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September 28, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola

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Predicting a close call for Pitt today in must-win situation: Panthers 30 Cavaliers 27

How important is Saturday’s Virginia game for Pitt?
Look at the upcoming schedule. After an off weekend, Pitt will visit Virginia Tech on Oct. 12, and the Hokies’ defense is clearly one of the best in the nation. Nice test for the newly energized Pitt offense. Coach Frank Beamer knows what went wrong last year when his team lost to Pitt, and will fix it. Plus, Logan Thomas will be a better quarterback than he was at Heinz Field last year.
Tough game, especially in Blacksburg.
Later, Pitt must play at Georgia Tech, at home against Notre Dame and North Carolina, Syracuse at the Carrier Dome and Miami at Heinz Field in a five-game gauntlet that will be difficult to navigate.
So, when schools such as Virginia appear on the schedule, it becomes just short of a must-win situation.
Looking at the matchups, Virginia’s defense will be a formidable test for Pitt’s offensive line that has played well so far this season. If Pitt can’t handle Virginia quarterback David Watford, who has thrown six interceptions in three games, the concern for the defense will morph into full-blown hand-wringing. It’s not like there’s help on the waiver wire. Only better recruiting will solve the problem for the future, but that does no good today.
That being said, I’ll take the underdog Cavaliers to cover the 5 1/2-point spread, but Pitt will win the game.
Call it: 30-27.
Which still will call for significant improvement on defense, but that’s a crisis for another day.
As expected, senior middle linebacker Shane Gordon (ribs) won’t play and will be replaced by yet another freshman, Matt Galambos. Also junior defensive end Bryan Murphy (ankle) is out, giving the start to sophomore Ejuan Price and shoving freshman (that word again) Shakir Soto up the depth chart.
And stay healthy center Artie Rowell. Your backup Gabe Roberts is out with a shoulder injury.


September 18, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola

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ESPN’S Congemi likes the direction Pitt football is taking

Former Pitt quarterback John Congemi, a college football analyst for ESPN, said he likes how the Panthers’ offense is developing under the direction of senior quarterback Tom Savage.
“I didn’t think they had the talent to stay with Florida State for four quarters, but I was glad to see they picked an identity and tried to stick with it,” he said. “I think (Savage) is really going to help this team grow up faster than it would with a guy who isn’t as seasoned. They have a pretty good idea of what he does well and what he likes to do. When you have that, you can fit the offense around him.

“I just hope the defense can hold up. They are not real big.” Congemi, who is working the Marshall/Virginia Tech game Saturday in Blacksburg, Va., for ESPNU, has a long history of working in television. He has served as an analyst for ESPNU games since 2005 and  worked for the Big East Network from 2000-2011.
He also is part of ESPN history – as a player. Congemi was Pitt’s quarterback for the 1984 opener against Brigham Young at Pitt Stadium, which was the first live telecast of a regular-season college football game on ESPN.
Among the more notable TV games Congemi remembers prior to ’84 was the Pitt/Penn State 24-24 tie in 1983. It was shown on tape delay with Bill Hillgrove and former Pitt All-American linebacker Sal Sunseri (now an assistant at Florida State) calling the action. Congemi also said Brent Musburger worked the ’83 West Virginia game for CBS.
Congemi is proud to be part of ESPN’s past and present.
“If we knew what ESPN was going to become, we would have been that much more excited,” he said.
Congemi played quarterback for Pitt from 1983-1986, and is sixth on Pitt’s all-time passing yardage list (6,467).

September 12, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola

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The day Bob Davie invited Ellwood City’s Al Campman into the Notre Dame huddle

