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Starkey: Chryst still a mystery

| Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013, 10:39 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
PItt head coach Paul Chryst speaks to the media during a press conference Monday, Aug. 26, 2013, on the South Side.

Twenty games into the Paul Chryst regime, the question can fairly be asked: What do we have here?

Might this be the coach to lead Pitt back to national prominence, or is Chryst the latest in a line of men who couldn't get the program over the proverbial hump?

Is he the next Johnny Majors (Part I) or Dave Wannstedt minus the mustache?

Early signs have me concerned, but the only sensible answer comes in the form of another question:

Who knows?

It's way too soon to render a meaningful verdict. We can analyze the early clues, but we must remember that Pitt football was a national punch line when Chryst arrived 23 months ago.

People literally had lost count of the head coaches, including interims, in the 13 months prior to Chryst's hiring Dec. 22, 2011 (for the record, it was five).

Sitting in Pitt's offices Monday, two days after a bad loss at Navy, I asked Chryst about the “long-range vision” he brought to Oakland.

How is it holding up?

“I think some areas where we've made progress haven't necessarily shown up on the field yet,” he said. “Do I think we're making progress? Yes. But you hate to be that guy that's saying ‘Hey, we're making progress.'”

Indeed, as anyone in Pirates management can tell you, maintaining a “long-range vision” is not easy in the early days of rebuilding. People want results, yesterday, and Chryst is just 10-10 through 20 games (8-10 against major college competition).

That isn't much different than Wannstedt (11-9) or Harris (8-12) through 20, with Harris having inherited by far the worst situation.

Chryst's first 23 months have been marked by multiple player defections — and ejections — as he walks the narrow line of trying to win now while laying a solid foundation.

“I want to try to do it the right way,” Chryst said. “Now, that's subjective, right? Because it's my definition of the right way. So someone could say, ‘Boy, that's messed up. That's way wrong.' But I want it to be one of substance and not necessarily looking for the quick fix.”

In that vein, Chryst has scored his biggest points with fans via two off-field moves:

1. Not acquiescing to tailback Rushel Shell.

2. Not going hard after the Wisconsin job.

It seems clear that if Chryst had wanted to return to his native Wisconsin when that job opened after last season, he could have put the hammer down, switched to the left lane and lobbied hard with Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez.

Right?

“Yeah,” Chryst said. “But at the same time, Barry knows me. Yeah, you could have gone (after it). But I hadn't done anything here yet. You know what I mean? I do believe in the mission here. I'm confident we can get back to making this a special place on the field.”

Like every coach, Chryst will be as good as the talent he brings in. That has been a challenge, as one would expect under the circumstances. But there are bright spots: Talented freshmen Tyler Boyd and James Conner are among 12 true freshmen contributing.

Early reviews of the 2014 class aren't glowing, but it's not fully formed. Chryst still is building relationships with local coaches and knows only one way to sell himself: humbly.

“I'm not a flashy guy,” he said. “It's going to be substance over sizzle.”

Here's the thing: The substance must include big wins, and those have been scarce. Chryst has lost too many games he was supposed to win and won just one (Virginia Tech last season) where he was expected to lose.

My biggest concern, as it was with Wannstedt, is Chryst's game management — his propensity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (a Pitt specialty).

The Navy game provided at least two examples, in addition to Chryst hoarding his timeouts at the end:

• By refusing to take shots downfield, Pitt minimized its athletic advantage.

• Chryst did not challenge the ruling on what appeared to be an obvious Ray Vinopal interception that would have short-circuited a long Navy scoring drive.

All of that is hindsight, of course, and as Harris once memorably put it, “Hindsight is 50/50.” Foresight is what's needed here, and we'll know within a few years whether Paul Chryst's vision was clear.

Nobody could possibly know that yet.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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