Belief and (Tough) Love Drive Pitt's New Football Coach
Pitt football head coach Pat Narduzzi is determined to make the Panthers believe in themselves and their program.
PHOTOS COURTESY THE UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT
As he took the podium upon officially being introduced as the latest new head football coach at the University of Pittsburgh, Pat Narduzzi did what it seems everyone in his position resorts to doing.
He started selling.
Except the Youngstown, Ohio, native and former defensive coordinator at Michigan State University didn’t pitch winning seasons, full stadiums, bowl games and a more direct path to the NFL Draft.
Narduzzi was selling belief.
“I think anything can be accomplished if everybody believes in each other,” he insisted on Dec. 26, 2014. “One of the reasons we’ve had success at Michigan State is our kids believe in us as coaches, and we believe in the kids and there’s a loved relationship there. Honestly, I’ve never been around it anywhere [else] that I’ve been …
“And that’s what we’ll build here. And when those players are playing for you like our guys played for us, there’s going to be a lot of success.”
It wasn’t just another introductory press conference, even for an institution that had hired Mike Haywood to replace Dave Wannstedt in December 2010, Todd Graham to replace Haywood in January 2011 and Paul Chryst to replace Graham in December 2011 prior to Narduzzi’s arrival.
Months later, even Narduzzi appreciates the atypical nature of his initial Pitt address.
“That may sound weird nowadays in the crazy world we’re in,” he says. “I truly believe the coaches and the players at Michigan State loved each other.”
Isaiah Lewis does, too.
“You don’t find that at a lot of places,” says Lewis, now a safety with the Pittsburgh Steelers and a Narduzzi protégé at Michigan State.
Defensive tackle Mark Scarpinato is another who can testify to the belief and the trust Narduzzi inspires. Scarpinato, who spent three years with the Spartans, transferred to Pitt after graduating from Michigan State to play one more season under Narduzzi, taking a break from attending the Medical College of Wisconsin in pursuit of a master’s degree in health administration.
“We won a Rose Bowl [at Michigan State] that way,” Scarpinato reports. “We’re going to win an Orange Bowl [at Pitt] that way and we’re going to be a family.”
All you need is love. Though Narduzzi’s brand, Lewis says, includes “some tough love at times.”
That’s to be expected from the son of a coach (father Bill Narduzzi directed the program at Youngstown State University from 1975-85). Pat Narduzzi’s early experience with discipline decreed “you better not come home at 11:01 if your curfew [is] 11:00.”
His players at Pitt had better be prepared to work for a coach who once included watering the field and scraping peeling paint from the office walls among his duties as an assistant at the University of Rhode Island.
Narduzzi’s demands as a coach are unyielding when it comes to prerequisites such as effort and enthusiasm, the understanding and execution of assignments and even the ability to play multiple roles if that’s what’s required.
Off the field, he’s a family man dedicated to taking his four children “to Rhode Island and to New Jersey to visit grandmas,” when his coaching schedule allows.
On the field, he’s a bundle of energy, enthusiasm, intensity and toughness who preaches “running through tackles” as if there’s no other way to play the game.
Narduzzi’s response to questions about unnecessary-roughness penalties incurred during a 2011 victory over arch-rival Michigan was revealing.
“That’s what we tried to do, 60 minutes of unnecessary roughness,” he said at the time, only partly tongue-in-cheek.
The belief Narduzzi aspires to instill is “almost a will,” says Chris Solari, who grew up in Butler and later covered Narduzzi’s eight-year stint at Michigan State for the Lansing State Journal newspaper. “The biggest thing is the intensity and the drive he’s trying to succeed with.
“It’s not ‘you can do it;’ it’s ‘you will do it.’”
The newspaper posted a tribute video prior to Narduzzi’s final game at Michigan State, the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1 against Baylor. Players recalled Narduzzi screaming at them for allowing three points rather than none, throwing stools across the locker room, unleashing in-your-face spit showers and smashing a projector during one memorable halftime exchange.
“He’d stand in the front (of a defensive meeting) screaming and spitting,” Lewis says. “Everybody that sat in the front row, they would be kind of leaning back, wiping the spit off their face.
“He absolutely demolished that projector. He shattered the whole thing. We’re sitting there like, ‘We need that.’ He broke it and kept on talking.”
The tribute video also included this from then-junior defensive lineman Joel Heath:
“I love him like a father.”
The defenses Narduzzi coordinated at Michigan State finished in the Top 10 in the nation in rushing and total defense from 2011-2014.
The appreciation expressed for him at Michigan State included a visit this summer from four Spartans players who had traveled to Pittsburgh for a Kenny Chesney concert and wanted to reconnect. They weren’t his players, strictly speaking; none of them had played defense for Narduzzi.
“He’s not afraid to show his emotion, but at the same time he has a cool savvy to him,” Solari says. “He’s talking 400 miles a minute, and it’s all making sense.”
Narduzzi also has a scheme, an “equalizer” that helps turn two- and three-star recruits with character into first-round NFL draft picks.
“Nobody in the country runs zone-pressure like we do,” he declares. “That’s a fact.”
Even that wasn’t enough to prevent the Baylor game from turning into a near disaster. The Spartans gave up 603 passing yards and 41 points in the Cotton Bowl. Then they somehow scored 21 fourth-quarter points, pitched a fourth-quarter shutout and ended the game with back-to-back sacks and an interception on Baylor’s final three offensive snaps in what became a 42-41 sendoff.
Don’t stop believing.
“There was no stopping believing in what we could do and what we should do,” Narduzzi maintains of a game in which MSU had trailed 41-21 after three quarters. “It takes time to build that. It takes time for them to trust us and for us to trust them and that’s something we’ll build.
“But it won’t take long.”