The head coaches poised to lead Pittsburgh football and basketball into the ACC next year are first-time big whistles who endured considerable waits before occupying the corner office.
Paul Chryst first talked with Panthers athletic director Steve Pederson about the job in 2010, following Dave Wannstedt’s coerced resignation. Chryst had just completed his sixth year as offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, his alma mater, and thought the Pitt job matched his blue-collar ethos.
“Obviously,” Chryst said, “I wasn’t real impressive.”
Pederson first hired Miami of Ohio coach Mike Haywood, who was dismissed weeks later after his arrest related to domestic abuse. Then came Tulsa’s Todd Graham, who after a 6-6 regular season with the Panthers in 2011, bailed for Arizona State.
“It’s great how life works out,” Chryst said as he prepared for Saturday’s game against Virginia Tech. “Gave me one more year at Wisconsin, which was a great year.”
Led by tailback and Heisman finalist Montee Ball, and quarterbacked by North Carolina State transfer Russell Wilson, the Badgers won the Rose Bowl.
A former assistant at Oregon State and in the NFL and Canadian Football League, the 46-year-old Chryst seems most comfortable away from the public eye.
“I never had the need to have ‘head coach’ on the business card,” he said. “But I wanted to make sure if an opportunity presented itself, I was prepared for it. … It had to be a special place and a place that was good for the family. I loved what I was doing.”
Sports is the Chryst family business. Paul’s father, George, was a high school head coach and later at Wisconsin-Platteville. His brother Geep is the San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks coach. His brother Rick is a former ACC associate commissioner.
“I think he’s a very stable, principled guy, and the kind of guy that you could see being the coach here for a long, long time,” Pederson said, acknowledging the program’s recent instability. “He’ll be successful here, and we’re just going to keep helping him and supporting him. … People like him, people have responded to him.”
The Panthers are 0-2 under Chryst, losing to Youngstown State and Cincinnati.
“The enjoyable part of this is getting to know who we are,” he said. “Each game we find out more. … You disrespect the game if you say we should win. How arrogant is it to say we should win? Respect the game, play the game and the game reveals the truth.
“The truth is, two Saturdays ago and a Thursday ago, we weren’t the best team, period. There’s no BS. That’s what’s great about sports. It’s the only reality today that’s real. … We get to live the truth and you have to acknowledge the truth when it’s not what you want.”
Chryst’s voice halts when he recalls all the players, coaches and staff who contributed to Wisconsin’s success and helped prepare him for this job. The Badgers averaged 10 wins per season during his time there.
“We can do that here,” Chryst said. “I truly believe that.”
Dixon has brought that sustained excellence to Pitt basketball. The Panthers are 238-77 in his nine seasons, averaging 26.4 victories and reaching eight NCAA tournaments.
A Pitt assistant the previous four years, Dixon succeeded Ben Howland when Howland went to UCLA. The Panthers’ interim athletic director at the time, Marc Boehm, offered the job to several candidates, including Pittsburgh native and then-Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser.
“I knew it was going to take time,” Dixon said of the process. “I knew they were going to offer it to a number of guys. I had to be patient.”
Pitt was 31-5 in his rookie season and has advanced in seven of its eight NCAA tournaments on his watch. Riddled by injuries, the Panthers were 22-17 last season and missed the NCAA for the first time in 11 years.
“People enjoy watching our basketball team play,” Pederson said.” As we begin traveling around the ACC, people will enjoy us coming into their arenas. We can’t wait to get the teams here.”
“Twenty-two wins is not enough for us,” Dixon said. “We’re not used to that. … We were young, but at the same time we had injuries at key positions. … We weren’t what we’ve been, and we got what we earned. …
“We have unrivaled support. We have 11,000 on our waiting list. We’re the only school that we know of, and I’ve talked to Kansas and Duke, where we have a seating license for every seat. … We’ve won some games, and that’s had something to do with it, but it’s an unbelievable sports town. I think they respect the kids we’ve had. They’ve grown with them they’ve watched them get better. … We’ve gotten good kids, we’re graduating our players and they’re not getting into trouble.”
Dixon, 46, not only graduated from TCU but also earned a master’s in economics at Cal-Santa Barbara in his native state.
“Jamie’s a lot like Frank (Beamer) is in football,” Pederson said, “where every year you’re there (contending). … It’s pretty phenomenal. That’s harder to do in football and basketball (than in other sports).”
Some other quick notes to wrap up my pregame interviews here in the Steel City.
* Pederson on the ACC going all in with ESPN on media rights rather than split its package a la the Big 12 and Southeastern Conference: “I know there’s a lot of ways to do this, but anybody’s that’s being honest with themselves would tell you that the only channel that every kids knows in their house is ESPN. And if you walk into any restaurant or bar, it’s ESPN. … So I think the long-term benefits to the conference are going to be dramatic.”
* Pedersen on the spring chatter about Florida State and Clemson possibly leaving the ACC: “We land at ACC meetings, and that’s when all that stuff was going on. But I have to say, I never felt any real angst over that because I was sitting in the same room with (FSU athletic director) Randy Spetman, and I was sitting in the same room as (Clemson AD) Terry Don Phillips, and they couldn’t have been more committed to and focused on the ACC.
“They both never wavered in what they said. And their presidents were strong in their support. So internally you never felt that. But externally it wasn’t good to have that stuff floating out there. There’s 56 million reasons why that’s a dead issue now.”
That’s a none-too-veiled reference to the ACC’s new exit fee, which the conference announced as approximately $50 million.
* Chryst was jazzed when he learned I work in Newport News. At Wisconsin, he coached Nick Toon, the son of former Badgers and New York Jets great Al Toon, a Menchville High graduate. He was also close to Wisconsin track coach Ed Nuttycombe, whose father, Charlie, is a Peninsula coaching icon.
What Chryst didn’t realize is that Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, whose team shares a practice facility and stadium with Pitt, is a Newport News guy.
“I did not know that,” he said. “Shame on me. I knew he went to William and Mary.”
The 757 forgives you, Coach.
I can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP
Here’s a link to my Daily Press print columns, including Saturday's on the state of Pitt athletics one year before its ACC arrival.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times