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Starkey: Skies brighten for Pitt football

Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt football coach Paul Chryst on the sideline against Rutgers at Heinz Field on November 2012.

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Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, 10:30 p.m.
 

You'd think a program that participates annually in something called the BBVA Compass Bowl would have a decent sense of direction.

Maybe, just maybe, Pitt finally does.

Kudos to Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez and Paul Chryst — assuming it was a joint decision — for reaching the conclusion that Chryst should stay at Pitt. They did the right thing, given the circumstances under which Chryst arrived just 353 days ago.

True, Chryst might someday wonder what might have been. How many times does a guy get a chance to go home again? But he can always take solace in having honored his commitment to a devastated football program in desperate need of a leader.

The challenge remains immense. It's still too early to tell whether Chryst can do what his predecessors could not. Namely, win outright conference titles and perhaps make his way into a national-title discussion now and again, the way Rich Rodriguez did at West Virginia and Brian Kelly did at Cincinnati.

But I like the way Chryst is trending.

I like the fact that Pitt finished 6-4 after a disastrous first two games.

I like the fact that it won three of its final four Big East games by a combined score of 101-26.

I like some of the talent already here (Rushel Shell, J.P. Holtz, Jason Hendricks, Devin Street, Todd Thomas, Lafayette Pitts, K'Waun Williams). Some of the verbal commits (quarterback Tra'von Chapman, offensive lineman Dorian Johnson) sound promising, and if Pitt can reel in one of two four-star receivers — Robert Foster or Tyler Boyd — Chryst will find a way to utilize him.

Viewed through a prism of the men who preceded him, this is what I see in Chryst:

• Dave Wannstedt with an offensive mind.

• Walt Harris with a balanced offense.

• Todd Graham with a conscience.

A player told me Friday that Chryst's personality mirrors that of Wannstedt's. Their overall philosophies are comparable — starting with a pro-style offense — but with the significant difference that Chryst can choreograph an offense.

In a related story, Chryst appears to possess a critical attribute that eluded Wannstedt throughout his coaching career: the ability to identify and develop talent at the most important position on the field.

Look at what Chryst did in one year's work with Tino Sunseri. The previous two seasons, Sunseri had combined for 26 touchdown passes and 20 interceptions.

This year, he has 19 TDs and two interceptions.

You saw what Chryst did in 2011 in one year's work with Russell Wilson. After transferring from N.C. State, Wilson completed 73 percent of his passes for 33 TDs and four picks at Wisconsin, then grabbed the starting job with the Seattle Seahawks and has flourished.

All of which bodes well for Rutgers transfer and likely Sunseri replacement Tom Savage, who has a one-and-done window in which to play for Chryst. Teammates have raved about Savage's accuracy in practice.

Meanwhile, and perhaps best of all, Pitt is headed to a place where it can win immediately.

Have you seen the pathetic Coastal Division of the ACC?

The best you can say for a football division that includes North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Miami (which declared itself bowl-ineligible this year and still faces NCAA sanctions), Duke, Virginia Tech and Virginia is that it's sure to play some decent basketball.

Pitt will have a chance to win that division next year.

As for Chryst's coaching ability, time will tell. His ability to get along with the players is nice, but, really, who cares? Jerks can be great coaches, too.

I'm more interested in Chryst's game-day abilities, where questions abound.

His team wasn't ready to compete at UConn. He was way overaggressive late in the loss to Syracuse. He made the unfathomable decision to retreat to the locker room with 29 seconds left in the first half at UConn, with Pitt in UConn territory, trailing by three touchdowns and harboring two timeouts.

Chryst also showed symptoms of the same disease that afflicted his predecessors: fourth-quarter-itis, described in some medical journals as the inability to finish games that should never, ever be lost.

On balance, though, I see hope — and I wonder if ol' Todd Graham did Pitt a gigantic favor by putting the hammer down when he did.

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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