(((Programming note: Check out this week’s special Thursday edition of the Nittany Nation show on TribLive Radio. I talk Penn State recruiting with Greg Pickel of PennLive.com and Scout.com. We also have Chris Peak, publisher of PantherLair.com, on for the final segment to touch on Pitt/Penn State alleged animosity. Download the podcast link here:
STATE COLLEGE – Throughout the entirety of a 35-minute signing day news conference Wednesday at Beaver Stadium, Penn State coach James Franklin mentioned “Pitt” one time. The context was, “the last five, 10 years, most of the western PA kids were going to West Virginia and going to Ohio State and going to Pitt.”
During about 10-15 minutes each while Nittany Lions offensive recruiting coordinator Josh Gattis and defensive recruiting coordinator Terry Smith were holding court with media and I was listening, I never heard “Pitt.” Later that night, when Franklin was addressing a crowd of about 1,500 at Rec Hall who were celebrating PSU’s newest players, he did utter “Pittsburgh” several times but only because he, while talking about each new signee, listed the players other scholarship offers.
But just because Penn State’s coaches weren’t going to publicly talk about Pitt, that doesn’t mean they weren’t asked about it. Gattis’ tweets from the previous day ensured that.
Tuesday was the day that defensive end Kevin Givens from Altoona “flipped” (I hate that word) his verbal commitment from Pitt to Penn State. Late that morning, Gattis sent out a tweet that has since been deleted (apparently at the behest of Franklin):
It was followed by this:
— Josh Gattis (@Coach_Gattis) February 3, 2015
Now, a few things here. First off, the theory has been floated that Penn State “flipped” (there’s that word again!) Givens just to, and I’m paraphrasing, “stick it to Pitt.” The great Chris Peak of PantherLair.com, a good guy and reporter, relayed it (paraphrasing) on my TribLive Radio show this week.
I can tell you from conversations I have had with multiple people at PSU that they never once cited spiting Pitt as a reason to add Givens to their class – and I feel confident that if that was a reason, they woulda told me. (Though to be fair, odds are extremely likely that if they did in fact tell me that, that I wouldn’t have been able to relay that information… that said, I’ll assure you that if that indeed was the case, I wouldn’t relay that it *wasn’t* brought up at all, as I have. Make sense?).
When it comes to Givens, his first scholarship offer came from Smith about a year and a half ago – when Smith was an assistant at Temple. That relationship goes back longer than, perhaps, even what Givens had with any Pitt coach. Secondly, we know that Penn State had recruited Givens, at least to some extent, for a long time (although it had never offered a scholarship). He’d been to campus – a campus that is only 40 minutes away. Finally – and perhaps most importantly – Penn State was notified by the NCAA within 48 hours of signing day that it was permitted to use three extra scholarships than expected. PSU always had an interest in Givens; the coaches just saw him as too much of the classic end/outside ‘backer “tweener” type. Now that they had three extra scholarships to give, it’s not unreasonable to believe that Givens was next on their list – especially considering the importance of re-establishing the Nittany Lions as an in-state recruiting power. (The Givens-as-a-pawn theory is more believable if it was a “let’s build more goodwill with programs across the area by taking a local kid” type of thing that seems to happen a lot at a lot of places).
Anyway… make no mistake, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi – from his time as Michigan State’s defensive coordinator (a conference rival of Penn State’s) – rubbed some people in Happy Valley the wrong way. Like him or not, whether he earned the right to talk or not (and let’s not forget, Narduzzi was in charge of what was arguably one of the best FBS defenses over the past decade in MSU’s 2013 Rose Bowl-champion edition), Narduzzi has a confidence-that-borders-on-arrogance (or at least he comes across as he does) that can irk some opposing teams. Witness his quotes from this 2014 ESPN.com feature that didn’t go unnoticed by Narduzzi’s peers:
“I don’t think there’s a team in the country that does what we do. We’re more cutting edge [with] zone pressure. We’re cutting edge with how we play our quarters [Cover 4] coverage… We do a lot of things people don’t do and to be honest, people are trying to copycat it all over the country.”
“We’ve been ahead of the curve for years.”
Take that all as you wish. Confidence – or cockiness? Taking credit away from the players and heaving it upon yourself – or crediting your assistant coaches? Either way, that is some context as to Narduzzi’s repute (real or perceived) among his peers in the Big Ten while he was in the conference.
