First, I was listening to old school rap on satellite radio today as I drove back from practice with Chris Peak and I'd be remiss if I didn't start this blog entry by saying "Pour out a little liquor for the late Eazy E" - one of the most under-appreciated rappers of our lifetime.....
And then, as we watched the end of the Virginia Tech-Michigan game, Peak, being one of the most cynical - and funny - people I know said to me (keep in mind, Michigan with first-year coach Brady Hoke and a completely different system from last year finished 11-2 and won a BCS Bowl) "you know the thing about transition seasons is it is very difficult to put in a new system and get guys to have success so that first year of a new coach, you either have to go 5-6 and lost to teams like Ohio or 6-6 and end up in some bad bowl....."
Made me laugh, anyway.
OK, now that I got that off my chest today was day one of the "in bowl city" practices and the Panthers held about a 90-minute workout at "historic" Hoover high school (of MTV fame).
First let me say this - outside of Charlotte Country Day School, where the Panthers practiced for the Continental Tire/Meineke Car Care/Belk Bowl, this is by far the nicest practice facility I can remember for Pitt to practice at. The stadium is unbelievable (almost as nice as the "U" but not quite.....) and the school is in a really nice neighborhood (with a great barbecue spot across the street almost).
It was very cold Tuesday, but once the players got moving around it didn't seem to really have that much of an effect on them.
And by the way, as I was driving back from the practice field there it was, I spotted it and it actually does exist - an actual branch of BBVA Compass Bank. I know you, like I, wondered what the hell BBVA Compass stood for (and I was here last year so I should know) but today, I discovered it and saw it with my own two eyes - and I was even more excited when, a little bit further down the road, I passed a big store that had the word BELK - as in that new sponsor for the Charlotte Bowl - on it. So there you have it, I've seen two title sponsors of Big East bowls in one day and now can verify what they actually are......
OK, enough silliness, here are some news and notes from the day, the first time we've gotten to speak to players about all the stuff that went on in terms of Todd Graham leaving and Paul Chryst getting hired and the fact that the team has an interim coach for the second year in a row.
** And where else would we really start other than with Chas Alecxih, who never is shy about his feelings. Alecxih made it pretty simple and said the team is focused on winning for each other, they are trying to move past Graham but they don't like the fact that he lied to them and in the mind of the players, has lied about his intentions to come back and speak to them (Graham said at his ASU news conference that he was going to go back to Pitt to speak to Pitt's players because he loved them.....).
"Has [the anger among players toward Graham] subsided?" Alecxih said. "I would say that we are more focused than we were [last week], but I don't think we are completely over it to be completely honest with you. There is still a lot of anger with the way he left and how he said in his press conference [at Arizona State] that he was going to come back and say what was up to us -- why would you say that if you are not going to do it?
"[I wouldn't want to talk to him anyway,] but I don't want him to say he is going to come back if he isn't because that is just a lie on top of a thousand other lies. Don't say, 'I plan on going back and talking to the Pitt players,' because that just makes it that much worse. It is probably good that he didn't come back because there would have been some heated reactions, but, if you didn't mean it, why would you say it?"
Alecxih did good in this interview, he didn't lose his mind too much and he was backed up by Max Gruder, who usually doesn't say much, and Gruder called Graham's exit "despicable" and "pathetic" and even went a step further and said it was the lowest thing he has ever seen a coach do and that it hurt the players even more than the Michael Haywood fiasco....
** Interestingly, Tino Sunseri was the one guy who didn't want to speak his mind about Graham. Instead, he waxed poetic about how much Graham challenged him, how much he learned from Graham and how much better of a player he will be next year in Chryst's pro-style offense now that he got some experience in the spread and played in the shotgun.
"I think in any situation you can look at it as half-empty or half-full,” Sunseri said. “And I always look at it as half-full. I look at it as, [Graham] challenged me every single day to be the best I possibly could, and when he was challenging me, he obviously knew that I could do better or he thought that I did something wrong.
