PITTSBURGH — The first time Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi encountered a Mark Whipple-led offense, he was on the other side of it.
Narduzzi was a redshirt sophomore linebacker at Rhode Island in 1987 when his Rams’ homecoming opponent was New Hampshire, which had an offense led by coordinator Mark Whipple. The Wildcats took home a 28-14 victory.
In 1994, Narduzzi and Whipple met again, this time with Narduzzi in his second year as Rhode Island’s linebackers coach and Whipple in his first as Brown’s head coach. The Bears took home the Governor’s Cup, 32-29.
Whipple’s Brown teams beat Narduzzi’s Rams defenses again in 1995 and 1997 with Rhode Island winning in 1996. Then Whipple took the head coaching job at UMass and beat Narduzzi two more times in 1998 and 1999.
In total, Whipple went 6-1 in seven meetings as a coach against Narduzzi as either a player or coach at Rhode Island.
Narduzzi’s coaching career took him out of the Northeast in 2000, when he went to work at Northern Illinois. Whipple’s career arc took him to the NFL in 2004 and the two didn’t cross paths much professionally after that.
But those early beatings made an impression on Narduzzi. Enough that when he needed to hire an offensive coordinator, he made the call to Whipple and the two re-connected.
“I’ve followed him from afar because I’ve played against him and coached against him for so many years,” Narduzzi said on Friday. “When he won a national championship at UMass, I was at Rhode Island. When he was the head coach at Brown, I was at Rhode Island. So we had to defend him. As a defensive coach, you know who’s hard to defend and who do you respect?”
What Narduzzi respected specifically about Whipple was not just that his offenses beat Narduzzi’s defenses, but the way they did it: with outstanding quarterback play and a downfield passing game.
“The one thing that always stood out about Mark Whipple is every quarterback he touched turned to gold,” Narduzzi said. “I don’t care if it was a kid named [Todd] Bankhead. It’s like every year, you’re going, OK, they lost their quarterback, we’re gonna get him this year. Then all the sudden, then have another guy.”
If Pitt hopes to get the most out of junior starter Kenny Pickett over his last two years, he will need a coach that’s going to be able to connect with him and develop him in a player in ways that former offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson was never able to.
“[Whipple], to me, had a way with quarterbacks and a passing game and I think with the way our run game was, my job was to really fix our passing game and bring someone that could really change and make an impact on our receivers and our quarterbacks,” Narduzzi said.
If Whipple’s previous success against Narduzzi’s defenses is any guide, it may be a long season for Pitt’s defensive scout team. But as the old saying goes, “If you can’t beat them, hire them.” Or something like that.