I wanted to get this post up last night but I had to cover the game between the Connecticut and Pitt women's basketball team last night and I didn't get home until late. Needless to say on that note - it is a struggle right now for the Panthers women but let me use this one minute to urge Pitt fans to go to the Petersen Center Saturday for the Panthers game against Seton Hall - not just to support the team, but to support a great cause - breast cancer awareness - as it is the annual "Pink the Petersen" game.
OK, now let's get to Paul Chryst.
We met with him yesterday for about an hour and it was productive, though it didn't produce much substance in terms of answering questions about who the two new coaches will be, what he thinks about the players and the depth chart and even who is in and out for spring practice. But it was our first time with him in an informal setting and we got to speak with him for about ten or 15 minutes with the tape recorders off and that was extremely productive because it gave us a lot of insight into who he is and what he values.
So that's where I will start.
In the short time we have gotten to know him and our limited interactions with him, it is abundantly clear to me that this could be a "Jamie Dixon kind of hire." And what I mean by that is this - when Jamie was hired he probably was a little over his head with all of the other things that a head coach is asked to do so he focused 100 percent on the one thing he really knew - the basketball. He then allowed himself to grow into the other parts of the job, but he made sure that the basketball was right from day one.
And over time, he has become a very polished coach, he knows what he wants to do and he knows how to get things done. And we've seen that in his interactions with the media as, way back when he started he was bad at it and he'd stumble and cut himself off in mid-sentence and not always be accommodating. Now, he knows what to say, we've seen a lot of his personality come out and he isn't afraid to let his guard down a little bit.
Chryst admitted yesterday there are parts of the job he is still learning and that he and his staff will evolve and sort of grow into their roles as they move forward and get experience. And he has a lot of great ideas, you can tell this, but he is still not completely sure about what to say, at least when the recorders on. But he is 100 percent focused on the one thing he knows well - football - and that's the best news for Pitt fans.
I don't know if this team has enough talent, especially on the offensive line, to win a lot of games this year - though the schedule will help - but I'd be willing to bet this team will be organized, have a good plan, be prepared every week and will play good football. The rest of it all - dealing with academic types, dealing with media, dealing with boosters - he will grow into.
Now that being said, it is very refreshing to deal with a guy who doesn't feel the need to blow smoke up our rear end and instead just tells it like it is. A great example, someone asked him about when he expects Ray Graham to be ready for full contact and he said "I have no idea - they tell me he is on schedule, but nobody really knows" and then he laughed and said he could lie to us and give us an answer but that doesn't do anybody any good.
That approach, the cautious and honest, approach is refreshing but it can be tough for us to get actual information. But I like the approach, he at one point even said "all of that cliche stuff" is silly and he also talked a lot about the fact that he is going to let Pitt and the coaching staff sell Pitt and not use all kinds of tricky gimmicks and slick marketing campaigns and web-sites and social media to try and wow recruits.
Again, meat and potatoes approach and that is why he is a great fit here in Pittsburgh because that's the kind of people you find here. And what I also liked about him is this - he basically said he has to earn your trust and that comes over time and as a result of being there every day and producing results. I don't know if he will win a game, ever, but I do know Pitt and Pittsburgh fans will embrace him because he is a lot like the people who were born and raised here.
As for the actual session, here is what it produced:
1) It was clear that Chryst brought offensive coordinator/line coach Bob Bostad to Pitt with him to help get things set up and organized and to have an experienced coach to help him get on his feet and get started - but that he didn't expect him to be a long-term coach. He said as much yesterday and said he knew that Bostad wanted to be an NFL coach and so he was ready with a contingency plan - Joe Rudolph to offensive coordinator and Jim Hueber to offensive line coach. He obviously wanted Bostad around for at least a year and now that he's gone, I'd expect Chryst will likely be more involved in the play calling than he originally had planned to be. Still, he wouldn't give us a direct answer about who will call plays but he did say it would be a "team effort" and made it clear he has full confidence in Rudolph, even though from what I can tell he's never called plays before. So like I wrote, I'd expect Chryst to be more involved in the play calling and making sure he helps Rudolph develop and grow into his role as an offensive coordinator initially and then as Rudolph settles in and becomes comfortable, Chryst will slowly back away. He actually used the phrase "as we evolve as a staff" which is a good thing to hear from a first-year, first-time coach because it means he recognizes he has not "arrived" but rather he has a lot to learn and a long way to go to become an experienced, successful coach.
2) Ray Graham (knee) and Todd Thomas (knee) are out for the spring and Mike Shanahan (back) and Jarred Holley (knee) will be limited in what they can do but Chruyst said that there are very few other guys who are injured. He said that he expects to have almost everybody healthy for the spring and that's a good thing because it is an important spring for the Panthers as they install yet another system. But the good thing is Chryst has a plan and an idea of where he wants to go - but he will wait and see what the players are capable of doing before he starts to build a system that works for them. I thought the money quote yesterday was this - ""You never want your system to be the thing that prevents you from playing well". In other words, if your team is struggling and your quarterback is, oh I don't know, struggling to get the ball out quick, maybe the solution is to change the system to fit what he can do as opposed to bang your head against the wall trying to get him to do what he cannot do......
3.) He said there are no position switches for now - though E.J. Banks and Anthony Gonzalez will start spring at quarterback - because he doesn't know what the players are capable of doing yet. He anticipates some guys will move once the practices begin but he is taking a wait and see approach.
4.) The top priority in the spring will be to put together an offensive line and he knows that this is going to be work because there aren't a lot of options and depth. Obviously Chris Jacobson will help but there are no experienced tackles so it will take some shuffling to come up with a group of five that can be productive. I also get the sense that he knows he isn't at Wisconsin any more and he doesn't have five studs who will plow through people so I'd expect to see a system that reflects some of the limitations of this offensive front.
That's about it in a nutshell - it won't be long before spring football starts and it sounds like we will have good access to the practices and whatnot so we will be able to have a very good handle on what is happening with the team and that always makes for a much more interesting Redshirt Diaries.....