Category Archives: College football

Why Signing Day stinks

Sure, recruiting is a lifeline for any college sports program. No matter how good the coach or the coaching staff, winning regularly without talent and depth is a difficult task. Finding such talent during the recruiting process is essential, and it’s a skill that separates the Urban Meyers and Nick Sabans of the college football world from the Gerry Fousts and Johnny Majors (at least during his second stint at Pitt).

And, over the last 10 to 15 years, recruiting became big business. Guys live in luxurious homes just for following the travails of teenage athletes. Loyal fans pay subscriptions to sites, soaking up information about those who might decide some day to play for their team. Coaches even joined the recruiting hyperbole through social media, as recently witnessed by humorous Twitter posts from various members of the Penn State and Pitt football assistants. (News flash: Of course, Penn State would win this year’s recruiting between the two. Pitt’s had its head coach in place barely a month.)

We’re given national, regional, state and district rankings from every site from ESPN to fan blogs. Players aren’t known as much by name as the number of stars sites like Rivals, Scout or ESPN assigns. Follow those sites and find out when a player is visiting a school and attending a nationally televised basketball game or when that same player narrows 73 scholarship offers to five programs.

Coaches are criticized for not bringing in enough four- or five-star recruits. Recruits are analyzed like they’re entering the NFL Draft.

It’s nauseating, and it’s the most inexact science in sports.

And it all culminates every year with the worst day on the sports calendar – National Signing Day, which happens to be today.

Starting in the morning, fax machines (yes, National Signing Day ensures these devices are still created) light up in college football offices across the country. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and recruiting websites monitor every National Latter of Intent sent. It’s silly, yet essential. Without good recruits, there’s no chance of winning.

Yet, the analysis is overdone.

Look at Pitt for instance. Two of the Panthers’ best players in 2014 – James Connor and T.J. Clemmings – weren’t sifting through offers from national powers. Yet, Clemmings is a possible first-round pick in the upcoming draft and Connor enters next season as the ACC Player of the Year.

For days leading into Signing Day, we’re told how Antonio Brown – the best receiver in the NFL these days – was an afterthought in the recruiting process. Not many schools wanted offensive lineman Eric Fisher, the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.

Finding players like Brown and Fisher are what separates a decent recruiting class from a good one.

As for those four-and five-star recruits, rankings are often bestowed upon them at camps, when looking good in the uniform matters more than how the player performs in it. There’s an overhyped offensive lineman from Western Pennsylvania who earned a bunch of stars but couldn’t make first- or second-team all-conference as a senior.

So many other factors aren’t weighed on Signing Day.

That five-star recruit may be a head case. He may miss mommy too much. He may have a pregnant girlfriend back home. Worse yet, all three.

Good luck keeping that guy from playing in the PSAC two years from now.

It’s inexact and over-the-top. And it’s affected everything from Division II swimming to Division track.

Because of the attention paid to Division I signings in football and basketball, high schools everywhere are holding “signing ceremonies” – a ridiculous display of lies.

For starters, athletes don’t sign to play for Division III athletics. The reason? There is no athletic scholarship money in Division III. Another common foible in recruiting are the service academies. If someone plays football for the U.S. Naval Academy, that athlete doesn’t sign a National Letter of Intent, he accepts an appointment. As for Division II sports, unless the athlete is playing football, basketball or wrestling, it’s highly unlikely much scholarship money is involved. Yet, high school hold these ridiculous events to appease parents and kids.

Do me a favor, next time you see a “signing ceremony” on your local newscast, look to see if the athlete is actually signing something or just doodling on a blank paper. I’ll take the latter and give you 100:1 odds.

Advertisements

Ode to Hugh Green

The saying goes, “You never forget your first love.”

That means I’ll always remember a 6-foot-2, 225-pound black man from Natchez, Miss., with the perfect combination of speed, strength and athleticism.

His name is Hugh Green, but you can call him the greatest defensive player in the history of college football. Sorry Manti Te’o, Charles Woodson, Deion Sanders and Steve Emtman fans, those guys were nowhere near as devastating, game-altering and menacing as Green, an unheralded recruit as an undersized defensive end whom Pitt coach Jackie Sherill convinced to come to Oakland.

College defensive players rarely graced the cover of Sports Illustrated before Hugh Green did.

College defensive players rarely graced the cover of Sports Illustrated before Hugh Green did.

