, expenses, and attendance and recruiting figures for the 14 ACC schools and 16 “elite” FBS programs.
Among the findings:
• In the past four recruiting classes (2013-16), Florida State, which won the national championship following the ’13 season, signed 33 players ranked among Rivals.com’s top 150 prospects — the true blue-chip recruits. Clemson, the 2015 national runner-up, signed 26. Alabama led the way with 47. Pitt signed four: Damar Hamlin, Jordan Whitehead, Dorian Johnson and Tyler Boyd.
• Barnes said Pitt will set a school record for season-ticket sales at Heinz Field this season (55,630), but its average attendance since 2012 is 45,175, ninth best in the ACC. About three hours to the west, Ohio State averages almost 106,000. Some argue the loss of an on-campus stadium is an obstacle Pitt never will overcome. “I’ve often felt it’s hard not to have an on-campus stadium,” ESPN college football analyst Tom Luginbill said. Besides Southern California, none of the 16 “elite” FBS programs play games at off-campus stadiums, and even the Trojans play less than a half-mile from campus at historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
• Since leaving the Big East for the ACC in 2013, Pitt football revenue has increased 79 percent to $34.1 million. But even that is dwarfed by Florida State. The Seminoles pulled in $70.3 million last season.
• Alabama, which has been in the AP top 10 after each of the past eight seasons and won four national titles in seven years, generated almost $100 million and made a profit of about $46 million last season, according to U.S. Department of Education figures. Games at 102,000-seat Bryant-Denny Stadium turn into memorable, must-attend events. Sherrill, who played and coached there, said the noise level rises dramatically simply when Bear Bryant’s face is shown on the video board.
Only once since the 1982 season has Pitt finished with 10 victories. That came in 2009 under Dave Wannstedt. The following season, then-athletic director Steve Pederson fired Wannstedt with the hope of upgrading the program.
In five subsequent seasons, Pitt has lost 32 games and two head coaches. In the past 12 seasons, the program has had five head coaches. Pederson himself was ousted Dec. 17, 2014, the same night Paul Chryst left for Wisconsin. At the time, Gallagher called the Pederson move "mutual," but it was clear Pitt had no appetite for another Pederson-led coach search.
“You can’t, over a decade and a half, go through five head coaches,” said former Miami coach Butch Davis, now an analyst for ESPN. “It’s a deathblow."
Plan in place
Barnes identified “gaps” in staff, salaries, recruiting budgets and facility upgrades as areas that need to be addressed before Pitt can make meaningful strides.
“If I were to tell you today we’re doing enough, no, we’re not,” he said.
However, a plan is in place, he said, to get there. Some issues already have been resolved, Barnes said.
Recruiting, for instance.
“Do we look like a top-10, top-15 program in recruiting and how we recruit?” he said. “Not quite. In terms of availability of charter flights, we have more assets toward that. We’re not there yet, but ... we have a plan to get there, and we think we can get there.”
Part of the plan involves increasing the salaries of assistant coaches, which Pitt has done “in a big, bold way,” said Barnes, though he would not elaborate.
"There is no reason (Pitt can’t win championships),” Barnes said.
If I were to tell you today we’re doing enough, no, we’re not.
-Scott Barnes, Pitt athletic director
Recalling his decision to leave, Sherrill said some Pitt administrators under Posvar wanted too much control of the program. Now 72 years old and living in Wimberley, Texas, Sherrill said he believes Pitt finally is on the right track.
“It took it that long to change the administration,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you are. If it’s Stanford or Southern Cal, it all starts at the top.”
Just as Posvar did with Majors — Sherrill said the coach spent “a lot of hours” in the chancellor’s office — Gallagher is working with Narduzzi and Barnes. Donor contributions are up about 15 percent in the past year, with a record total of 795 new donor accounts, Barnes said.
Perhaps as a result, Narduzzi was awarded a raise and contract extension through 2021 before the end of his first year. Barnes said Narduzzi’s salary is in the top half among ACC coaches, though again Barnes would not say what the monetary terms of the contract are.
“We think we have the right people on the bus in the right seats,” Barnes said.
