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Starkey: Lesson gleaned from Pitt exodus

| Thursday, April 4, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune Review
Pitt running back Rushel Shell runs past Temple's Justin Gildea on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012, at Heinz Field.
Pitt football coach Paul Chryst leads his team against Virginia Tech on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon looks on during a Big East Tournament game against Syracuse, Thurday, March 14, 2013 at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Steven Adams pulls down a rebound next to Connecticut's Tyler Olander during the first half Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, at Petersen Events Center.

Pitt athletics could be having a worse week, I suppose.

Mike Rice could announce he is returning to the basketball program.

Short of that, it's hard to imagine a more depressing scenario than losing your highest-profile basketball and football players in the time it took Rice to crank up a dodgeball game at Rutgers (“The first rule of dodgeball is that you don't talk about dodgeball — at least until the video is released and you're forced to fire the coach”).

Emerging star tailback Rushel Shell kicked off the week by filing his transfer papers. Emerging star center Steven Adams then surprisingly declared for the NBA Draft. Unrelated moves, obviously, but those two were supposed to be the faces of Pitt sports moving into the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Both programs now are severely compromised at a critical time. What's to be gleaned from the defections?

Maybe just this: They should serve as a reminder that Pitt is not a first-thought destination spot for the best of the best among high school athletes. As such, maybe it's time for the delusional among fans to adjust their sights.

Shell and Adams remind us that it's rare when either program gets a recruit of that caliber — and thus why it's so potentially devastating to lose one.

Nobody grows up in Florida or Texas dreaming of playing football at Pitt, just as nobody in California or Indiana grows up pretending he is a Pitt basketball player.

That's not a criticism. It's just reality. You'd think it would be obvious, too, but there is an arrogance among some Pitt supporters — a belief that their programs should be national powerhouses.

I'm sorry, but how exactly is that supposed to happen without either having recent championship pedigree or unique selling points? What's more, Pitt doesn't pay coaches like national powerhouses do, and neither program cheats, as far as anyone knows.

Pitt football hasn't won anything of consequence in 30 years and plays in front of paltry crowds at Heinz Field. It's lucky when a blue-chip local kid such as Fox Chapel's Adam Bisnowaty stays put. Coach Paul Chryst has his work cut out just to get the program back to Wannstedt-ian levels.

Pitt basketball is closer to having a brand name people recognize. It has a proven coach and a great game-day atmosphere.

All evidence suggests that both the football and basketball programs are clean. That would separate them from, say, the Connecticut basketball program when it was caught cheating under Jim Calhoun or the Syracuse basketball of the early 1990s when it was caught cheating under Jim Boeheim.

Cheaters tend to prosper in college athletics, but do you want a program that wins that way? Don't answer that.

Jamie Dixon's doing fine. He wins tons of games and goes to the NCAA Tournament just about every year.

If the football program could get to a place where it consistently won nine or 10 games and a periodic conference title here, great. You do that and you hope for the Rich Rodriguez-everything-goes-right-at-West-Virginia type of year where you make a run at a national title.

As for which program was hit harder by the defections, I'll go with the basketball program, for the simple reason that one player can make all the difference in that sport — and Adams was showing signs of being just such a player.

Pitt football, with or without Shell, was going to need some time to get off the ropes after all the body blows it has absorbed of late. Dixon, on the other hand, has created a certain level of expectation even if he has radically underachieved in the NCAA Tournament.

What he has lacked is the transcendent player. We'll never know if Adams could have been one, but he had a chance. So did Khem Birch, who stayed for about five minutes before bolting for UNLV and becoming the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year.

The master plan was to have Birch and Adams share the frontcourt. Now both are gone. You wonder how many hits Dixon's program can take and still flourish. And by flourish, I mean continue to win about 75 percent of its games and compete for conference titles.

That's not a bad life, you know.

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

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