From 1977 to 1980, Green destroyed offensive lineman. The greatest player in Pitt history – with all apologies to Tony Dorsett, Larry Fitzgerald, Bill Fralic, Mike Ditka and Dan Marino – started immediately, and instantly made an impact. In his first game, which just happened to be against Notre Dame, Green finished with 11 tackles, two quarterback sacks and a blocked punt. Not bad for a freshman who Pitt noticed while recruiting running back Rooster Jones.

Green’s reign of defensive terror was only getting started with that Notre Dame game..

As a sophomore, he was a first-team All-American and made Pitt’s all-time team. And let’s not forget that, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Pitt was what Miami (Fla.) would become in the late 80s and early 2000s – a football factory rife with future first-round picks and hall of famers.

His All-American ways continued in 1979 and 1980, and Pitt retired Green’s number during his last home game.

Hugh

His final numbers are eye-popping and awe-inspiring – 460 tackles, 52 tackles for loss, 53 sacks, 24 forced fumbles, 13 fumble recoveries and 76 quarterback hurries. Green finished second in the 1980 Heisman balloting, losing the award to an inferior player in South Carolina running back George Rogers. He won the Walter Camp Award, Maxwell Award and the Lombardi Award and was named everybody’s player of the year. He’s made every all-time college football team worth mentioning.

Folks, let’s remember all these stats and awards were compiled despite coaches constantly game-planned against Green and stayed away from him as often as possible.

I’ll know I’ll never forget.

Some of my first memories – I was born in 1974 – are of Green playing for Pitt. At the time, I was a youthful sports sponge, soaking in all the college and pro football I possibly could. I loved Pitt football, and I loved Penn State football. The family loved the Nittany Lions, one reason being my dad’s cousin – Chuck Fusina – once finished second in the Heisman balloting as a PSU quarterback. And I liked watching Curt Warner run almost as much as watching Green wreak havoc.

Then, one day, my dad told me, “Son, you can’t like Pitt and Penn State. It’s just not natural.”

My response was quick. “Dad, Penn State doesn’t have Hugh Green.”

And a lifelong Pitt football fan was born.

I got to thinking about Green recently as talk of recruiting season and Signing Day increase in front of Feb. 4. Green wasn’t a heralded recruit, much like Panthers running back James Conner, but he quickly evolved into an all-time great.

And the current Pitt coaching staff is working hard on the recruiting trail, with a renewed focus in Florida. Finding players like Green, Conner and Antonio Bryant will be as vital to Pitt’s success as landing the next four-star recruit from a WPIAL high school or eastern Ohio powerhouse.

Pitt can only land so many elite prospects. Grabbing steals will determine this new staff’s success.

The revolving door starts spinning

If the primary argument in retaining a coach is program stability, it’s not a ringing endorsement for the job being done.

And stability seems to be the main reason some Pitt football fans want to see head coach Paul Chryst remain stay for a fourth season. Chryst’s name emerged Wednesday as a potential replacement for Gary Andersen at Wisconsin, though it’s all speculation. Andersen departed Madison abruptly after two successful seasons for the football riches of Oregon State. Andersen’s move is a curious one, and an indictment of how the coaching world views the Wisconsin job.

PittsburghPanthers.com

PittsburghPanthers.com

Chryst heading to Wisconsin makes sense. He grew up in Madison, played quarterback for the Badgers and earned praise for his work as the Badgers’ offensive coordinator. His work as OC led Langeloth native and Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez to unabashedly endorse Chryst for the job at Pitt. And when Bret Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas, Alvarez said at the time he wouldn’t feel right plucking Chryst after only one year at Pitt, and after Alvarez vouched for him.

But times change. Who would have thought a decade ago, when Alvarez ran one of the country’s best football programs, that Wisconsin would become a revolving door for head coaches. What Alvarez said about Chryst two years ago was … two years ago. It’s hard to imagine Alvarez not at least gauging Chryst’s interest, and it’s even tougher to imagine Chryst not being interested.

Not that Chryst did much to distinguish himself at Pitt, where the game-day atmosphere probably reminds him of coaching against Indiana or Purdue. And Chryst’s spotty record could be a determining factor at Wisconsin, which no doubt wants to quell the label of being a stepping stone to other jobs.

In three years at Pitt, Chryst owns a 19-19 record heading into the Armed Forces Bowl, which pits the Panthers (6-6) against Houston (7-5) in Fort Worth, Texas, Jan. 2.

