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February 2, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Wednesday in the Pitt war room (at least close enough to hear voices)

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So far, Tuesday has been slow on the Pitt recruiting front, other than the quote from Gateway (Fla.) High School coach Marlin Roberts.
When I asked Roberts about Gateway cornerback Henry Miller, who is committed to Pitt but considering Miami, Roberts said he expected him to sign with Pitt:
“If not, it’s going to be an awkward ceremony. I’ve already ordered blue and gold balloons and a blue and gold cake,” he said.
Wednesday should be a climatic day, with Pitt threatening to poke into the top 25 in Rivals.com’s recruiting rankings for the first time in 10 years. I will join several other media members on the fringe of Pitt’s fax machine (steps from the war room), starting at 7 a.m. Wednesday. Thanks for the invitation, coach Narduzzi.
A big part of my Tuesday was spent on TribLive Radio with Tim Benz, Ken Laird and Josh Taylor. Lots of words from all of us. Most of it actually relevant and interesting.

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February 2, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Take at look at Pitt coaches’ unfettered glee after nabbing Hamlin

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Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi posted this six-second video on Twitter on Monday night, a reaction by his entire staff to Central Catholic defensive back Damar Hamlin announcing on KDKA-TV that he will sign with Pitt.
Hamlin said he didn’t phone Narduzzi until after his announcement, so this is real, live, raw emotion. Upon viewing it, my first thought was: How would they react if they someday win the ACC? Also, why only six seconds. I wanted to see more.
Anyway, the coaches’ pride and joy are appropriate and well-deserved. These guys traveled all over the country, jumping from airplane to rental car to airplane all in the same day, talking to parents and coaches while hunting down prospects they believe will make Pitt a better team.
And they won’t be done after Wednesday. They plan to play host to 33 junior recruits this weekend.
With the approach of Wednesday’s signing day, Pitt’s 2016 class is shaping up as one of its best in many years (at least in the post-Wannstedt years). There are five four-star prospects, according to Rivals.com, and four of them play defense — a major area of need at Pitt.
Narduzzi looks like he will walk away with an impressive collection of Pennsylvania players — seven of the top 21 in the state, according to Rivals, led by No. 4 Hamlin and No. 7 Kaezon Pugh of Aliquippa. All seven played for WPIAL or City League schools.
The class is top-heavy with defensive players (14 of 22, with many people believing Lakeland, Fla., defensive tackle Keyshon Camp will pick Pitt on Wednesday and make it 15). Narduzzi saw a void and addressed it.
In my opinion, the class will rise and fall on the development of quarterback Thomas MacVittie, who may have to be the starter as soon as 2017. His signature on a letter of intent is critical, especially after Pitt lost quarterback prospects Tre’Von Chapman, Wade Freebeck and Alex Hornibrook off their 2013-15 commitment lists. (Chapman, actually, enrolled before he was dismissed in the wake of a domestic incident in 2013.)
There are players from eight states on Pitt’s ’16 list, with five below the Mason-Dixon Line (North Carolina, Florida and Virginia.) Of course, linebacker Chase Pine of Williamsburg, Va., defensive back Henry Miller of Kissimmee, Fla., and Camp are flirting with other schools. So stay tuned.
Neither Pitt nor Penn State are dominating the state, however. Yes, Penn State lost No. 14 Aaron Mathews to Pitt on Monday, but coach James Franklin still has commitments from three of the top six, including No. 1 Miles Sanders of Woodland Hills.
And, by the way, let me jump up on my soapbox for a minute:
Those people questioning Sanders’ mother assumed preference of Penn State need to mind their own business.
I can’t say I know for sure that she wants her son to go to Penn State (recruiting news is so much presumption, guesses and lies), but I know this:
In almost all cases, mother knows best.

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January 26, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Conner’s treatments going well, tumors continue to shrink

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Good news arrived Tuesday when Erie photo-journalist Mike Gallagher, close friend with Pitt running back James Conner and his family, telephoned.
Conner, who is undergoing chemotherapy for Hodgkins lymphoma, has finished four of the 12 treatments and the tumors continue to shrink, Gallagher said. In fact, he said Conner’s face no longer has a swollen look now that the tumor that was blocking blood flow to the heart has been reduced.
Conner has reacted well to most of the treatments — No. 4 last week was the roughest — and he has been a regular in the Pitt weight room, lifting and running on the treadmill.
Conner gets a treatment every two weeks, and has them scheduled through May.
He has vowed to beat the disease and Dr. Stanley Marks, one of the leading cancer doctors in the world, suggested that Conner could play this season.
One game Conner has circled on the Pitt schedule, just released Tuesday, is the Sept. 24 ACC opener at North Carolina. Tar Heels quarterback Mitch Trubisky is a high school rival from Mentor, Ohio.