OK… you might be asking… What does this have to do with negative recruiting? Well, maybe nothing. Or, maybe it paints a picture of Narduzzi’s personality and style (one that, from the outside, is similar to how many also perceive of Franklin, by the way) and how he might relate to potential recruits. It also, perhaps, could explain why some opposing coaches might be less willing to give Narduzzi the benefit of the doubt if they catch word he is “negatively recruiting” against them.
The world of recruiting is a strange one that I don’t fully understand myself. What are the lines that can’t be crossed? Certainly, there’s plenty of gray area. The Trib has reached out to each of the four Penn State signees who were either previously-committed to Pitt or were being heavily recruited by Narduzzi to Pitt over the past month. Supposedly, some or all of these kids would have been the ones who were turned off by Pitt’s negative tactics and relayed these to PSU’s coaches. However, be it aversion to the media, a desire to take the high road or not get caught up in the middle of this (after all, it should be a happy time to celebrate after signing) or – just maybe – because there is no truth to any of this, none of the four would go on the record to expound on any negative recruiting by Pitt.
So, that leaves it to be a he-said, she-said kind of thing. You could argue some at Penn State misinterpreted things, or player(s) gave them bad information/exaggerated, or that they are blowing things out of proportion. Any of those are reasonable positions someone might take. But make no mistake, people at PSU were miffed.
So that leads us to Gattis’ tweets. Franklin was asked about them Wednesday, and if Gattis was targeting Pitt:
“No, that was a general statement. There’s an aspect of negative recruiting. Guys are competitors and guys want to do a great job of representing their university and getting young men to come, but there’s a fine line to it. You just have to be careful, and Josh is as competitive a guy as there is. But we just want to make sure that we’re always representing Penn State the right way and we’re selling Penn State – we don’t need to talk about other schools; we need to sell Penn State and our education and all the things that we can offer. And every once in a while you’ve got to have a conversation with the assistant coaches as well and say, ‘Let it ride. You don’t need to go on Twitter.’ I love Josh, he’s the best… But, you know, we’ve got a competitive staff, and they believe in doing things the right way and representing this school the right way. But the competitive juices get flowing sometimes and sometimes you feel like you need to strike back. That’s not always the case. We want to take the high road.”
Pretty clear that Franklin was who muzzled Gattis’ original tweet, no? Also pretty obvious (if thinly-veiled) acknowledgement that PSU perceived that at least some unnamed institution out there is “negatively recruiting” against it.
So, after Franklin was done at the podium, next came Gattis. He was asked point-blank if his tweets were directed at Pitt:
“No team specifically, but we just want to sell our product here. As coach stated, recruiting is competitive, we’ve had a number of teams try to compete with us and we’re fortunate enough for the kids — especially in-state kids that we have offered – we’ve got. We sell our product, we sell our relationships, we sell everything we have to provide. So those kids see through everything and they know how much a Penn State degree means and what Penn State offers as far as an opportunity to be playing in a prestigious program can do for them. So we’re excited about what we have to sell. Obviously in the recruiting process, there’s a lot of things that go on from other different universities and other different angles, and as long as we stick to selling what we can provide for a kid, we truly believe we can get any kid in the nation — and it showed this year.”
Whoa. A ton of coachspeak and clichés there to wade though, but also some subtle juicy nuggets: “We just want to sell our product here… We’ve had a number of teams try to compete with us… kids see through everything… in the recruiting process, there’s a lot of things that go on from other different universities and other different angles…” And, finally, the equivalent of yelling “SCOREBOARD” via the “We truly believe we can get any kid in the nation — and it showed this year” touchdown-spike ending.
Gattis is an intelligent guy – both in football and in proverbial “street smarts.” He was just named the Big Ten’s Recruiter of the Year by Scout.com. I see him as a future head-coach type, and he has an ease in speaking with the media that already shows it. But he also is a young guy, and he’s a fiery competitive guy. It’s fascinating how that all comes through when talking about this – 2/3 of politically-correct coachspeak with just a few slight jabs that are subtle enough that they can be denied. You almost have to admire the skill.
Anyway, there’s only really three or four PSU beat reporters from the Western side of the state – the majority of the PA media doesn’t care about a Pitt-PSU potential beef. But us Pittsburgh/Altoona reporters weren’t gonna let Gattis go without another question or two to clarify his tweets.
