Since taking over the Pitt football program in the wake of the Todd Graham fiasco 21 months ago, coach Paul Chryst has taken a path that few reasonable adults could question.
When Rushel Shell wanted to return after skipping most of spring drills in a fit of disenchantment, Chryst didn’t even say no. He simply ignored the request. Quietly, I’m sure he wishes Shell well — at West Virginia.
When three players were cited for a drug offense in the spring, he dismissed the two who had prior indiscretions.
When talented and much-respected freshman quarterback Tra’Von Chapman went to jail for three days for assault on a woman, Chryst gave the issue long and careful consideration before telling Chapman he needed to find another school. Yes, he could have done so sooner — something the Chapman family would have appreciated — but Chapman’s real enemy was himself. Despite the delay, he will find another school.
In all cases, Chryst’s message was firm and clear: Don’t mess with the head coach or — most important — the program. Pitt has tough days ahead, and players who aren’t dedicated to the process 24 hours a day – practicing hard, going to class and staying out of trouble – aren’t welcome.
Chryst wants to build a good team, but first he must rebuild a program that everyone within and without can respect. That can’t be done by cutting corners in preseason workouts or receiving special, undeserved favors from the coach.
Oh, and, by the way, coach, while you’re sending all these talented players out the door, keep winning games, thank you.
That’s the tricky part for Chryst: It’s tough to cleanse the program of players who might be able to help in the short term, and then try to win games in the process.
Shell could have helped the running game against Florida State’s tough and athletic front seven. Eric Williams would have given Pitt good depth at safety and, possibly, evolved into a starter, but he was one of those asked to leave.
Actually, Chryst found an alternative to Shell in Isaac Bennett, a hard-working, high-character guy, but he missed most of training camp with a knee injury. Has the knee healed sufficiently for Bennett to play? Chryst thought so late last week, so that’s a good sign. And the Pitt secondary still looks like the strongest area of the team, even without Williams.
Nonetheless, the task ahead is daunting, with little margin for error or injury.
For Pitt to finish 7-5 and have its best season in three years, it must win one game from this six-team gauntlet – Florida State, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Miami — and take each of the remaining six. That won’t be easy.
SOME THOUGHTS ON MONDAY NIGHT?: The athletic Florida State defense will pose several challenges for Pitt’s inexperienced offense. … Line play will decide this game, one way or another. … Pitt’s defense will need to force some turnovers from FSU redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston to prevent the game from getting out of hand. … Looking forward to watching cornerbacks K’Waun Williams and Lafayette Pitts, two tough, nasty players with the ability to keep Pitt in the game.
I’ll say 28-13, FSU.
If the Panthers can make it interesting (in other words, keep the nation’s TV sets turned on), they have a chance to build some confidence in themselves and gain some respect across the ACC. Even with a loss to Florida State, Pitt could be 3-1 going into Blacksburg, Va., to play Virginia Tech on Oct. 12. New Mexico, Duke and Virginia are winnable games later this month. Then, it’s Old Dominion and Navy. Dare we mention this possibility: 5-2 going into Georgia Tech on Nov. 2?
ARRIVE EARLY: Pregame should be interesting Monday at Heinz Field. Pitt Student Government Board President Gordon Louderback and his fellow ACC presidents will walk onto the field while the Pitt band plays the fight song from every conference school. Then, at halftime, Pitt will retire wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald’s No. 1 jersey.
Another nice touch from the city: the Gulf Tower, BNY Mellon, Wyndham Grand, Carnegie Science Center, PNC Park and the Duquesne Incline will light up the skyline in blue and gold colors.