Revival at Pitt: New coach Pat Narduzzi has the Panthers, and their fans, excited once again
When first-year Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi walked into his initial meeting with his new team in January, he was taken aback by the deafening silence that greeted him.
"It was so quiet," Narduzzi tells The Inside Read. "I was like, 'Guys loosen up a little bit.' It looked like they'd been a bunch of whipped dogs."
And with good reason. Narduzzi is the eighth coach that the Panthers have had since 2010—a staggering turnover for a tradition-rich program that lays claim to nine national championships.
But with Pitt off to a 5–1 start this season and a No. 25 ranking in the latest AP Top 25—the Panthers' first appearance in the poll in five years—Narduzzi can't get his team to quiet down these days. Not that's it a problem entering Saturday's game at Syracuse, which will be Pittsburgh's fifth road game in the last eight weeks.
The energetic Narduzzi wants his team to play with enthusiasm, which is why he encourages his players to go wild at the end of the third quarter.
"When the fourth quarter starts, we will win the fourth quarter," Narduzzi says. "We're going to finish, which wasn't their MO. We're going to win the game because of the way we finish in the fourth quarter. It's not going to be a funeral. It's going to be a party."
It's the same approach that the fiery Narduzzi fostered at Michigan State, which he helped turn into a national power as the Spartans' defensive coordinator from 2007 to '14. But before he could convince the Panthers to get excited about the fourth quarter, he had to prove to them that he truly cared.
He met with every player individually for 30 to 45 minutes and tried to learn as much as he could about each, whether they were a starter or a walk-on.
"We're trying to come in and do it the right way," Narduzzi says. "Not being an a------ and trying to run guys out. Try to be good people, like I'm used to. I think you win with good people. You've got to take what you have, work with it and mold them into what you want. That's what we've done."
Narduzzi also asked each of his players what he could do to improve the program. The consensus was that they needed new game pants because they didn't like the feel of the ones they wore last season.
"I was like, 'Are you serious? You guys should see what you're missing out on,' " Narduzzi says with a laugh.
Narduzzi was, after all, used to the Spartans' sterling football facility. Pitt, on the other hand, didn't even have a proper players' lounge. The closest thing to it was a ping-pong table in the locker room. The new coach also wasn't happy with the impractical setup of the Panthers' team meeting room, which was just a large, square classroom, and which did not have tiered seating or a whiteboard.
"The guy in the second row couldn't see because the guy in the front row had his head in the way," Narduzzi says. "It was just a bad teaching atmosphere."
As part of $4 million in facility improvements this past off-season, Narduzzi had the team room reconfigured into a tiered classroom auditorium with two HD projection screens. He also put in a separate players' lounge with video game consoles and a giant nine-panel HD TV. The lounge is now not only the home for the ping-pong table, but also for a new pool table and leather reclining chairs.
Pittsburgh's position meeting rooms had also been makeshift, with a mishmash of chairs and tables. There wasn't anything to distinguish them.
"How do you go in the DB room and not have a picture of Darrelle Revis on the wall?" Narduzzi says.
Now, each position room is tailored to the individual position, and each has HD screens.
"It fired the kids up," Narduzzi says of the facility improvements. "It showed them, Hey, these coaches care about us. I don't know what they did in the past, but what'd you [ever] do for them? That was the big thing."
But the one thing Narduzzi couldn't do for his team was actually what they wanted most: new game pants. It was because uniforms had been picked out a year in advance.
"We're going to spend $4 million on a facility, but I can't get you a pair of pants," Narduzzi says with a laugh.
And while there hadn't been any significant facility improvements made under Narduzzi's predecessor, Paul Chryst (now the coach at Wisconsin) , Narduzzi does credit Chryst for recruiting what he calls "character kids."
"It's a well-behaved group," Narduzzi says. "We don't have an issue there. That's a bonus, but obviously we want more talent here eventually."
Narduzzi has in mind more players like junior wideout Tyler Boyd, who leads Pitt with 41 receptions for 396 yards and four touchdowns.
"Boy is he special," Narduzzi says. "He's as good of a wide receiver as I've seen."
Narduzzi has also been pleasantly surprised by starting quarterback Nathan Peterman, who has thrown for 922 yards with nine touchdowns and just three interceptions this season. A graduate transfer from Tennessee, the redshirt junior was originally only supposed to provide depth behind returning starter Chad Voytik.
But Peterman took over in second quarter of the Panthers' lone loss, a 27–24 defeat at Iowa last month, and has never relinquished the job. The Hawkeyes (7–0 and now ranked No. 12) won the game on a 57-yard field goal as time expired.
That was just two weeks after Pittsburgh lost running back James Conner, the reigning ACC Offensive Player of the Year, to a season-ending knee injury in the season-opener.
"We believed we're going to win regardless," Narduzzi says.
Defensively, the Panthers already have more sacks this season (22, third-best in FBS) than they had all of last season (19). Not surprisingly, defensive coordinator Josh Conklin is blitzing more, maybe even more than Narduzzi did at Michigan State.
"The kids love what we're doing," Narduzzi says. "It's not just winning football games. They like how they're playing defense. That's all part of it. You've got to be able to sell something that they love and then they'll go play for you. That's what we've got."
One player who loves what Narduzzi has been selling is 6-foot, 250-pound redshirt senior defensive tackle Ejuan Price, who leads Pitt in tackles-for-loss (7.5) and is second in sacks (3.5).
