Dave Wannstedt was the head coach at Pitt from 2005 to 2010. While he finished with a 43-31 record and largely failed to live up to expectations, he certainly outperformed those that immediately followed him. With Pat Narduzzi about to embark on his second season, the 50-year old coach seems poised to return Pitt to success and national prominence. For the most part, Wannstedt agrees.
The biggest key in his mind is the establishment of a strong foundation in defense. It’s Narduzzi’s specialty. He was a Broyles Award winner as a defensive coordinator at Michigan State in 2013 and the Spartans were in the Top 10 in total defense for five consecutive years.
“When I got my first head coaching job, Coach Chuck Noll told me that there are so many fires to be put out, but you have to remember to take it one day at a time and build a foundation in the area you are best qualified — why you got the job,” Wannstedt said. “In Coach Narduzzi’s position, it’s defense. I think they’ve really tightened the defense up, they’ve got them playing hard. They have a scheme and the players are adapting well to it.”
Wannstedt is now an analyst with Fox Sports and has been able to watch a lot of football around the country the last two years. When compared to other programs that are in the same phase of re-building, he says that strong foundation is what sets Pitt apart.
“That’s the first step in my mind when I compare Pitt’s program with a relatively new head coaches as compared to some of the other ones,” he said. “You have to see a foundation laid for what they’re going to do on defense and then complement that. Everyone assumed that they would do similar things than what they did at Michigan State, and they have. If you’re going to complement your defense, you have to run the ball, and they’re committed to running the ball. It complements the defense from a ball possession standpoint. Time of possession, running the clock, field position, all of those things help your defense. I like what he’s done there.”
With arrows pointing up for the Panthers, the next step toward building on last season’s 8-5 effort is a Coastal Division title. Wannstedt thinks that’s possible, because of the solid foundation on defense and the play of senior quarterback Nate Peterman.
“I think their defense is going to be solid, but the biggest thing I think they have going forward to next year is the play of the quarterback,” Wannstedt said. “I think that Peterman is playing as good as any quarterback since I was there, I know that. This kid makes a lot of plays, he gets them out of a lot of bad situations. He’s got the arm, he makes good decisions and at times, he’s been athletic enough to make a play with his feet.
“When you have an experienced quarterback that understands the system and has a good supporting cast, you’re going to be in the hunt. You’re never going to be out of a game. The quarterback position is going to make them very competitive for the ACC Coastal next year.”
In fact, about the only cautionary thing Wannstedt said was that it was possible the Panthers could win too soon. Because of experienced returning players like James Conner, Peterman and Ejuan Price, the Panthers might contend a little bit before they’re ready to.
“I think you just have to be careful that you don’t win too soon,” he said. “If you win too soon, all the sudden, everyone expects more the next year. When you’re building the program up, it does take a little bit of time. He’s had two recruiting classes now. You’ve got to give these recruits at least three years. By four years, you should really start seeing the signs of an established program, top to bottom, in all areas: offense, defense, special teams, recruiting, everything. … I see a good solid foundation. They have good coaches. I think they’re off to a really good start. Now, it’s just a matter of building and people not expecting a national championship in two years.”
BUILDING UP A ‘LIFEBLOOD’
One of the most noticeable areas of off-the-field improvement has been in recruiting. The Panthers had the 30th-ranked class in Narduzzi’s first full class in 2016, Pitt’s highest ranking since Wannstedt’s 2008 class.
“Recruiting in college is the lifeblood of the program,” Wannstedt said. “You have to get players. Players are going to win games for you, not the coaches. Great coaches have to understand that. … I think he reached out and made a concentrated effort recruiting-wise not to crazy and try to recruit the entire country. They focused in on locally first and then worked their way out to other areas where they had an opportunity to have some success.”
One of the biggest factors in Narduzzi’s recruiting success has been his energetic personality and ability to connect with kids in a way that others have failed to do. Wannstedt thinks the key to Narduzzi’s success is that his amped-up style isn’t a front. He recruits the way he always is, and that passion is attractive.
“Kids are smart nowadays,” Wannstedt said. “They can tell if a head coach’s personality is not to be overly enthusiastic, and then all the sudden he is when he’s in the home recruiting them. I think players see that. High school coaches see through that. In Pat’s situation, it’s genuine. I think he has an enthusiasm about everything he does.”
That energy doesn’t just affect recruiting, either.
“In a football program, that’s contagious,” Wannstedt went on. “The assistant coaches are going to act differently. The players are going to act differently. The guys in the equipment room, the trainers, everyone. As a head coach, you are setting the tone every time you walk in that door with what the mood of the team is going to be. I think the energy that Pat brings every day is contagious and nothing great has ever been accomplished without a lot of enthusiasm, I don’t care what you’re trying to do. I think that enthusiasm gives them a chance to win a game or two extra every year that normally they would not.”
Wannstedt’s coaching career started at Pitt in 1975. Twitter, Hudl and Rivals rankings were obviously not a part of the recruiting arrangement. To say it’s changed a bit in the ensuing 40 years would be an understatement. But Wannstedt has an appreciation for the way that some staffs — Pitt’s included — have been able to utilize technology and social media as recruiting tools.
“You have to be active in it because kids get excited by following you,” he said. “You’re following them and trying to get information about how this kid responds to things. You can read a bit about someone’s personality by what he puts on Twitter or Facebook. You’re evaluating the players, and at the same time, they’re evaluating you. You see some of the things on social media, with videos from weight rooms and locker room celebrations, they’re not putting it out there just so the public can watch it. They’re putting it out there for one reason: recruiting.
“Nowadays, if you’re not putting anything about your school and your locker room and your weight room on social media, and your competitor is, that kid you’re recruiting is going be a lot more familiar and their parents and their high school coaches are all going to be a lot more familiar with the competition and what they offer than what you do. You could lose a kid.”
MANAGING THE MESSAGE
Another thing that has changed of Wannstedt’s years in the industry is the amount of interaction coaches and players have with the media — and the reach of those interactions. He said that much more time and energy is devoted now to training coaches and players on how to deal with the media, and now with the advent of social media, with everyone. A comment made in the grocery store checkout line can have just as much legs as something said to a beat reporter.
“As a head coach, you try to coach up your assistants so that they are informed that anything you say or do — there is nothing off the record — represents the program,” he said. “Nowadays, coaches have to be so much more careful about what they might say, even if it’s an honest comment, because in the past, it wasn’t sent all over the country and now it is. Coaches are a lot more aware of what to say and how much to say it. Everyone’s trying to be — at times — I think too politically correct. But if you don’t, and say one wrong thing, you can destroy your entire recruiting class, or even worse.”