Albany head coach Greg Gattuso will bring the Great Danes to Heinz Field on Saturday, and he certainly knows the way.
Gattuso’s resume reads like an almanac of Pittsburgh football, and he’s as well-respected in those circles as he is well known.
A graduate of Seton La-Salle high school in the South Hills, Gattuso went to Penn State, where he was a defensive lineman on their National Championship-winning 1982 squad. After graduating, he quickly got his start in coaching as a graduate assistant at his alma maters, first at Penn State in 1984, then at Seton La-Salle in 1985. He got his first head coaching job at Center Township in 1986, and then took over at Seton La-Salle from 1989-1991.
In between, he was an assistant at Duquesne, and he went back to The Bluff in 1992, taking over as head coach when the Dukes went back to Division I in 1993. He stayed there until 2005, when he joined Dave Wannstedt’s staff Pitt. He stayed at Pitt for six seasons, rising to the level of assistant head coach.
After that, he spent three years at Maryland before going to Albany in 2014 to get back into head coaching. It’s been a good fit. The Great Danes needed a replacement for longtime head coach Bob Ford and someone that could navigate the transition from the Northeast Conference (home of the Dukes and Robert Morris) to the full-scholarship CAA, with top FCS powers like James Madison, New Hampshire, and Villanova.
The Great Danes are 21-24 in Gattuso’s first four seasons, but it seems to be a happy marriage.
“I love it,” Gattuso said to Pittsburgh Sports Now. “I have every aspiration in the world to stay here and win and retire. My athletic director Mark Benson gave me another extension so we have five more years. We’d certainly like to turn that into 10 years. I’m very happy, but more importantly, my family is very happy here. My wife, Colleen, loves it. She’s very happy. We talk a lot in our family how much Albany reminds us of Pittsburgh: the people, the geography, the crazy weather. We just feel like we’re home and we’ve made truly great friends here.
“I didn’t leave for any other reason than I wanted to be a head coach,” he said. “This opportunity was too much for me to pass up. We’re thrilled. This is home. Pittsburgh is always in my heart, but Albany is home now. The Capital Region has been great to us. We’ll be bringing some of our Albany friends that haven’t been to Pittsburgh yet. They’re going to get a Primanti’s sandwich. I’m recommending Fathead’s to everybody. Everyone’s asking me for restaurants and I’m kinda sending them through the South Side, getting them set up. We’re excited about the trip.”
Gattuso is planning on having as many reunions as he can while in Pittsburgh. In addition to the place he’s coached, his former protege, Bernard Clark, has taken the head coaching job at Robert Morris and taken a few former Albany assistants with him.
“I’m planning on going up to Duquesne and seeing those guys finish up practice,” Gattuso said. “Jerry Schmitt and I have been friends for forever. He coached with me there. Dave Opfar, the defensive coordinator, played with me. The ties are ridiculous with me in Pittsburgh and in the athletic department at Pitt. Two of my favorite people, Vicki Kline and Lynnie Koontz work at the university football office. Just tons of friends and I’m looking forward to saying hello to all of them.”
This will also be the first time the Great Danes are visiting a Power Five opponent. They played Buffalo in 2015 and 2016 and Old Dominion in 2017, but the Panthers are a clear set up.
“It’s a great experience for the kids,” Gattuso said. “We’ve eased into this a little bit. We were an NEC school. Now we’re in the CAA. The CAA is one of the top two conference in FCS. We started out playing Buffalo. There’s a lot of matchup issues for us. … We obviously feel like we’re a pretty good FCS team.”
The Great Danes had a Top 10 FCS defense a year ago, and they’ll lean on that as a strength while a newly installed offense gets going.
“We really need our defense to come out and give us an opportunity until our offense is able to get their feet on the ground and get going a little bit,” Gattuso said. “When you’re in the first year of our new offense, there are going to be some growing pains that you go through. We need our defense to rise up and play the way they can.”
At the helm of that offense, Vincent Testaverde will get his first real chance to show what he’s got at the collegiate level after five years and two transfers. He’ll get the nod against the Panthers.
“He came in under tough circumstances,” Gattuso said. “He and his family were looking for somewhere to go and somewhere that they could trust. Bernard brought it to me. They had a great relationship.”
Despite Albany’s long odds of pulling off an upset at Pitt, Gattuso is ready to get back his 2018 season started, and he’s looking forward to it starting with a bang.
“I’m excited,” he said. “I’d be excited no matter where i was going to play an opener, but especially getting to go back to Pittsburgh. Obviously, there’s a lot of side shows for me for the week, so that’s been fun. I’ll get to see so many friends and family … hopefully we can play a great football game.”