I had the pleasure Wednesday morning to break down Pitt’s schedule on TribLive Radio with my good friend and talk show host Ken Laird.
The schedule is one of Pitt’s most difficult in many years, with eight bowl teams, four that won 10 games and three that finished last season in the Top 20.
Most of the toughest games are grouped together, with Pitt playing Penn State, Oklahoma State, North Carolina and Marshall back-to-back-to-back-to-back in weeks 2-5. Then, in November, Pitt plays at Miami and national runner-up Clemson on consecutive Saturdays.
It’s way too early to predict how many games Pitt will win, without knowing:
— How much Conner will be able to play.
— If Narduzzi will be able to adequately replace wide receiver Tyler Boyd.
— If the defense will make enough positive strides after allowing 1,321 yards over the last three games.
But, as Ken and I point out during the show, if Pitt can start with a modest 3-2 record (not unreasonable), it has a chance to be 6-2 heading into the final third of the season.

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January 9, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Narduzzi returns to ESPN on Monday night for national championship talk

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His staff complete, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi can relax and travel to the ESPN HQ in Bristol, Conn., on Monday to sit down with his fellow head coaches and do what he loves almost as much as dinner with his family: Watch and talk football.
For the second year in a row, Narduzzi is part of ESPN’s Film Room segment that will be shown on ESPN2 during the national championship game between Alabama and Clemson.
He will be joined by ESPN analysts Brian Griese and Chris Spielman and coaches Larry Fedora of North Carolina, Jim McElwain of Florida, Will Muschamp of South Carolina and Willie Taggart of South Florida.
“There’s nothing better than talking football,” he said. “That’s what we do. Half of me says, `What am I doing?’ and other half says, `It will be fun.’ ”
The coaches will offer analysis and opinion as the game progresses. A year ago, when Ohio State was playing Oregon, Narduzzi was on the panel when the conversation turned to the possibility of one of Ohio State three quarterbacks transferring and what school might be interested.
Narduzzi was joking when he sheepishly raised his hand, but he nonetheless was in the market for a quarterback — even though no one knew it at the time. A month later, Nathan Peterman transferred from Tennessee to Pitt.

The hiring of offensive coordinator Matt Canada means Tim Salem will return to his duties as Pitt’s tight ends coach after calling plays in the Military Bowl.
Salem was a candidate for the OC job, and Narduzzi said the two of them spoke often in the past month. He also expanded his search in other directions.
“I did my homework throughout the process,” Narduzzi said. “I talked to a couple very qualified people from around the country.”
Narduzzi seemed focused on Canada.
“When (former coordinator Jim) Chaney left, I said we are going to get a guy as good or better,” he said. “Mission accomplished there.”

For more talk about Pitt’s new OC and other topics, listen here to “The Kevin Gorman Show” on TribLive Radio. Trib high school writer Chris Harlan and myself contribute.

Safety Jevonte Pitts, who will graduate before next season, will not return to the team and will become the sixth underclassman to leave since the end of the season.

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January 7, 2016
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt, PSU, WVU go 1-2 in bowl season, but Trib writer comes up with a winner of his own

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Tribune-Review college football writers Jerry DiPaola, Bob Cohn and Bill West get together on TribLive Radio on Wednesday to dissect their teams’ (Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia) bowl experiences.
The Mountaineers were the only winners, although West had something of his own to celebrate. Listen here:

http://sportstalk.triblive.com/download/106CFB16.MP3+share

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December 30, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Military Bowl loss to Navy sends Pitt into the off-season