Something happened to me Wednesday on a conference with New Mexico coach Bob Davie that was pleasing, unexpected and helpful all at the same time.
In this business, that’s a trifecta you don’t treat lightly.
While Davie, the Moon High School graduate who brings his Lobos to Heinz Field on Saturday to play Pitt, was chatting with the crew assigned to telecast the game (Channel 4, here in Pittsburgh; 95 markets nationwide via the ACC Network), I listened respectfully to the conversation. At the end,  when it appeared the allotted time for the call had expired, I butted in to introduce myself.
At that point, Davie said, “Give me your number. I’ll call you.”
I’ve been on a lot of conference calls, but never one that ended in the gem of all sports journalistic gems — the one-on-one interview.
I had a nice chat with Davie, who was a roommate at Youngstown State with former Ellwood City basketball coach Al Campman.
“I remember those nights in the dorm,” Davie said. “Al couldn’t sleep unless he had this fan running that sounded like a damn helicopter.”
My story on Davie is on Page C19 of today’s Trib sports tabloid, but there was one Davie story that Campman mentioned that I didn’t have room to relate, so I’ll share it here.
When Davie was the head coach at Notre Dame, he invited Campman and three of his buddies, Mark Stanley, Jim Thompson and Brad Ovial, to the Irish’s spring game. Prior to the game, Davie spoke to the guys, but had other commitments and left after a brief hello.
Campman understood, of course, but he was a bit disappointed that Davie couldn’t spend more time with them.
“When you are the head coach, every minute of the day, you are doing something,” said Campman,  who was the point guard on Farrell coach Eddie McCluskey’s final PIAA championship team in 1972.
During the game, an announcement came over the public address system for Campman to report to the press box. Campman thought something had happened at home, so he was deeply concerned as quickly left his seat and headed upstairs. But as he crossed the back of the end zone to get to the elevator, Davie stopped him and said, “I want you on the field for the game.”
Campman was thrilled — “He knows I’m  a football coach at heart; I just happen to coach basketball.” — and even got as close as the Notre Dame huddle.
Perhaps Davie was trying to pay back Campman for the time when he came to one of Campman’s football games when he was coaching at Trinity High School in Garfield Heights, Ohio.
“It was pouring down rain and here comes a runner right at him,” Campman said. “Knocked him head over heels and he’s drenched. He hurt his leg and was even limping around.”
Campman steered clear of any Notre Dame runners that day, and the two men — whose Youngstown teammates included NFL quarterbacks Ron Jaworski and Cliff Stoudt  – remain close friends. Davie was in the stands at the Fitzgerald Field House when Campman’s Ellwood City basketball team lost to Beaver Falls in the WPIAL championship in 1985.
“I was a little more straight shooter than him,” Campman said of their days at YSU. “Bob liked to go have a little more fun than me, but when it came down to hard work, we both did the same thing.”

September 3, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola

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Final thoughts on Pitt’s loss to Florida State — and the future

Before I went to Heinz Field on Monday, I predicted Pitt would lose, 28-13, to Florida State. I also said coach Paul Chryst has Pitt pointed in the right direction.
The final was 41-13, and Pitt looked worse than I thought. The road Chryst, his staff and players must travel is long and treacherous. Fans must go against their nature and be patient, or they will be disappointed and discouraged for the next two or three seasons.
The talent disparity between Pitt and Florida State is clear and it is wide. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher is one of college football’s top recruiters. When he has 11 players drafted by the NFL, which is what happened this year, you can barely tell when the next team lines up the following season.
Pitt has had four coaches in the past 33 months. As much as anything, that’s why the final was 41-13.
More observations:
– Lost in the chaos was the outstanding play of senior wide receiver Devin Street, who recorded a career-high 141 receiving yards, beating his previous best (140) set against Temple last year. Street and Tyler Boyd and quarterback Tom Savage will keep Pitt competitive in most ACC games this season.
– Pitt has allowed 79 points and 920 yards in its past two games, including a loss to Ole Miss in the BBVA Compass Bowl last season. Ole Miss and Florida State beat Pitt with speed, on both sides of the ball.
– Pitt is off this weekend and resumes play Sept. 14 against New Mexico, a 21-13 loser to Texas-San Antonio last Saturday. Texas-San Antonio did not have a football program before 2011.


