In part two of this story, we took a deep dive into the Sagarin ratings to come up with some teams that have done a better job of improving their standing in college football over the last six years than Pat Narduzzi has at Pitt.
The three teams we came up with were Iowa State, Minnesota and Washington state. Each had more than a 20-place jump in average final Sagarin rating from 2011-14 to 2015-20.
That’s the end results, but how were those schools able to have more success in the latter period that in the beginning?
Boiling college football down to its essence, there are only a couple of way for a team to improve. They can get better players through better recruiting, they can develop lower-rated players at a higher level than their competition, or they can win on the field with lesser talent levels through superior scheme and execution.
First, let’s get familiar with our three schools.
• Iowa State had back-to-back 6-6 seasons that ended in bowl losses in 2011 and 2012. Sound familiar? But then the bottom fell out. The Cyclones won eight games total from 2013-15 and Paul Rhoads, former Pitt defensive coordinator, was fired as head coach. He was replaced by one-time Panthers player Matt Campbell for the 2016 season. Campbell went 3-9 in his first year, but won eight games in back-to-back seasons before sliding to 7-6 a year ago.
• Minnesota started the Jerry Kill era in 2011 with a 3-9 record, but Kill turned things around quickly, and the Golden Gophers went 6-7 in 2012 and had back-to-back eight-win seasons in 2013 and 2014. But Kill resigned due to health problems and then a year and a half later, promoted defensive coordinator Tracy Cleays left amid scandal. The Gophers tapped Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck, who started slow with a 5-7 season in 2017, but Fleck went 7-6 in 2018 before an incredible 11-2 2019 season that ended in an Outback Bowl win over Auburn.
• Washington State fired Paul Wulff in 2012 after a disastrous four-year tenure that saw the Cougars win just nine games under his leadership. They turned to former Texas Tech coach and Air Raid disciple Mike Leach. Leach spent eight years in Pullman, winning eight or more games in four consecutive seasons from 2015-18, including an 11-win 2018 season (ironically with Cleays as his defensive coordinator) that wrapped with a No. 10 finish after an Alamo Bowl win (ironically over Iowa State.) Leach left for Mississippi State this offseason and was replaced by former Hawaii head coach Nick Rolovich. (Rolovich was replaced by Todd Graham! All the connections!)
But that doesn’t tell us how Campbell, Fleck and Leach turned those programs around. The easiest thing to look for is a big jump in the recruiting rankings as a sign that the teams are getting better players.
All three programs have seen big jumps in recruiting since making a coaching change. Washington State had the No. 68 class in 2011 and has averaged a 52nd-ranked class since. Iowa State went from an average of a No. 62 class before Campbell to a No. 51 average with him. Fleck took the No. 58-average Gophers ranking and turned them into the No. 45 recruiting team in the county since he arrived.
But that might be a difficult plan to replicate for Pitt. For one, all of those schools started much farther down the recruiting rankings than when Narduzzi arrived at Pitt, and even after their improvements, Pitt still currently out-recruits all three schools. The farther up the rankings you get, the harder it is to move up, with competition for players coming in the form of better and better schools with larger budgets and higher-profile programs.
The Panthers do not have a physically large local recruiting base, with only Allegheny and Beaver Counties truly able to be considered Pitt country. Even within those areas, there are plenty of people that grew up Notre Dame fans and Penn State fans and West Virginia fans. That’s what 35 years of mostly mediocrity will do.
Western Pennsylvania is also a heavily recruited area, with programs like Ohio State, Michigan, Notre Dame, Penn State and West Virginia all competing with Pitt for the best local players.
Pitt has made inroads in other places, particularly in recent years with the additions of recruiters like Chris Beatty, Archie Collins and Charlie Partridge, but it’s basically just added up to enough for the Panthers to get by.
Even the upcoming Class of 2021, with local studs Elliott Donald, Dorien Ford and Nahki Johnson, three quality players from Virginia which represents one of the best Pitt recruiting efforts of the last decade, is ranked No. 32 in the country, enough to boost Pitt’s average, but again, only a little.
Narduzzi has hid some missteps in recruiting, but it’s hard to envision someone else coming in and doing a lot better than he’s done.
