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Starkey: Sadly, 7 wins the bar for Pitt

| Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Pitt head football coach Paul Chryst during practice on the South Side March 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

When the powers-that-be at Pitt embarked on their third coaching search in 13 months, they probably didn't set out to find the one person in the universe most unlike Fraud Graham.

They did, however, find that person.

Paul Chryst is to Graham what Rod Barajas is to Usain Bolt. Graham could host a live auction through a muzzle. Chryst seemingly would prefer to avoid talking altogether.

Chryst's season-kickoff news conference Monday was the stuff of legend. His opening remarks lasted all of 67 seconds. Graham needed five times as long just to get warmed up.

It should come as no surprise that while Graham made himself available to reporters four days a week during the season, Chryst will speak only on Mondays and Thursdays.

During his entire question-and-answer session, Chryst's tone did not change. His face did not change. I'm certain his pulse rate did not change.

He is the calmest man on earth.

I asked him if he'd broached with his players the topic of a Big East title.

“No,” he said, politely.

Does he ever mention overriding goals such as winning a conference or national championship?

“No,” he said, politely.

There is nothing wrong with that. There was some irony, in that Chryst spoke those words while standing in front of a sign that reads:

Pitt

9-time National Champions

Expect 10

It's early yet, but this man is a serious threat to establish himself as the lowest-key coach in Pittsburgh's recent sports history. His public demeanor evokes some combination of Jamie Dixon (early years), John Russell and Rick Kehoe with a sprinkling of Gene Lamont.

That is not to say Chryst lacks personality. I've spoken with him informally. He is engaging and funny, armed with a sharp, understated sense of humor. He seems genuine. He isn't Russell, who once memorably said, “I don't do small talk.”

Chryst, for better or worse, represents a striking contrast from what we've seen at Pitt. Go back 20 years, and you'll find folksy Johnny Majors followed by wordy Walt Harris followed by schmoozing Dave Wannstedt followed by the Fraud himself, with a couple of days of Michael Haywood mixed in for tragicomic relief.

Chryst probably won't regale us with fabulous football fables (Majors), obstinately defend his play-calling brilliance (Harris) or question why you're questioning him (Wannstedt). I guarantee you he will never utter the terms “high octane,” “hammer down” or “left lane.”

I'm kind of hoping he doesn't pooch punt, either.

All of which means nothing when it comes to winning football games. If Chryst flourishes, people will romanticize his monotone delivery. He will be Pitt's version of Bill Belichick.

If he is unable to extricate the Panthers from their quarter-century run of mediocrity, he will be Wannstedt without the mustache. That's just the way it works.

And that brings us back to a question I asked Chryst: What is the bar for Pitt football this season?

Chryst (politely) said the goal is to “stay focused on the process” and keep improving. A cynic might say retaining a coach past New Year's and avoiding a third straight BBVA Compass Bowl would constitute a smashing success.

I won't set the bar that low, but considering what Pitt has been through — put itself through, rather — I won't set it too high, either.

Sadly, 7-5 sounds about right. That's hardly asking too much. The schedule includes not one but two FCS schools, including Youngstown State on Saturday. The Big East is a bad joke again, worse than ever now that Temple has replaced West Virginia.

More than seven wins would be pleasantly surprising. Fewer would be mildly disappointing.

I cannot remember a time when Pitt football was this far off the radar entering a season. Given the program's disarray the past few years, that might not be a bad thing.

There's no telling whether Chryst will be a savior or another in a growing line of men who couldn't get Pitt to the “next level.” But he deserves a chance — and if you bet on one thing this football season, bet on this:

Nobody, but nobody, will get bulletin-board material from Paul Chryst.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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