Granted, Chryst didn’t unravel a program in desperate need of solid coaching when he was hired to replace Todd Graham, who was hired to replace Mike Haywood, who was hired to replace Dave Wannstedt. Chryst provided stability, and it’s difficult to say the Panthers don’t appear to be headed in a good direction. Pitt’s three best skill players – ACC Player of the Year James Conner, Tyler Boyd and Chad Voytik – are all sophomores. The offensive line displayed consistent improvement. Players responded to an awful stretch with two wins to end the regular season and become bowl-eligible.

But inconsistency elsewhere characterizes Pitt football during Chryst’s tenure. The defense struggles to make stops. There are head-scratching losses to the Akrons of the college football landscape. Pitt regularly snatches defeat from the jaws of victory, as recent results against Duke and North Carolina prove.

Pitt rarely lands top recruits, and for every two-star guy like Conner that succeed at Pitt, there are 10-15 four- and five-star guys within Pitt’s recruiting base excelling at other schools.

Should Chryst stay at Pitt, and the guess here is the Panthers will have an interim coach for that bowl game against Houston, he’ll enter a make-or-break year. Marked improvement will be expected in Year 4. If there’s another 6-6 season, or even a 7-5 one, Chryst will likely be looking for work.

So why take the chance? Chryst could land several years of job security at Wisconsin. Whether or not he can coach in Alvarez’s shadow will likely determine his answer if he’s offered. And judging by Chryst’s unspectacular demeanor displayed at Pitt, that won’t be a problem.

Then, Pitt’s revolving door will be moving again.

Scripting success?

Friday was a somber day for news. A school shooting left at least two people dead in the state of Washington, and a one-man-crime-spree shot three deputies, killing two.

Mindless, needless tragedies occurring about the same time.

In Pittsburgh, more accurately in select parts of Western Pennsylvania, Friday wasn’t somber. It was joyous.

And the reason why …

The script returned to Pitt Friday.

The script returned to Pitt Friday.

Yes, that’s a helmet. It’s the head gear worn by the University of Pittsburgh football team, or Pitt, as it’s been known in athletic circles for decades. The script helmet, a design of former head football coach Johnny Majors, symbolizes the best era in modern Pitt football – 1973 through, let’s say, 1985. Pitt was an NFL breeding ground in those days. Tony Dorsett, Mark May, Hugh Green, Dan Marino, Bill Fralic, Jim Covert, Rickey Jackson, Curtis Martin and many other top-shelf talents wore the script.

Then, not long after Steve Pederson arrived as Pitt’s athletic director in 1996, Pitt became Pittsburgh and the script disappeared. Nevermind that Pitt’s program floundered with the script during Majors’ second, completely awful, tenure as head coach, Pederson, who said back then it was time for the athletic programs to move on, committed an unforgivable sin in the eyes of many Panthers fans.

A few logos were instituted over the years. Then, On Friday and seemingly out of nowhere, Pederson announced the script was returning to Pitt’s football helmet, while the current block-lettered Pitt, which is pretty sweet in its own right – would remain the athletic department’s main logo.

Celebration erupted. Pitt twitter exploded with glee. Oct. 24, 2014 will be forever recognized as the day the script returned to Pitt football.

So, what does it mean? Not much really, though the timing is certainly interesting.

Pederson appeased a salty portion of Pitt’s disenfranchised fan base. And no doubt merchandise will be sold. The script will probably add a few more eyes of this afternoon’s homecoming against Georgia Tech.

But, until Pitt starts recruiting better players, the script isn’t bringing back the glory years.

What’s with all the love for Pitt?

First, Kirk Herbstreit predicted Pitt would play in this year’s ACC championship game before the college football season started.

Then, Pete Thamel followed up by predicting those who follow college football would be scratching their heads and checking their eyesight when Pitt climbs to a 9-0 record and the No. 4 position in the AP Top 25.

For those not in the know, Herbstreit is one of THE voices in college football, and one of the sport’s finest – if not the best – color analyst for ESPN. Thamel works for Sports Illustrated. Not a shabby publication.

Herbstreit later backed up his prediction on Twitter in the weeks that followed, and, soon, the pair were joined by the likes of Ivan Maisel and Mark Schlabach – both ESPN writers – in praising Pitt. Hell, even Jimmy Kimmel joined the ranks in a way when he made fun of Panthers’ kicker Chris Blewitt on air because of his rather unfortunate last name.

