Kovacevic: Can Chryst rebuild faith in Pitt?

| Friday, Dec. 23, 2011

There they stood for the third time in a year and six days, the Pitt brass surrounding a podium, athletic director Steve Pederson smiling so wide you'd swear steel cables were tugging at his cheeks and INSERT NAME HERE was promising the Panthers' fans he will make a fine football coach.

The newest NAME, this one introduced Thursday on the South Side, is that of Paul Joseph Chryst.

By any football measure, this 46-year-old longtime assistant coach at Wisconsin seems a fine choice: He showed stability as the Badgers' offensive coordinator the past six years, he enjoyed success with back-to-back Big Ten titles and Rose Bowl berths and his smarts are evident through an offense that averaged 39.3 points per game over the past three years.

Go ahead and say it: That's some serious octane.

Chryst also comes across as genuine, no small issue given Pederson's brutal hires of Mike Haywood and Todd Graham. The son of a high school football coach and father of three, he spoke with a soft but serious tone and sounded anything but self-absorbed.

Just listen ...

On landing the job: "I stand here, and it's an exciting day. It's a humbling day."

On his commitment: "This is a destination job for me."

On his personality: "Paul Chryst is not really complicated. You'll find that out."

On meeting Dan Rooney and Mike Tomlin — Pitt's next-door neighbors for whom Graham inexplicably had little time: "Pretty cool."

On his strategic style: "No matter who we've had, our offense has found a way to play to players' strengths and not fit into a certain mold."

On how he might fare at Pitt: "It's really shallow if you announce what you're going to do. Actions have to show it, not words."

Those last two were my favorites, and that's only because I — and I'm sure many others — would love to hear them as jabs at his predecessor. Among Graham's many missteps at his introductory news conference was that he boasted about the greatness of his system even more than he boasted about grandiose goals.

This was refreshing.

It was telling, too, that Chryst unapologetically announced he'll continue to coach his Wisconsin players through the Rose Bowl. Good for him. As Chryst put it: "You have to finish what you started." I'm guessing the Pitt players will be wholly understanding, given how they felt after Graham's ugly betrayal.

Still, it's hard to get past the nonsense that led to this.

This is what Pederson said of Haywood upon hiring him Dec. 17, 2010, shortly before Haywood was arrested on a domestic battery charge: "He's a man of integrity and character and will be a true inspirational leader."

Yep. All the way to jail.

This is what Pederson said of Graham on Jan. 10, mere months before Graham texted his way out of town: "His innovative, creative and energized approach to football makes him an exciting leader for our program."

What a leader.

To its credit, Pitt went about this search differently, eschewing the outside agency that helped recommend Haywood and Graham in favor of, you know, getting to know the interviewee as a human being. Or as a fraud, for that matter.

There was a six-person search committee this time. All had chances to ask questions, to look Chryst in the eyes. Jamie Dixon, as good a judge of character as anyone, also was involved. Even tailback Zach Brown had input, having known Chryst from his time at Wisconsin.

Pederson was asked if this process was different than last year's.

"I don't know that," he replied. "Probably everything ends up being a little bit different than it was, but I think this was a very smooth search in a lot of ways. We were able to narrow it pretty quickly and get to a conclusion in a very reasonable time. That maybe makes it a little bit different."

It needs to be different in many more ways than that.

Look, I don't mean to be a wet blanket, but it's difficult to take anything Pitt says or does at face value when it comes to football after these fiascos. And, yes, it's difficult to fathom how Pederson was the one making this announcement, with the blessing of Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg.

It will take time — and results — before it's safe to believe in the coach behind door No. 3.

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