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Gorman: 'Handprint' on Pitt's class

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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012

When the guy whose name rhymes with Fraud Scam left the Pitt football program in his vapor trail, his stunned staff scrambled for jobs and recruits wondered whom to call.

That's when Bob Junko and Chris LaSala answered calamity with calmness by reprising their old roles. Junko was once Pitt's recruiting ace, LaSala its director of football operations. Amid a third coaching search in 13 months, they got on their phones, in their cars and tried to salvage the Class of 2012.

Although Junko and LaSala downplay their part in diverting disaster, it's not an overstatement to say that they saved Pitt's recruiting class from falling apart like Penn State's. New coach Paul Chryst credited both multiple times on national signing day, saying their handiwork was evident.

"It was a major impact, a major factor," Chryst said. "Their handprint was on a lot of this class."

Their handprints are on the letters of intent signed by previously committed recruits such as Hopewell running back Rushel Shell, Fox Chapel offensive lineman Adam Bisnowaty and Clairton cornerback Trenton Coles, whose schools Junko and LaSala visited the day after Todd Graham skipped town for Arizona State. Their handprints are next to the dotted lines where fellow WPIAL stars such as Woodland Hills linebacker Mike Caprara, Shaler tight end J.P. Holtz and Sto-Rox linebacker Deaysean Rippy signed after picking the Panthers late in the process.

"The only reason I stayed in contact with (Pitt) was because of Bob Junko," Rippy said. "So, everyone can thank him for getting it done."

That line should form behind Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson.

Junko and LaSala are in their 15th year at the university, working for their fifth head football coach. They have survived Walt Harris' shove toward Stanford, Dave Wannstedt's protestation over his forced resignation, Michael Haywood's New Year's Eve arrest and New Year's Day firing and, now, Todd Graham's hammer-down departure for the desert.

"All we did was our jobs," said LaSala, who filled in for Pitt in 2007 to help lure Jonathan Baldwin. "When he left, the options were don't do anything or go be with these kids. It was fun. It was energizing. We had a blast."

Once the defensive line coach and assistant head coach, Junko, 65, moved into an administrative role officially known as director of football relations and program enhancement after health issues for his hand. After 14 years running football ops, LaSala, 46, was pushed aside by Graham in favor of Blair Philbrick and given the title of associate athletic director for sports administration.

For Junko and LaSala, their reach wasn't limited to Western Pennsylvania. They contacted Cleveland (Tenn.) quarterback Chad Voytik, who joined with Bisnowaty and Shell to rally the recruiting class to stick together.

"They played a huge part," Voytik said. "The minute I met coach Junko, I knew he was a great guy, one of those guys where the first thing you think of when you think of Pittsburgh is coach Junko. He is the face of the program, especially in recruiting. Multiple guys have told me (Junko and LaSala) are why they stayed committed."

With Pitt's coaching staff depleted, Junko accompanied Chryst on visits to see prospects. It doesn't hurt that Junko is well-known throughout Western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, his old recruiting stomping grounds.

"Everyone knows Junk's recruiting reputation," Chryst said. "And I loved being around him during that time. It was a busy time, but it was fun getting to know the recruits and getting to know each other. Here were guys who had never worked together, and you put them in a car and here we go.

"Everyone just dove in, all hands on deck."

When Junko was diagnosed with pneumonia and hospitalized for four days, it caused him to miss the trip to Birmingham, Ala., for the BBVA Compass Bowl, where he was to coach linebackers and special teams. Junko, of course, downplays this and talks up the contributions of LaSala, who grew up with Shell's family in Aliquippa, lives nearby in Hopewell and used his experience and expertise to make Chryst and the new staff's lives easier.

"Chris did a fantastic job," Junko said. "He's the organizer. When coaches came to me, he had phone numbers, directions and cars ready to go. He's invaluable in what he does because he knows everyone. There's only 24 hours in the day, but Paul was working 48 -- and Chris was working 60.

"It was exciting. You didn't have time to think about doing this or that. You knew you had to do everything you could in that time span. There ain't no magic wands with recruiting kids. You just work your (blank) off."

That blank rhymes with class, something Junko and LaSala showed in saving Pitt's.




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