September 3, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola

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Florida State’s Winston dominates Pitt’s secondary

No one expected Pitt to upset Florida State on Monday night. Not even after the nearly flawless opening drive that gave Pitt a 7-0 lead and created false hope throughout Heinz Field.
But here’s something I didn’t expect (and I bet coach Paul Chryst was surprised by it, too):
Florida State redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston throwing for 356  yards against the strength of the Pitt team — its secondary.
Cornerbacks K’Waun Williams and Lafayette Pitts and safety Jason Hendricks can be three of the nastiest players in a Pitt uniform, but they made no impact. Eight different Seminoles caught passes against the experienced Pitt secondary, led by wide receiver Rashad Greene (eight for 126 and a touchdown) and tight end Nick O’Leary  (four for 47 and three touchdowns).
Winston was outstanding in his first collegiate start, completing 92.5 percent of his passes (25 for 27). Part of it was a weak pass rush enabling Winston to feel comfortable in the pocket far too many times. Part of it was the secondary giving the Seminoles wide receivers too much credit and playing too far off the ball. The blitzes were too few and too ineffective. Winston was sacked twice, by defensive tackle Aaron Donald and linebacker Nicholas Grigsby, but the losses totaled only 9 yards.
Chryst needs to fix lots of things before the season resumes two Saturdays from now against New Mexico. One of them is smarter quarterback play — two interceptions are unacceptable under any circumstances — but Savage showed toughness and a strong arm. Pitt will be fine at quarterback.
The other is tougher play in the secondary.  The defensive backs need to make quicker, better reads — too many pass catchers were wide open — and execute the plays with more physical intent.
Winston looks like he will become a great player — after one game, I’ll wait before giving him the Heisman  — but Pitt was far too easy of a target.
Other  observations
– Running backs Isaac Bennett and James Conner, who were coming off training-camp injuries, ran with plenty of courage and heart, but 18 carries should net more than 69 yards and more than one double-digit gain (10 yards by Bennett).
– The offensive line is a work in progress, so the running game will suffer in the meantime. You gotta love Tyler Boyd, but he can’t be Pitt’s leading rusher such as he was Monday (three carries, 54 yards).
– Coach Paul Chryst used 11 freshmen before the end of the first quarter, indicating he can’t wait to turn over his roster with his own players. Pitt will be a better team in 2014-15 than it is now.
– I wonder how much the passing game will suffer if the running game gets no better.
– Maybe I wasn’t thinking clearly, but coming into the game, I thought we’d see more of Todd Thomas at linebacker. Maybe next time. When your defense gives up 41 points, change is inevitable.

September 2, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola

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Even with a loss to Florida State (28-13, perhaps), Chryst has Pitt on right path

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.

August 22, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola

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Conner’s hustle lands him on the Pitt trainer’s table

The Pitt running back situation appeared to take a turn from bad to worse Thursday when freshman James Conner landed awkwardly on his left shoulder after chasing down safety Jason Hendricks, who  had intercepted a pass.
Conner, who showed tremendous hustle on the play, cried out in pain when he hit the ground. Trainer Rob Blanc immediately tended to Conner, strapping an ice pack to the shoulder. He did not practice for the rest of the day.
There was no update from coach Paul Chryst, but Conner tweeted shortly after practice, “Shoulder is good!”
Conner had been the first running back on the field since starter Isaac Bennett injured his right knee Aug. 10. Bennett worked without a leg brace for the second consecutive day, but he did not participate in the scrimmage portion of practice.


August 6, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola

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Chryst’s discipline compromises Pitt’s depth chart

Pitt coach Paul Chryst showed little patience for indiscretions by his players this off-season, dismissing safety Eric Williams and tight end Drew Carswell and suspending wide receiver Ronald Jones and defensive tackle K.K. Mosley-Smith for the entire season.
Plus, freshman quarterback Tre’von Chapman will miss the start of training camp Tuesday, at least, after serving a three-day term for assault.
None of those players would have been starters at the outset of camp, but losing them compromises depth. (Chapman would have been redshirted in any case.)
As a result, if injuries occur, Pitt could be in big trouble from the standpoint of experienced personnel.
That said, tight end Scott Orndoff, safeties Ryan Lewis and Jevonte Pitts, defensive tackle Tyrique Jarrett and wide receivers Tyler Body, Zach Challingsworth and Chris Wuestner – all freshmen or redshirt freshmen – have a chance to contribute.
–One reason the Pitt defense might be better this season is the presence of junior outside linebacker Todd Thomas from the beginning.
A year ago, Thomas was trying to ease a left knee injury back to health after surgery and missed training camp. Eventually, he sat out the first four games before playing the last nine and recording 59 tackles, with 1 ½ sacks and an interception.
“I think he can give us some stuff, but he can play at a higher level than what he’s been,” Chryst said. “Need him to.”
– The return of middle linebacker Shane Gordon, who missed spring drills with a neck injury, is another boost to the defense. Gordon missed three games last season, but managed to collect 48 tackles, sixth on the team.
– Chryst said Gordon and strong safety Jason Hendricks (toe) have been cleared to practice.
– Freshman Rachid Ibrahim, who appeared to be a prospect for the secondary, will start his college career at running back. He was an all-state running back in Maryland, averaging 9.1 yards per carry at Avalon High School.
– Freshman defensive tackle Jeremiah Taleni and redshirt junior defensive end David Durham will be limited early in camp with minor injuries.


