KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — All of the good things about Pitt football under Pat Narduzzi were on display on Saturday as the Panthers earned their first road win against a Power Five non-conference opponent in 13 years.
Some of the bad things were too, but the combination of the two still worked in favor of the Panthers.
Let’s start with Kenny Pickett, the super senior Pitt quarterback that turned down an almost certain NFL opportunity to come back to play at Pitt, wanting to stay and work on his craft with Narduzzi and Mark Whipple instead of entering the 2021 NFL Draft.
If the results from Pickett’s first real game of 2021 (sorry UMass) are anything like what the rest of the season will be like, he made a very good financial decision, as he’s looking at a large uptick in draft standing after performing nearly flawlessly in front of NFL scouts Saturday.
But lots of players — and maybe even most players — in Pickett’s situation don’t make that call. Or even get as far as Pickett did in Pitt’s program. Narduzzi stuck with Pickett after a sophomore slump in 2019, never wavered from the young man as Pitt’s starting quarterback, and now Pickett has returned that favor as a super senior.
It didn’t take but a long look to the opposite sideline on Saturday to see how rare that kind of stability and big-picture view from both players and coaches is rare in college football these days, as the Tennessee Volunteers took the field with former Michigan quarterback Joe Milton III and former Virginia Tech signal caller Hendon Hooker.
At Pitt, Narduzzi has built a culture of stability, with not only players like Pickett eschewing an early NFL future to return to the team, but also through the transfer portal, where the Panthers have among the fewest departures of any Power Five school while successfully mining for starters and contributors from other schools.
Pitt is recruiting better under Pat Narduzzi than it did under his immediate predecessors, both in the rankings and in beating the rankings. Pickett was a three-star. Hooker and Milton were four-stars. Which one would you rather have? That goes up and down the lineup, as three-star players like Haba Baldonado, Cam Bright, Phil Campbell, Calijah Kancey, John Morgan and Jared Wayne have become all-conference-level contributors for the Panthers.
Players want to play for Narduzzi and his staff. They sign up to go to Pitt, they get better while they’re there, and they stick around as long as they can. That’s how you build up a college football program.
Not everything about Saturday was perfect. Pitt lacked execution on special teams, couldn’t run the ball, mangled the play-calling on offense at times, and looked suspect in the secondary, even if the Vols could never take full advantage. A lot of that can be attributed to coaching in some way, shape or form.
Josh Heupel is a better tactician than Narduzzi is. If they switched quarterbacks, Tennessee would have probably won by two scores. But in college football, X’s and O’s and gameday management are only a part of the job. The head coach is also head scout, head of player development and the head of the culture of the program.
Those things are just as hard — and probably harder — to develop than the proper scheme to defeat a certain attack or knowing when to go for it on fourth down.
Pitt football has absolutely zero structural advantages over Tennessee. The Panthers play in a worse conference, in a worse part of the country for developing high-level players, in a smaller venue that’s worse for college football, and is a more-strenuous academic institution.
Yet, because of Narduzzi’s development of players, people like Pickett sticking around, and Tennessee going through the transfer portal version of a clearance sale after the hiring of Heupel, Pitt was the more-talented team on the field.
The Panthers were able to win on Saturday because the development, culture and stability of their program became their recruiting advantage. That’s Narduzzi’s biggest accomplishment at Pitt.
Try to keep that in mind while tearing your hair out at the play calling.