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Pitt’s off-season began Monday night in the wake of another disappointing loss in a bowl game.
Pitt is 1-4 in bowls since hiring Todd Graham in 2011, and the four losses are among the worst in recent school history:
The first two following the ’11 and ’12 seasons were lost by teams that weren’t especially interested in postseason practices or games, were defeated by 22 and 21 points by SMU and Ole Miss, respectively, and finished with a losing record (6-7).
The other two were embarrassing and discouraging, respectively. Pitt lost 31-6 and 34-13 fourth-quarter leads to Houston last year. This season, the Panthers couldn’t stop (actually, they couldn’t even slow down) Navy’s triple option, losing, 44-28, in the Military Bowl. It was the most points Pitt allowed in a bowl game in 86 years, even though everyone seemed confident prior to the game.
Funny thing about those four losses — only one was delivered by a Power 5 school.
The 8-5 record is better than anything Graham or Paul Chryst directed, so that’s progress (never mind that Pitt was 6-1 and 8-3 this season before the grand fall).
All will be forgiven if Pat Narduzzi, who has already attracted a good 19-man recruiting class, can put the finishing touch on it by getting a commitment from Central Catholic defensive back Damar Hamlin.
If Hamlin signs with Pitt, it won’t matter to most fans if Woodland Hills running back Miles Sanders goes to Penn State. Sanders has been committed to the Nittany Lions for nearly 18 months. Will one more month change his mind?
While you’re waiting for all that, plus Tyler Boyd’s decision and the name of the next offensive coordinator, check out our College Football Locker Room show from Wednesday on TribLive Radio. I flew solo, with Bob Cohn in Jacksonville for the Taxslayer Bowl and Bill West and his wife welcoming their first born into the world.
Hard to believe, but there are some things more important than college football.

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December 27, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Military Bowl notes, quotes and anecdotes

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Here’s what I’ve learned the past few days while Pitt prepared to meet Navy on Monday in the Military Bowl.
— Navy players aren’t especially happy about having to play a bowl game on their home field — Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md. — while their American Athletic Conference brethren went to places such Miami Beach, Fla., Boca Raton, Fla., and Hawaii.
— I now can spell Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo’s name without looking it up.
— The Pitt’s coach’s name is actually pronounced Nar-Dut-Chee (at least, among his Italian relatives and friends).
Other than that, I haven’t learned enough to back off my original prediction that Pitt can beat the No. 21 Midshipmen. I believe Tyler Boyd — participating in an unofficial NFL audition — will have a big game against Navy’s secondary that allowed Army’s Edgar Allan Poe (yes, that’s his name) five receptions for 121 yards and a touchdown.
Pitt 24, Navy 21 (the opposite of Navy’s victory against the Panthers in 2013).

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Pitt will display a big, blue Conner Strong banner outside the stadium Monday and is inviting people to sign it in support of running back James Conner, who is battling Hodgkins lymphoma. The banner will be next to Gate 6 (550 Taylor Avenue) of the parking lot on the Gold side of the field from 9:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m.
The banner also will be held up as Pitt runs onto the field before the game, and officials are asking people to chant “Conner Strong.”

No matter who gets the permanent job as Pitt’s offensive coordinator, the interim guy says he’ll be back next season. “Unless my wife has me moving somewhere else,” Tim Salem said.
The Military Bowl also is an audition for Salem, the former tight ends coach who is a candidate for the permanent job when Narduzzi starts his search in earnest next month.
Asked if he plans any changes for the game, Salem said, “Bring your seat belt.”
“You get bored and stale from playing a football season,” he said, “but you give (the players) something new.”
Within reason, of course. “We’re not idiots that we can go out and run the Wishbone and match Navy,” he said.
The idea is to win, whether that involves “razzle-dazzle plays … or 10 quarterback sneaks in a row,” he said.
Narduzzi said he will keep a closer eye on the offense “just because it’s new. Be a little more focused on the game clock. The game’s too critical.”