July 2, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola

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Stock market, hopes on the upswing as Pitt joins ACC

When they shut off the beer taps, packed up the guitars and swept the floor after the last of the revelers had left Stage AE on the North Shore on Monday night, all that remained for Pitt coaches and athletes was this:
A lot of hard work.
Pitt has its wish. It’s in the ACC where it has unprecedented, long-term riches, solidarity and — maybe, someday — celebrity.
It’s a nice neighborhood in which to live, but can Pitt thrive in the ACC, especially in football and baseball? Difficult, yes, but far from impossible.
Everyone was reminded of that fact when Pitt announced it will retire wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald’s No. 1 jersey.
Believe it or not, attracting great athletes to the Pitt football program has been done before — over and over again. Fitzgerald is only one of nine Pitt greats to have their jerseys retired. If you didn’t know better, you’d never believe all these guys played at the same university. Here’s the list:
Dan Marino. Tony Dorsett. Mike Ditka. Bill Fralic. Hugh Green. Joe Schmidt. Mark May. Marshall Goldberg.
“To be mentioned in the same breath with some of those names, it throws you for a loop,” Fitzgerald said.
Four of the eight are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — Marino, Dorsett, Ditka and Schmidt — and Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson boldly proclaimed Fitzgerald will become the fifth after he retires from the NFL.
No argument here: Fitzgerald has played nine seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, making 764 catches for 10,413  yards and 77 touchdowns.
For now, Pederson said, Fitzgerald is “the greatest wide receiver ever to play college football.”
Again, no argument. Fitzgerald played two seasons at Pitt (2002 and 2003) and scored a touchdown every 4.7 times he made a catch. I did the math twice just to be sure — 161 receptions, 34 touchdowns. Astounding.
Fitzgerald is a Pitt man and a Pitt fan. “I was 17 when I came here. I was a boy,” he said. “At 20, I left as a man.”
So, you need to consider his remarks in that light. But he is optimistic that Pitt football can succeed because of what the ACC has to offer and his faith in second-year coach Paul Chryst.
“They have a great leader in coach Chryst. He is unbelievable man,” Fitzgerald said. “He is going to get this program to the top of the ACC, I have no doubt, in a short period of time.”
His advise to the current Pitt players: “Continue to work hard. Be ready for great things.”
Fitzgerald owes a lot to Pitt and former coach Walt Harris, who recruited him and suggested he wear his high school number (No. 1) as a freshman.
“I felt like I had a big responsibility wearing  it,” he said. “It’s never about the name on the back. It’s about the name on the front. You wanted to make sure you represented the university in the right way.”
Fitzgerald represented Pitt on Monday when the ACC held its welcoming news conference at the NASDAQ Stock Exchange in New York.
The market was up 0.92 percent, by the way. A sign? Pitt hopes so.

June 13, 2013
by Jerry DiPaola

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Nordenberg made the right call on Pederson