Pitt? Praiseworthy? National people noticing?

What in the name of Curvin Richards is going on?

Sure, there's Tony Dorsett, Curtis Martin, Shady McCoy and Craig Heyward, but Curvin Richards ranks among Pitt's all-time top runners.

Sure, there’s Tony Dorsett, Curtis Martin, Shady McCoy and Craig Heyward, but Curvin Richards ranks among Pitt’s all-time top runners.

After all, all Pitt has done is beat Division I-AA Delaware and a not-as-good-as-usual Boston College. All this national attention for a 2-0 team that really hasn’t beaten anyone?

Absolutely.

Granted, the level of competition is suspect, but the Panthers have been nothing short of dominant. Pitt ranks fourth nationally in rushing offense (356.0 yards per game), is tied for fourth nationally in total defense (170.0 ypg), third in team passing efficiency defense and, most impressively, are 12-for-12 in the red zone. That means in 12 red-zone trips, the Panthers have scored 12 touchdowns.

http://

James Conner, talked about as a two-way player before the season, ranks second nationally with 367 rushing yards and, hopefully, put to rest talk of needing him on the defensive side. Conner is bouncing off tackles with ease and making defenders wary of challenging him.

The way Pitt is running the football, it’s no wonder some national media heads are hopping on the bandwagon. The schedule isn’t the toughest. No Florida State. No Clemson. No Louisville. Iowa at home. Virginia Tech at home.

For Pitt fans, there’s hope this season could turn into something to savor. But Pitt fans know hope is a scary thing to have.

Pitt, is that really you?

Forgive Pitt fans if they approached Saturday’s season opener against Delaware with a near complete cloak of apathy.

Recent history warrants skepticism, despair and even a lack of interest.

Ready to relive some painful memories? Come on, you’re probably a Pitt fan if you’re reading this. Chances are you’re a masochist and are looking forward to the following.

Pitt opened the 2012 season, and the Paul Chryst era, with a loss to Division I-AA (Yes, I recognize it’s not longer called this) Youngstown State – at Heinz Field. It marked the Panthers first loss to a program in a lower division.

Pitt stormed into Toledo ranked No. 9 in the country in 2003 and left with a humbling 35-31 loss. Sure, Toledo’s Bruce Gradkowski and Lance Moore are current Steelers, but this loss ranks more maddening than most. Bill Hillgrove’s constant calls of, “Gradkowski complete for nine yards” can still be heard somewhere over Lake Erie.

Urban Meyer once coached at Bowling Green, but his Falcons lost at old Pitt Stadium back in the days of Latef Grim and then-freshman Antonio Brown. But, fast forward to the 2008 season, and Bowling Green left Heinz Field with a 27-17 win.

There’s been the Swinging Gate vs. Texas A&M, the Palko Slide against UConn, the terrible loss at Ohio and the “Whatever You Do, Don’t Kick the Ball to Marty Gilyard” game where Pitt blew a double-digit lead to Cincinnati with a berth in the Sugar Bowl on the line.

Pitt once lost to Notre Dame in a game where the Irish returned three kicks for touchdowns – in the second quarter. And, who wants to remember the 1996 fiasco at Ohio State where the Buckeyes defeated Pitt, 72-0. The Panthers crossed midfield once in that game and David Boston returned a punt for a touchdown with only eight players on the field.

That’s a lot of low points in a span of less than two decades. So, again, forgive Pitt fans if they entered Saturday’s game with incredible trepidation.

After all, the most Pitt thing to do would be fall behind or lose to Delaware then go win at Miami in the regular-season finale.

Instead, it was Pitt 62, Delaware 0.

The Blue Hens were held under 70 total yards of offense. Pitt rushed for 409 yards, with James Conner rushing for four first-half touchdowns.

It’s as unPitt as Pitt can get.

So what does it mean?

Too early to tell, but it’s certainly a good sign. Granted Delaware is Division I-AA (yes, yes, I know) program, but Pitt has had problems putting those teams away in the past. Villanova, Furman or The Citadel ring any bells?

Pitt simply doesn’t put teams away, let alone dominate them.

Friday’s game at Boston College should offer some indication if Pitt is improving in Chryst’s third year or if this opening game was nothing more than an unusual occurrence, like Warren G producing the jam of the summer in back-to-back years. That actually happened in 1993 (Indo Smoke) and 1994 (Regulate).