Pitt and Navy have met 39 times, with the Panthers holding a 22-14-3 edge. The teams met in all but three seasons from 1961-1989, perhaps none more memorable than Oct. 26, 1963.
Navy won, 24-12, behind Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Roger Staubach . Pitt was led by two-way All-America lineman Ernie Borghetti, whose son E.J. is now the school’s executive associate athletic director/media relations and one of the most loyal Pitt men you’ll ever meet.
Pitt finished 9-1 that season, but it was not invited to a bowl because the Orange Bowl was fearful the Panthers would lose to Penn State two weeks later. Pitt/PSU was postponed by the JFK assassination.
Pitt won, 22-21, but it was too late. Navy (9-2) went on to play for the national championship in the Cotton Bowl, but lost to Texas, 28-6.
One more note from 1963 that may be interesting only to me: CBS introduced instant replay to the nation in the Army-Navy game Dec. 7, a contest Kennedy, a Navy man, was scheduled to attend.
When Army quarterback Rollie Stichweh scored on a 1-yard plunge late in the game, CBS replayed it and viewers were confused. They ended up flooding the CBS switchboard, thinking they had seen Army score twice, according to Michael Connelly’s book “The President’s Team: The 1963 Army-Navy Game and the Assassination of JFK.”
Legendary play-by-play man Lindsey Nelson assured everyone it was only a replay, and an invention we cannot live without today was born.

A couple of quick notes: Pitt wide receiver Zach Challingsworth, who had become a receiving alternative to Boyd late in the season, hurt his shoulder against Miami last month and won’t play against Navy. Challingsworth, a sophomore from South Fayette, had recent surgery. … Pitt hasn’t defeated a ranked opponent since knocking off No. 24/25 Notre Dame in 2013.

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December 16, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Cornerback from Florida could be Pitt’s 17th verbal

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When I called Gateway (Fla.) High School coach Marlin Roberts on Wednesday, I asked him what three-star prospect Henry Miller brought to his team this season.
“He brings so much,” Roberts said. “I don’t know where to start.”
Miller has narrowed his college choices to Pitt and N.C. State and will announce his choice 7 p.m. Friday via Twitter, Roberts said.
Miller played quarterback and cornerback for Gateway, a school in Kissimmee, Fla., that plays in the state’s largest classification (8A). He passed for 935 yards and 12 touchdowns, ran for 974 and 16 and only threw two interceptions while leading Gateway (7-4) to its first playoff appearance in school history.
He also intercepted three passes, even though Roberts counted opposing teams throwing his way only 10 times all season. At 6-foot-3, 193 pounds, he projects as a cornerback, which (if he actually plays that position in college) will make some secondary coach very happy. Roberts said Miller has been timed in 4.47 seconds in the 40-yard dash and is a sprinter on the track team. He played basketball, but gave it up this season to concentrate on his recruitment.
Roberts said N.C. State has been on Miller “pretty hard.” In fact, one of its coaches called Roberts immediately before I did Wednesday morning. Meanwhile, Pitt tight ends coach Tim Salem “comes down here all the time,” Roberts said.
Miller also has drawn offers from Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan State, Mississippi State, Oregon State, Rutgers, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Strangely, none of the Florida schools have offered. Florida had interest, “but they weren’t on him as much as Pitt,” Roberts said.
Here are a few facts about Pitt’s Class of 2016:
— Pitt has 17 verbal commitments, including five (all out-of-state) in the past month. The breakdown is WPIAL and City League (five), Ohio (four), New Jersey/New York (four, including two who had previously committed to Rutgers), Virginia (two), Florida (one) and North Carolina (one).
— Rivals.com ranks Pitt’s class 47th in the nation, ninth in the ACC. So, coach Pat Narduzzi clearly has a lot more work to do, this year and beyond.
— One gem no one has talked much about is tight end Chris Clark, a former 5-star from New Jersey, who is transferring from UCLA.
— Only two Pitt verbals — Lima, Ohio, wide receiver Ruben Flowers and Aliquippa linebacker Kaezon Pugh – are rated four-stars by Rivals.
— Pugh and Central Catholic stars Bricen Garner and Rashad Wheeler are playing in state championship games Saturday.
— Three recruits are enrolling in January and will be eligible to participate in spring drills: Clark, running back Chawntez Moss and defensive end Patrick Jones.
Because he is transferring, Clark may have to sit out until 2017. Moss will compete for playing time with ACC Rookie of the Year Qadree Ollison, freshman Darrin Hall and junior James Conner, who is battling Hodgkins lymphoma and hopes to play next season. A hole opened up at running back when sophomore Chris James said he plans to transfer.
Jones steps in behind veterans Shakir Soto, Rori Blair and two promising transfer ends who didn’t play this season: Dewayne Hendrix and Allen Edwards. Plus, oft-injured senior Ejuan Price, a first-team All-ACC performer this season, might petition the NCAA for a sixth season.
For more on recruiting and Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia bowl preparations, click here on the College Football Locker Room show on TribLive Radio, with Penn State writer Bob Cohn, West Virginia writer Bill West and myself.

