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Pitt recruits embrace new football coach Chryst's demeanor

Jerry DiPaola
| Monday, Jan. 16, 2012

For the past quarter-century, Neil Gordon has watched college football coaches stroll into his high schools like there should be trumpets blaring and confetti tossed at their feet.

"The assistants walked in ahead of him like it's an entourage, and he's the king," said Gordon, a longtime Penn Hills coach who this week resigned from coaching at Shaler.

Then, Paul Chryst showed up at a Shaler basketball game Jan. 6 to meet with tight end recruit J.P. Holtz. If Chryst's face hadn't been in the newspapers and on TV after he was hired as Pitt's coach Dec. 21, he could have been mistaken for just another fan.

Shaler basketball coach Paul Holszhu didn't know Chryst was there until he was introduced to him after the game.

"He walked in like a regular guy," Gordon said. "He talked like a regular guy. I felt comfortable with him the minute I met him."

"I think this town wants low-profile, low-key," Holszhu said. "He came across as a very natural, run-of-the-mill, Western Pennsylvania type."

By all accounts, Chryst has made a positive impression on the high school players and coaches he has met. It's the least he can do at this point.

Former coach Todd Graham, now one of the most vilified figures in Pitt football history, also was well-received last year in his first months on the job. One booster said Graham reminded him of Johnny Majors, the last Pitt coach to win a national championship.

Yet, Chryst's entrance has been different. He comes from a greater base of success, coordinating Wisconsin's offense through two consecutive Big Ten titles, but he doesn't brag about it.

"That's the vision (for Pitt)," Chryst said. "You don't talk about it, but that's what you want."

Two days after meeting with Holtz and his family and a day after a quick trip to Birmingham, Ala., to watch Pitt in the BBVA Compass Bowl, Chryst welcomed several recruits to the Pitt training facility on the South Side last Sunday. Among them was Upper St. Clair linebacker Dakota Conwell, who made a verbal commitment to Pitt before Graham resigned.

"I like Coach Chryst," said Conwell, who planned a visit to Arizona this weekend to complete the recruiting process. "He seems like a pretty good guy. He said, 'We are just going to do what we do. We are not going to talk about it.' "

Recruiting's "dead period," in which coaches are not permitted to make in-person contacts or evaluations on- or off-campus, permit official or unofficial visits by recruits or make phone calls to them, ran from Monday to Thursday last week. Limitations were lifted Friday, and the new contact period runs through Jan. 28. Signing day is Feb. 1.

Chryst has not sat down face-to-face with all 19 recruits who have verbally committed to Pitt, but he has reached out to most of them and plans a meeting with four-star running back Rushel Shell of Hopewell this week.

Shell, who changed his cell phone number and told Ohio State he wasn't interested, said he remains committed to Pitt, thanks to the warm welcome he received from players prior to Chryst's arrival.

"They already accepted me into their brotherhood," Shell said. "Those guys made it so easy. (The recruits) want to start another brotherhood."

He said Chryst was "laid-back" during their four-minute telephone conversation, a contrast to the energetic Graham.

"He told me he was excited about the program and was getting a good start, and he thinks I can be a good attribute to the team," said Shell, adding he will withhold final judgment until he meets him.

"I need to talk to him one-on-one for me to get the full feeling," he said.

Woodland Hills coach George Novak was unhappy when Pitt forced out Dave Wannstedt, but he built a good relationship with Graham and likes what he has seen and heard of Chryst. Novak is especially pleased that Chryst has added WPIAL products Chris Haering (the former coach at Mt. Lebanon) and Joe Rudolph (a Belle Vernon graduate) to his staff.

"Chris is on good terms with everybody in the WPIAL," Novak said. "Rudolph is a low-key guy, a lot like Chryst and Coach Haering."

That's a good start — and Chryst landed his first commitment Saturday when Woodland Hills linebacker Mike Caprara pledged to play for Pitt — but his ultimate success will hinge on how he comes across to players and their parents. It's early, but so far he's making friends.

"He cares about the players," Holtz said. "He puts the players first."

Holtz remains uncommitted and planned a trip to Michigan State this weekend. Nonetheless, he was excited that Chryst came to watch him play basketball, tweeting the news before the game and, then, scoring 18 points — 10 above his average.

Said Holszhu: "I should have football coaches come to every one of our games."

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