If anyone cares what I think:
Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg was right to extend athletic director Steve Pederson’s contract this week.
Yeah, the football program has fallen on hard, hard times in recent years, and Pederson must shoulder much of that blame. There is a lot of catching up to do, and the roster makeover will take time — lots of time.
How would history have been changed if Paul Chryst had been hired one year earlier — in December, 2010 — instead of Michael Haywood?  I bet you never would have heard of Todd Graham.
And what was Pederson thinking when he gave Dave Wannstedt a contract extension through 2014 eight months before firing him? Wannstedt was fired at the end of his third consecutive winning season. Clearly, he had not built up enough equity, so how did he deserve an extension?
But Pederson got it right when he brought coaches Walt Harris and Ben Howland aboard during his first Pitt stint, resurrecting the football and basketball programs.
Also, the man knows how to shake the right hands. Petersen Events Center and Petersen Sports Complex were built largely on the backs of donors who had developed strong, personal relationships with the athletic director. Pederson protected the bottom line and improved the facilities in grand fashion. That can be as important as any eight- and nine-victory season.
I’m not a big fan of off-campus football, but renovating Pitt Stadium would have been costly and gotten in the way of the PEC. Where would basketball be without it? The move to the ACC might not have happened if Pederson was still trying to run a football program out of antiquated Pitt Stadium that would have had its 88th birthday this year.
Pederson made the correct, proactive call when he helped Pitt jump to the ACC — the football program’s only avenue of growth. When you’re watching Florida State, North Carolina and Miami this year at Heinz Field, ask yourself if you would have rather spent your money to see Memphis, South Florida and Tulane.
Could another AD have accomplished the same things? Maybe. Maybe not.
Pederson did, and Nordenberg was watching.
Pederson covered several topics this week when he spoke to reporters after receiving a contract extension that will keep him at the university through the 2017-2018 academic year.
Here are a few:
– He talked about the ambitious goal of hoping to sell 11,000 more season tickets to exhaust the allotment at Heinz Field for the entire season for the first time since 2003. That sounds like a lot of tickets to sell in less than three months, but Pederson said his staff is working “day and night” to make it happen.
In any case, expect attendance at Heinz Field to jump significantly this season over last year’s average of 41,494 and, perhaps, surpass 50,000 for only the fourth time since Pitt moved there in 2001.
– He talked about trying to save the league formerly known as the Big East and hoping to “lock arms” with his colleagues to make it happen. But he said not enough schools were interested, and the league fell apart.
“We were the ones saying let’s lock arms here and sort this out, but we could never get a full commitment from the people that had to be committed to this to have it happen,” he said.
My take: Lucky for Pitt the Big East eventually crumbled into two parts, a situation Nordenberg and Pederson were smart enough to avoid. Pitt is in a better place in the ACC and will enjoy financial benefits that its former league never could have offered, especially when the ACC finalizes its own TV network in the next several years.
– What interested me the most was his take on transfers and Pitt’s unofficial policy on accommodating those athletes who wish to leave.
The topic is particularly timely this year after the football team lost five players, including projected No. 1 tailback Rushel Shell, and basketball players Trey Zeigler, John Johnson and Malcolm Gilbert 
left, possibly followed by J.J. Moore. Pitt, wisely, prefers not to release players to conference foes and schools on future schedules. I also find nothing wrong with Pederson blocking Shell from transferring to Arizona or Arizona State. (He finally settled on UCLA, although the Bruins have yet to acknowledge his presence).
Coaches at Arizona and Arizona State – and you know who I’m talking about — helped recruit Shell to Pitt and developed a relationship with him. Why should they use that relationship – born while they were employed by Pitt and making a handsome salary at Pitt’s expense — to lure him to another school?
I’m still puzzled why Pitt allowed cornerback Lloyd Carrington to go to Arizona State. There must have been some extenuating circumstances at play there.
Pederson said he understands why athletes want to transfer.
“Things get tough,” he said. “Coaches are demanding and they have high expectations and sometimes they don’t always tell you want you want to hear. Sometimes, they tell you what you need to hear. At some point we have to fight through that a little bit and say, ‘I’m going to stick through this and do this the right way.’ “If somebody just isn’t fitting in or they feel like they just aren’t talented enough to play here and they want to go somewhere else where they feel like they could play, then generally we’ve been pretty good about that.
“But there ought to be some rationale for leaving; that’s where we’ve gotten a little bit tighter in terms of departures. This shouldn’t be just free agency – when you want to leave, you just leave. We’ve made a commitment to recruit them and educate them and do the right things here. So there are just some times where we feel like we ought to encourage them to stick it out and get through this. “And in a lot of cases, then it ends up coming back around and they’re fine. They go through periods of time where they’re frustrated and they come back and they’re fine. And I think that’s part of life and a little bit of growing up, to have to fight through some of the tougher times.”
Well said, Steve.
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