“I have no feelings on him staying or leaving, because when you come to a school, you come because you love the school and the players around you and you want to keep on competing for the school. That’s how my mindset is and I’m going to compete as hard as I can to win this bowl game.”
Sunseri said that he talked to his teammates about how they need to move forward and control what they can control - work hard, go to class become the best players that they can be.
He then talked about two important individual goals he has - he can become "one of only two" Pitt quarterbacks to win more than win bowl game and also he is 19 completions away from breaking the school's single-season record for completions by a quarterback. The first fact is almost right - he would be the first Pitt quarterback to win two games since Dan Marino and that would be quite a feather in his cap because it would put him in a different category. Also, he has a chance to do something that even Marino couldn't do - beat SMU in a bowl game and that would also lift his stock as a quarterback and put him among the best to play at the school......or something like that.
Pitt also has a chance to win its third consecutive bowl game and that hasn't happened since the Marino era, either.
** As I wrote earlier, the guy I feel the worst for is Keith Patterson because he is a good guy who really deserves better than what has happened and today he was very open about the fact that he has some very difficult choices to make and must decide what is the path he needs to go which is best for his family. He said it was shocking to him and took him a while to sort through it all. He said that recruiting was going so well and things were rolling that things were going to turn around next year. He said it has been very hard on him and his family "People don't understand, it affects more than coaches, it is not just as easy to move when you have families." Patterson said that he will have an opportunity to go to Arizona State with Graham - but he admits it is so far from his family in the Midwest that he's just not sure and he wants to look into some other opportunities first. So he, like many of these guys, has some choices to make though I'd expect Spencer Leftwich and Paul Randolph to quickly head to Arizona State when this is over Saturday.
** I asked Alecxih about playing with an interim coach for the second year in a row. He basically said that the upperclassmen learned last year that they must step forward in a leadership role, fill some of the void left by the lost coaches and get the younger players to understand that it is important to win the game and it is important to make Pitt proud. And then, as only Chas can do, he said "but really I know when it comes down to game time we will be ready to whip some ass.”
** I said yesterday that I'd need to feel this team out to see if they are going to be ready to play and after one round of interviews, it sure seems that way. And don't discount this fact - Sunseri, Alecxih and Gruder all said it - they love Patterson, they respect Patterson, they want to play hard for Patterson because he showed the loyalty and stayed with them. The motto for this week is simple "finish the job" and the unspoken part of that motto (spoken off the record and with a few words we can't use in a PG-rated blog) "finish the job without that (fill in the blank) Todd Graham" The players will play hard for Patterson and mostly, they will play for each other and like last year, they are fast and loose and really just ready to go.
*** One thing that was a little interesting Tuesday (they were still in shorts and spider pads, so we won't really get a good look at them until Wednesday) was that, with Todd Dodge calling the plays now, the offense will look different. Patterson said he has a green light to be as aggressive as he wants and he said the vertical passing game has been impressive in practices and Dodge has been dialing them up and the kids have been completing them. So that is something we could some more of Saturday - the ball going down the field, Pitt taking shots at big plays and receivers getting a chance to shine. Dodge, by the way, is one of my favorite coaches to cover, ever. There is absolutely no BS with that guy, he will tell you how it is, what he thinks and what needs to happen. When other coaches were dancing around some things during training camp, he made it clear "Trey Anderson has moved ahead Mark Myers because Mark's work ethic isn't up to the standard" He also has said when Sunseri hasn't played well - in football terms and without throwing him under the bus like some other coaches - and he always had very interesting things to say about the passing game in general. I've learned a lot from him about quarterback play and the passing game and that, to me, is the best part of this job - getting an opportunity to talk to coaches about the X's and O's of any sport (in this case, football) and learning the game a little bit at a time. We'll talk to Dodge tomorrow and hear some of his thoughts about the offense and that should have Pitt fans a little more excited about this game.