RICH GET RICHER
TAP TO SEE THE NUMBER OF TOP-150 RECRUITS WHO HAVE GONE TO THE TOP-16 ELITE SCHOOLS FROM 2013-16
HOVER OVER THE ICONS TO SEE THE NUMBER OF TOP-150 RECRUITS WHO HAVE GONE TO THE TOP-16 ELITE SCHOOLS FROM 2013-16
HEAVY AT THE TOP
TAP TO SEE THE NUMBER OF TOP-150 RECRUITS WHO HAVE GONE TO THE ACC SCHOOLS FROM 2013-16
HOVER OVER THE ICONS TO SEE THE NUMBER OF TOP-150 RECRUITS WHO HAVE GONE TO THE ACC SCHOOLS FROM 2013-16
Making Pitt a 'brand'
Luginbill said any program seeking to contend for conference or national championships must fight the battle of perception.
“How are you perceived by the public?” he said. “How are you perceived by the recruits? Everybody is trying to advance their brand, whether that’s in facilities, whether that’s in satellite camps, whether that’s in stadium upgrades.”
Almost from the day Barnes was hired to replace Pederson in 2015, Pitt has been trying to develop its brand, punctuated by the return of the Pitt script logo.
“It’s a way to unite your alumni base, and with that comes all the opportunities to add that ‘wow’ factor,” Barnes said. “It’s one of the deficits we had. We weren’t branded.”
Luginbill pointed to Oregon as a program that has made itself relevant. Unranked through much of the 1970s, ’80s and half of the ’90s, Oregon and its flashy uniforms (courtesy of an influx of donor dollars from Nike cofounder and Oregon alumnus Phil Knight) have been in the top 10 of the final AP poll six times in the past eight years.
“They did it by creating a wide recruiting net,” Luginbill said. “Being everywhere, kind of creating a cool factor with everybody around the program.
“You have to try to differentiate from everybody else, whether it’s as simple as a uniform or a unique tradition.”
Six years ago, Clemson finished 6-7, tied for fourth place in the ACC's Atlantic Division. The following season, it advanced to the Orange Bowl but was embarrassed by West Virginia, giving up 70 points in a rout. Those were coach Dabo Swinney’s second and third full seasons, respectively.
Last season, Clemson won 14 games and played for the national championship. It enters this season a favorite again to reach the four-team College Football Playoff, thanks largely to having Heisman Trophy candidate Deshaun Watson at quarterback.
I think we have the whole package as far as what we have to do to win games. It doesn’t happen overnight.
-Pat Narduzzi, Pitt football coach
As soon as Swinney started finding the right players, Clemson became one of the elite programs of this decade.
“We have the ability to recruit at the highest level,” he said, “because we have great resources from a facility standpoint, staff standpoint, tradition (Howard’s Rock and The Hill, to name two), our stadium (Memorial Stadium seats 81,500).
“It just attracts people to our campus. I’m a much better coach with Deshaun Watson than without him.”
But how can Pitt compete with schools such as Clemson and Florida State, the dominant recruiters of the ACC? It starts with upgrading the facilities, Barnes said.
“You saw the $4-million-plus buildup last year of the locker room and team room on the South Side,” he said. “The new turf (on the practice fields), upgrade in hydrotherapy, we have branding going on in the indoor (practice facility).
“There is always the next step. You can be on the right track and get run over by a train if you just sit there, if you are not moving forward.”
Narduzzi said his program has stepped up recruiting to the point it can attract high-profile prospects but added, “I don’t think you have to be the most talented team in the country to be a champion. The chemistry is huge."
So is the team’s approach, junior linebacker Quintin Wirginis said.
“My first year here was with (former coach Paul) Chryst (in 2014),” Wirginis said. “And I felt like he was a little bit scared to mention the word championship. Narduzzi gets here, and he says, ‘We’re going to win a championship.’ Everyone in the locker room truly believes we are going to win a championship.”
Sherrill noted Pitt is in a “unique” — and not necessarily favorable — position regarding recruiting.
“When I was there,” he said, “one of the first things I said to recruits when I met them in their homes was, ‘If you are looking for grass under your feet walking to and from class, Pittsburgh is not the place.’
“The (campus) environment in Pittsburgh is different than the environment at Penn State or other places. Pittsburgh is a very unique place. It’s not for everybody.”
Defensive tackle Aaron Donald left Pitt as the most decorated player in program history in terms of individual awards, but he arrived from Penn Hills as a three-star prospect.
Hard work and proper coaching turned Donald into a first-round pick in the NFL Draft, but as Luginbill said, “Some of those (elite) teams have four Aaron Donalds.”