Of course, recruiting rankings don’t tell the whole story when it comes to the quality of the teams on the field. Some staffs do a better job of finding under-rated talent. Others do a better job of developing players to perform at level beyond evaluators thought they were capable of.
That comes out at the next level, when players move on to the NFL Draft. But none of our three teams have had much success there, either. Iowa State had just two players total drafted in the first three rounds of the draft through the entire period one before and one after Campbell’s tenure. Minnesota and Washington State each had three.
Pitt had four, with Narduzzi coaching three of them (Brian O’Neil, James Conner and Tyler Boyd).
So it does not appear that those three teams have tapped into some kind of player development model that is churning NFL talent out of mediocre recruiting results.
It seems that the biggest changes have come via the implementation of new schemes, and perhaps not surprisingly, the biggest difference have come on offense. Campbell and Fleck run cutting-edge RPO schemes, while Leach helped perfect the Air Raid offense.
Iowa State’s best offensive yards per game rank before Campbell was 51st in 2011. The Cyclones were 26th in 2019. Minnesota’s best pre-Fleck effort was No. 98 in 2015. The Gophers were No. 27 in 2019. Leach led the Cougars to a pair of top-ten offenses and an average end-of-year ranking of 21st over his final six years.
From 2011-14, Pitt’s offense ranked No. 85, 87, 89 and 42 in the country. Since Narduzzi took over, they’ve cracked the 80’s just once, under Matt Canada in 2016.
Pitt’s defense, which was pretty good before Narduzzi, has done about the same under him, backsliding deeply in 2016-17 before recovering to post a decade-best No. 17 ranking in 2019. But on average, mostly thanks to that 2016 season, Pitt has been no better. They had an average finish of 31st in total defense from 2011-14, which has fallen to 56th under Narduzzi.
Narduzzi has shown slight progress in his time at Pitt, but things are not headed in the right direction. Pitt has always recruited better than those schools and still is, but has fallen behind Iowa State, Minnesota and Washington State thanks largely to innovative offensive schemes installed by their coaches.
The Panthers had one of those under Narduzzi once, with Canada in 2016. The other five years of his tenure have been a disaster from an offensive perspective. Mark Whipple is the fourth person that has worked as Narduzzi’s offensive coordinator.
The first two bolted the first chance they got, with Jim Chaney leaving for Georgia after the 2015 season and Canada finding a ticket to LSU after a successful 2016. While both of those coaches left for higher-profile jobs, it also didn’t seem that their departure was largely about money, with Pitt offering Canada seven figures to stay, something that Narduzzi apparently disagreed with.
After that, Narduzzi seemed intentional about his plan to hire a coach that would be more likely to stick around, going with well-traveled coaches Shawn Watson and Whipple. That plan hasn’t worked. Watson was an abject failure as offensive coordinator and halfway into his second season, one could make a solid argument that Whipple has been worse.
There are concerns that come with firing a head coach that go beyond his performance on the field. There are the financial issues caused by potentially paying a hefty buyout. Given the financial constraints caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s no guarantee that Pitt could afford to both pay Narduzzi’s buyout and lure a top potential candidate.
That No. 32-in-the-nation recruiting class would likely all but vanish and any of the players that might be considering using the COVID-19 pandemic eligibly waiver to play a fifth season at Pitt would instead be lured into the transfer portal to play wherever they’d like.
Those opportunity costs do not exist when talking about an offensive coordinator. Whipple has been the lead recruiter on just one of Pitt’s Class of 2021 recruits, quarterback Nate Yarnell.
Whipple is a well-liked coach in the community and I believe the praise heaped on him by Kenny Pickett when it comes to his development is genuine. But Pitt’s offensive playbook and play-calling do not fit in the same realm as the dynamic offenses listed above.
Maybe Pitt is OK with incremental progress. Again, Heather Lyke has not granted PSN’s interview requests on this or any other topic since the summer.
If Pitt is not, the Panthers need to find an offensive coordinator that will both be able to bring a dynamic offense on board and will want to work with Narduzzi long-term. If that can’t be found, then maybe he’s as much of the problem as the coordinators have been.