"He's a kid with a ton of talent," Narduzzi says. "He doesn't have the measurables [that] maybe you'd like to have, but he's explosive and fast."
Narduzzi has gotten Price to stay on the field after he missed all of last season with a chest muscle injury and more than half of 2013 with a back injury. Coach and player had a frank conversation about playing with injuries this past spring.
"Guys in our defense, they don't get hurt," Narduzzi recalls telling Price. "You don't get hurt. We never get hurt. It's just an attitude that you don't get hurt. We move our feet. We don't get hurt."
Narduzzi's positivity is already translating into recruiting as well. He calls the Pittsburgh area a "gold mine" for prospects.
"We're in a great backyard of football," Narduzzi says. "You go east, you've got New Jersey, west you got Ohio, north you get into New York, south you get into Virginia, D.C., Maryland. There's tons of players in the area."
Narduzzi faced more geographical challenges when he was recruiting for the Spartans, but he still landed two of seventh-ranked Michigan State's best current players: quarterback Connor Cook and defensive end Shilique Calhoun.
The Panthers snagged their second 2017 recruit just last week, when highly-touted Pittsburgh safety Paris Ford, who had offers from Ohio State and Notre Dame, gave Narduzzi his verbal commitment.
"You can recruit here," Narduzzi says. "We're going to get some good players here."
In the meantime, Narduzzi's current players have embraced his high-energy approach. That's a big contrast from when he first gathered his team before the fourth quarter of Pitt's 45–37 home victory over Youngstown State in the season-opener.
"I think they thought were going to get their a-- ripped and scolded," Narduzzi says. "They had these big eyes looking at me."
Instead of laying into them, Narduzzi implored his players to celebrate as if they were at a party because they were going to win the fourth quarter. But they didn't respond, standing in near silence.
So Narduzzi made his plea again.
"Guys, it is the fourth quarter, we're going to win the fourth quarter!" Narduzzi bellowed.
After the victory, Narduzzi emphasized that he wanted the start of the fourth quarter to be like a party for the Panthers. Now, his players go bonkers once the third quarter ends.
The first time it happened, Narduzzi's wife, Donna, was sitting in the press box with alumni, boosters and athletic director Scott Barnes.
"Donna, what's going on?" one of them asked. "What are they doing? We've never seen this before."
Once she explained, the group she was with was just as excited.
"They love it," Narduzzi says.
Before the fourth quarter of Pittsburgh's 26–19 home win over Virginia two weeks ago, his players danced like they had just won the Super Bowl. They also squirted water bottles into the air, getting Narduzzi wet.
"It was like they had champagne bottles out there or something," Narduzzi says.
The atmosphere before team meetings has also become more upbeat. Players talk freely, almost too much.
"Now, I've got to shut 'em up," Narduzzi says with a laugh. "It's like, 'Hey guys, quiet down.' You'd rather have that. You want to have them laugh and be kids."
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Memphis Tigers have the blues no longer
After Saturday's surprising 37–24 home win over No. 13 Ole Miss, Memphis coach Justin Fuente and his wife, Jenny, celebrated with friends in the corner of Jim's Place, a quiet, upscale restaurant.
As Fuente enjoyed a Coors Light, a Tigers fan approached him, but not just to offer congratulations on the school's first victory against ranked opponent since 1996.
"Thank you," the fan told Fuente, "for what you've done for this city."
It was a humbling compliment for Fuente, who nearly four years ago took over a decimated Memphis program that had won just five games in the three previous seasons and had only 51 scholarship players.
"That strikes you a little bit," Fuente tells The Inside Read of the encounter. "That's a lot more than thanks for winning a game. To me, that's a powerful thing for someone to say."
It's also indicative of the power that the Tigers (6–0, 3–0 American Athletic Conference) have become under Fuente. Memphis has now won 13 straight games dating back to last season, the third-longest winning streak in FBS. The Tigers vaulted into the Top 25 on Sunday at No. 18, the highest ranking in program history.
They control their own destiny to be the Group of Five's sole automatic berth in one of the six New Year's Day bowls.
"It's great for our university," Fuente says of Saturday's win. "It's great for our program to beat a highly-ranked SEC team in our own stadium. It's a fantastic win. It's great for everybody and something that I think will live in this city and university for a long time. Anytime you're a part of something like that, it's a special moment."
But even though the Rebels are the only team to have beaten eighth-ranked Alabama this season, Fuente is trying to keep Saturday's win in some sort of context for his players, who still face a difficult AAC schedule. Memphis plays at Tulsa on Friday night, and then hosts Tulane the following week.
The Tigers then have a home game against Navy (4–1, 2–0) before facing No. 21 Houston (6–0, 3–0) and No. 22 Temple (6–0, 3–0) in back-to-back road games. Fuente calls the three-game stretch "brutal."
"I understand the feelings of our fans and can identify with that, but our job is to keep it in perspective," Fuente says. "You play nonconference games for postseason recognition and conference games for a championship."
Last season, Memphis claimed a share of the AAC's conference title, the program's first since 1971. But the league is much tougher this year. Three of the conference's teams are currently in the Top 25, the most ever.
"I don't think that anybody's going to make it through unscathed," Fuente says of the AAC. "Maybe I'm wrong and maybe Houston or Temple will. I just don't see it when I watch our league. What I see are pretty darn good football teams that look similar to me."
Just don't try telling Tigers fans that those teams have had the same type of impact on their respective cities.