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December 7, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Pitt’s bowl situation is a matter of economics

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A few thoughts on Pitt’s bowl destination:
Yes, it’s true that Pitt (8-4) is better than Louisville, N.C. State and Duke — teams that were awarded ACC Tier One bowl berths while Pitt is going to the Tier Two Military Bowl to play Navy on a Monday afternoon in Annapolis, Md.
But Louisville is going to the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn., and N.C. State to the Belk in Charlotte, N.C., strictly for geographic reasons. In other words, their fans will buy more tickets and spend more money in the host cities than Pitt fans would have done.
Duke to the Pinstripe Bowl in NYC? Pitt wanted that trip, but Duke fans travel better. That’s one of the sad realities of the bowl season. The bowls are the hosts, and they have the right to pick their guests.
Unfair? Depends on your perspective.
What’s more attractive? Playing 6-6 Indiana on the day (Saturday) after Christmas in Yankee Stadium? (Actually, other than opponent, the idea of Christmas in New York and a football game in a legendary baseball venue is kind of cool.)
Or playing a 9-2 (non-Power 5) Navy team with a Heisman Trophy candidate (Keenan Reynolds) at quarterback? I’ve been to Annapolis. There’s nothing quite like the scene when the Midshipmen march into the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in lockstep.
Both games are nationally televised, by the way.
Don’t be naïve enough to think that victories don’t matter. If Pitt had defeated Miami in the final regular-season game, the Panthers would have had two more victories than those three ACC rivals — and conference rules would have prevented them from leapfrogging Pitt.
One more note: None of the four ACC teams that are playing in Tier One Bowls are matched against ranked opponents. Navy is No. 21.
Here’s a solution for Pitt fans to consider: Go to the game. I bet you never thought of that.
If enough of you show up, the bowls will notice and you may not have this problem next year.

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December 5, 2015
by Jerry DiPaola


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Miami coach Mark Richt’s fling with Pitt

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I never thought new Miami coach Mark Richt would reference Pitt at his introductory news conference Friday, but he did tell an interesting tale — albeit, one that’s 19 years old.
Richt said he turned down an opportunity to replace Johnny Majors as Pitt’s head coach in 1996 because he wanted to go to a place where he could spend the rest of his career.
That was a time when Pitt was coming off five consecutive losing seasons while playing in 71-year-old Pitt Stadium that was torn down three years later.
“When I was offered the job at the University of Pittsburgh five years prior to taking Georgia job, it wasn’t official that I was hired,” Richt said, “but at the end of the visit, the AD (Steve Pederson) said, ‘If you spend the night, I’ll introduce you to the fans at the basketball game as our new head coach.’ ”
Richt, who at the time was offensive coordinator at Florida State, assumed that was a job offer, so he consulted with his wife Katharyn.
“I talked to Katharyn and said, ‘Do you want to live in Pittsburgh for the rest of your life?’ I have nothing against Pittsburgh. I love Pittsburgh. I love the Iron City … but I said, ‘Is this where you want to live, for good?’
“She said, ‘Why do you ask?’
“I said, ‘Because I don’t want to take a job knowing I’m looking for another job.’ ”
Richt, 55, said it was important for him not to take a job that was a steppingstone to something else. (Refreshing, right?)
“I can see assistant coaches moving,” he said, “but when you’re the head coach, everything rises and falls on you and so many people are counting on you.
“What I didn’t want to do was go to Pittsburgh or anywhere else and then, three years down the road, say, ‘I got a better job. I got a better opportunity. I’ll see you all later. Thanks for helping me get to where I want to be.’
“If we were going to become head coach, I want it to be at a place where I feel like I could finish my career. That’s how we felt about Georgia at the time, and that’s exactly how we feel about the University of Miami.”
Richt turned down Pitt and stayed at Florida State until he was hired at Georgia in 2001. He stayed there until he was fired last week, compiling a 145-51 record with two SEC championships in 15 seasons.
Pitt hired Walt Harris, the one and only coach to lead the Panthers to a major bowl in the past three decades.

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