When Majors was hired in 1973, he had Posvar’s blessing to recruit as many freshmen as he needed. Sherrill, then Pitt’s defensive coordinator, said the Panthers brought in 76 freshmen, including future Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett of Hopewell. The next year, the NCAA instituted limits. Today, schools can have no more than 85 players on scholarship, making the margin for error smaller in identifying the right players for a program.
Some of those (elite) teams have four Aaron Donalds.
-Tom Luginbill, ESPN college football analyst
Sherrill rode Majors’ coattails as head coach, selling a national championship program and recruiting enough great players to win 50 games in five seasons.
“All of a sudden, you are a top-5, top-10 program,” he said.
Gallagher was hired in 2014 to replace Mark Nordenberg, and he has embraced athletics as the “front porch” of the university.
He hired Barnes to lead the 19-sport department, in large part based on Barnes’ documented ability to raise money from outside sources.
“Scott has taken steps to build the revenue streams associated with the programs,” Gallagher said.
As a result, he said, “The teams are poised for success, and we have the leadership in place to make it happen.”
Barnes said Gallagher’s vision to create a competitive athletic program has been an important element. “He wants to be excellent, whether it’s football or physics,” Barnes said.
But Barnes also said he wants the athletic department to be financially self-sufficient.
“As we grow extra revenues, which comes in every imaginable form — sponsorship, fundraising, conference revenue, NCAA revenue, tickets — we have started decreasing institutional support,” Barnes said. “We are making our own hay.”
The ACC has given Pitt the opportunity to generate revenue that wasn’t possible in the Big East. Department of Education figures show Pitt football increased revenues 79 percent from $19.1 million in 2012-13 — its last school year in the Big East — to $34.1 million in 2014-15, the most recent year for which data were available.
Barnes said next year’s revenue will be even higher, thanks to record season-ticket sales — this season marks the return of the Penn State rivalry (the teams meet Sept. 10 at Heinz Field). A school spokesman said attendance last season increased to 48,150 per game, 16.5 percent more than the previous season.
“One of the big roadblocks was, ‘You can’t fill the stadium. It’s a pro town,’ ” Barnes said. “An 8-4 record (during last regular season), and we are setting an all-time season-ticket record.”
Meanwhile, spending has increased 18 percent, from $18.9 million in 2012-13 to $22.3 million in 2014-15. Pitt spent more than the ACC average, which was $20.3 million last season, but 29 percent less than Florida State ($31.3 million).
“Spending doesn’t always equal success,” Gallagher said.
Robert Morris sports management professor John Clark said, for most programs, it’s a matter of efficiency.
“Alabama pays (coach Nick) Saban $7 million,” he said. “Ohio State is going to have to do it. USC is going to have to do it. Boise State has to boost its facilities.
“Is that dangerous? Yeah. Education is all about doing things efficiently. If you have alumni that are willing to give, fine.”
Turning the corner?
The makeup of Pitt’s roster, especially the starting lineup, is starting to change.
In 2013, Pitt had 12 freshmen play key roles, largely because of roster deficiencies tied to repeated coaching turnover. Luginbill said Narduzzi has told him he prefers to redshirt as many freshmen as possible, a philosophy he saw succeed at Michigan State where he was defensive coordinator from 2007-14. Last year, the only Pitt freshmen not redshirted were Whitehead (ACC Rookie of the Year), Quadree Henderson and Darrin Hall.
If that can be achieved, Luginbill said, “You are going to know, year in and year out, you are going to have a big number of redshirt juniors and a big number of redshirt seniors.”
In 2012, Pitt had only eight seniors among 25 starters on offense, defense and special teams. The defense had just one.
This year, 14 of 25 starters are expected to be seniors, and 11 of those are returning starters.
“You can win an awful lot of football games with upperclassmen,” Luginbill said.
To his point, there were a combined 32 juniors and seniors listed as starters for Alabama and Clemson before their national championship game in January.
Gallagher, Barnes and Narduzzi remain optimistic Pitt is on the right track. Narduzzi is the fourth Pitt coach in the past seven seasons, but he said upon receiving a contract extension last year, “I came here with the intentions of making this a long-term deal. ... I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t want to be here.”
The next step involves plenty of hard work, Sherrill said.
“You just put your head down, your rear end up and start digging,” he said. “You have a head coach who understands that.”
It will take some time, Narduzzi said.
“I think we have the whole package as far as what we have to do to win games,” he said. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.