Gattis was asked if all these Pitt “flips” and the “negative recruiting” talk (not that anyone mentioned Pitt, of course!) was going to “stoke the fires” of a rivalry that’s been all but dead for almost a quarter century but will renew with annual games from 2016-19:
“One of our hashtags is #PSUnrivaled; we truly believe we don’t have any rivalries. That’s anybody. You look at this recruiting class; we had a number of different players who had committed to different universities all throughout of our conference and out of our conference, so we go out and find the right kid that fits what we want and whether he’s previously committed somewhere or not, we’re going to sell the product to get him here and build relationships to get him here.
Our rivalry is whoever wins the national championship; that’s who we want to rival, that’s truly what we want to believe in and that’s what we want to build or program around. So we don’t have rivals. We’re looking to build them in as far as being in national championship contention and playing for Big Ten championships.”
OK, mostly speaking like a well-trained politician (or veteran head coach) there. Not much to glean, except for a vague “Hey, we ‘flipped’ kids from several other schools other than the unnamed one you’re referring to – we’re equal opportunity that way!”).
I gave it one last shot, asking Gattis, “in general terms” (so as not to explicitly make this a “Pitt” thing), where the line is that can’t be crossed in this 50(yard-line) shades of gray that is so-called “negative recruiting”:
“You just focus on what you have to sell. That’s all I ever do, that’s all we ever do as a staff. Unfortunately it’s not always like that in the recruiting world; there’s some situations where kids tell you certain stories of coaches are saying this, saying that. But we just sell what we have to sell: A world-class education and an opportunity come to a prestigious and storied program and an opportunity to play in Beaver Stadium, which provides an unbelievable atmosphere for any college football player and an opportunity to chase your dreams at the highest level. It gets no bigger than Penn State, so we’re proud of where we are, we’re proud of what we have to sell, and you can tell by this recruiting class the kids believe in it. They believe in the direction we’re headed in at Penn State, and we’re excited about the future.”
Again, reading between the lines, Gattis’ message he was trying to get across was clear: “We just sell what we have to sell… Unfortunately it’s not always like that in the recruiting world; there’s some situations where kids tell you certain stories of coaches are saying this, saying that.” Yet another subtle-but-obvious takeaway that he is saying that some players have told PSU coaches that (unnamed) “coaches” are “saying this, saying that” (re: negatively recruiting).
What does all this mean? Who knows? We do know that people at Penn State believe that Pitt was recruiting negatively against PSU. We don’t know exactly what was said, or if this crossed any sort of line or violated any kind of gentlemen’s recruiting agreement that’s widely held and adhered to. We also don’t know if Narduzzi – a first time head coach (and coordinators, as he most recently was, typically are LEAST involved in recruiting and are least important to recruiting than any staff member) – has “learned a lesson” from it. Or if he needed to. Or if, perhaps, this was blown out of proportion (by stupid beat writers composing 2,500-word blog posts!?).
The only tangible impact of any alleged negative recruiting would have been if any prospects were so turned off by it that they picked PSU over Pitt as a result (even partially). None of the possible candidates for this will go on-record saying that publicly. However, all four did, in fact, sign with Penn State, and Pitt ended up with the worst-rated recruiting class among any Power 5 conference program in the country. Even forgetting any player recruited by Paul Chryst, Penn State got all four prospects that they pursued that Narduzzi was also after. If this was Round 1 of an alleged longterm recruiting match, if it wasn’t a knockout, it was certainly scored heavily in favor of PSU.
In the end, this is all very silly. But I understand why it’s a fun and conversation-starting (argument-starting?) topic in these parts. If you’re a Penn State fan, you have to be pleased with the recruiting class, by any reasonable measure. That’s all that matters.
With a full recruiting cycle to work as a staff, we’ll see how Narduzzi & Co. do at Pitt, and if it has any impact on Penn State’s efforts. The Nittany Lions are off to a good start in 2016, getting a player generally accepted as the top junior in the WPIAL – if not the state – in Woodland Hills’ Miles Sanders. Is there a recruiting rivalry to be had? Is real animosity between the coaching staffs?
We know there is between some fans of each. Either way, Sept. 10, 2016 at Heinz Field, an actual football game will be played between the schools.
Bless you if you made it reading this far.