Pitt held its annual kickoff luncheon Friday at the Westin downtown, an event that's equal parts pep rally and higher-end function for players, coaches, their families, administrators, boosters and media schlubs like myself.
The biggest news to emerge from the soiree was the announcement of the Panthers' three captains for the 2016 season -- offensive lineman Adam Bisnowaty, defensive end Ejuan Price and running back James Conner.
The players were chosen based on a vote from teammates who were allowed to name two players for the distinction, with the three earning what coach Pat Narduzzi estimated to be 70 percent of the votes.
“Captains are probably the most important part of the program,” Narduzzi said. “They’re going to speak to the team a lot, whether it’s after practice, on Friday night after dinner and meetings or Saturday morning before the game. Once all the coaches walk out, it’s those three. You can say I’m the head coach, coach [Josh] Conklin’s the defensive coordinator, coach [Matt] Canada’s the offensive coordinator and coach [Andre] Powell is the special teams coordinator, but this is their football team. They will be as good as they want to be and as good as those leaders are.”
While selected by their fellow teammates, Narduzzi said the players were, in part, chosen because of adversity they have overcome in their respective careers, including in their time at Pitt.
Conner underwent a well-documented fight with Hodgkin lymphoma before being declared cancer free in late May. In three seasons, from 2012-14, Price played in just six games due to chest and back injuries. All three had to experience the uncertainty that comes with a coaching change or, in Price’s case, multiple coaching changes.
“It’s a different feeling when you know your guys think of you as a leader collectively,” Price said. “That made me feel nice.”
The three selections certainly make sense. You have two talented and vocal senior leaders, each of whom plays on a different side of the ball, and the non-senior of the group just happened to beat cancer. I'd say that's a solid trio.
A few other notes from the afternoon...
** Pitt AD Scott Barnes spoke at the event, noting the school has 63,000 tickets out for the Panthers' season-opener against Villanova Sept. 3, most of which he expects to be used. Additionally, Barnes said student season tickets have exceeded 11,000.
** Chancellor Patrick Gallagher also spoke. He made reference to the Pitt-Penn State game on Sept. 10 as a marquee sporting event "hopefully for many more years to come".
** At Thursday's Pitt Fan Fest, Narduzzi said (or joked? The man's humor is as dry as his calves are huge) if he signed 1,000 autographs, 998 of them said 'Coach, you have to kill that team'. "And it wasn't Villanova," he added.
** In a nod to Gallagher, Narduzzi, while speaking to the crowd, said he had high expectations for the job he was taking when he started at Pitt. So far, those already-lofty hopes have been exceeded.
** Both in high school and in college at Rhode Island, Narduzzi was a team captain. From one of his seasons with that designation at URI, Narduzzi shared this story...
“In order to be a great leader, sometimes you have to do the tough things. You’re responsible for your teammates and you have to be accountable for yourself, as well as the football team. I don’t remember what year it was, but I was frustrated with the guys we had and tried to take care of it as a captain. I hope our captains don’t have to go through this, but one Friday afternoon, I went into the head coach and said ‘Coach, the guys are out on Thursday nights. It’s not important to them’. He appreciated it as a coach that I came in and said something to him. You never know what a head coach is going to do. Bob Griffin [Rhode Island’s coach], in a meeting, said ‘Hey, anybody who was out last night and having a good time, stand up’. About nine guys stood up. Most of them were starters. He said ‘Sit down’. Then he said ‘If you’re their backup, stand up’. They stood up. Those were the guys starting the next day.”
Pat Narc-duzzi. It rolls off the tongue.
** Conner wasn't there to speak about being named a captain -- only the team's seniors were present -- but Bisnowaty added another layer to the praise Conner has rightly received, saying he is an inspiration to the team, the city AND "this country".
** Building off the theme of adversity with the group of captains, Bisnowaty discussed the role leaders can play in helping people get past difficult situations.
“Growing up, it wasn’t the easiest of times," he said. "Luckily, I had a good support system like we talk about here at Pitt. I had it all the way through high school. I always had good people around me. Everyone has their daily struggles. I had some struggles that weren’t as easy as they could have been, but I’m grateful for where I am today.”
** As for Price? Were there any doubts when all those injuries threatened to possibly end his career?
“Any time you have a situation like that where you’re out three straight years and not playing football, some doubt is going to creep in there," he said. "Being around my guys and the type of bond we have – as friends, not even as teammates – that kept me going.”