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Gorman: Shell game paramount for Pitt

Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt running back Rushel Shell takes a break during the first day of spring practice Tuesday, March 5, 2013, on the South Side.

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Saturday, March 30, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

Paul Chryst called it paramount that, as Pitt's football coach, he wants to do what's best for each player and for the team, and he believes he can do both at the same time.

When it comes to Rushel Shell, the two don't have to be mutually exclusive to have the potential to be totally divisive.

Shell's absence from spring practice Tuesday and subsequent rumors that the running back was considering transferring were cause for commotion.

How it is handled will tell us a lot about Shell's character, Chryst's coaching ability and the Panthers' immediate future.

Pitt already passed one test by preventing Shell from leaving when emotions were running high. Word is, Shell was upset with the coaches' criticism of his play in a scrimmage.

Chryst, in a statement Thursday, said Shell was “working through some challenges” and offered his “full support” to Shell and his family. He excused the former Hopewell star from spring drills indefinitely.

“We are giving him time away from football to work through this situation, but he very much remains a part of our family on a daily basis,” Chryst said. “We want to be sensitive and respectful of Rushel, and I would ask others to do the same.”

That's as sensitive and respectful as Chryst should get. He doesn't want to risk alienating his entire team to appease one player, even if that player is a WPIAL legend who finished his prep career as Pennsylvania's all-time leading rusher.

Chryst set a powerful precedent that he was no pushover when, on the eve of his Pitt debut, he suspended six Panthers from the opener.

That Shell was one of the six was a bad omen. One of Pitt's most celebrated recruits had a dubious start to his college career only exacerbated by the Panthers' loss at home to Division I-AA Youngstown State.

Shell redeemed himself, to some degree, with a 157-yard performance in a 35-17 victory over Virginia Tech. Afterward, he sounded like someone who owned up to his gaffe.

What did he learn?

“I'm young, made a mistake, don't let the mistake happen again,” Shell said. “Every day improve and don't let the negativity bring you down.”

Shell needs to remember those words and apply them to whatever made him want to leave Pitt so suddenly.

Perhaps he is overwhelmed by the pressure of being the father of twin daughters or of trying to live up to enormous expectations. Maybe he is having trouble adjusting to college coaching after receiving superstar treatment in high school and during the recruiting process.

What Shell has to realize is that this is a test of his character. It might be the first adversity he's faced in his career, if not his life. Now is not the time to cut and run but stand strong.

Shell also has to realize that he has some responsibility to Pitt, which made a major investment with the time it spent on recruiting him and had plans for him to play a prominent role.

The Panthers have Shell pegged as their starting tailback, didn't recruit another one in his class and added only converted defensive end James Conner of McDowell this year.

Not only are the Pitt coaches counting on Shell, but so are Panthers players. They open with Florida State in five months, now possibly without their offensive centerpiece.

If Chryst coddles Shell, the preferential treatment could cause team dissension. If Chryst is heavy handed, it could cost the Panthers one of their most talented players. It's going to take a delicate balance.

Shell is not the first freshman to threaten to transfer. But social media accelerated the furor before Chryst could have quelled it, causing outrage among Pitt fans and followers.

Shell needs to understand that by turning his back on Pitt, he would be vilified in his hometown — no matter what he accomplishes afterward.

Which brings us back to Chryst. His reputation at Wisconsin was for his X's and O's brilliance, but this is his chance to show how he handles egos, both cocksure and fragile.

Now that he's given Shell some space, Chryst has to make it clear that the team comes first and that Pitt won't make it easy for him to quit. It shouldn't release Shell from his scholarship, especially to schools where tampering could be involved.

How this is resolved will be paramount for Pitt, to prove that it won't be built upon or brought down by one player, no matter how acclaimed or accomplished.

Now it's up to Shell: This episode could be a footnote to his Pitt career or an epitaph.

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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