by Will Graves
PITTSBURGH (AP)—Forget about the coaching change. Disregard all the talk about moving to the ACC next summer.
Paul Chryst doesn’t really want to hear it.
The new Pitt coach—the program’s fourth in the last two years—understands why his arrival and the school’s looming departure from the Big East are hot topics. He’d just rather talk about something else.
Like say, the team he’s trying to build.
“Anything but focusing on this year and this game, this week, this practice, anything less than that would be cheating everyone,” Chryst said.
Something Chryst has vowed will not happen. The way he figures it, the future will take care of itself. Pitt’s move to the ACC will be official next July. After finally landing a head coaching job, the 46-year-old has no plans on going anywhere anytime soon, unlike his predecessor.
Todd Graham lasted all of 338 days on the job before sprinting west to Arizona State. Chryst doesn’t sprint anywhere. Besides, he’s starting to get comfortable at the whole “being in charge” thing.
“I never have been concerned with what type of team are we gonna be, what do we have a chance for our record to be and I don’t think that’s just because I wasn’t a head coach before,” he said. “The whole year, there are opportunities for growth. Are we doing everything? Are we doing the right things? Are we helping these guys maximize their abilities, maximize their opportunities? That’s what we’re aiming for.”
Chryst spent the first few months getting to know his players and earning their trust. The no-nonsense approach he brings has been a hit in the locker room, which tired quickly of Graham’s catchphrases and was hurt by his tactless exit.
“His motto is ‘put it on tape,’ and I really like that motto,” quarterback Tino Sunseri said.
The senior was one of Graham’s favorite targets last season, chastised for his indecisiveness and hung out to dry when things went south. The lack of a confidence boost from the coaching staff affected his decision-making, and he passed for just 11 touchdowns against 10 interceptions while playing behind an offensive line that allowed the most sacks in the country.
That shouldn’t be an issue this season. Chryst relied heavily on the run while serving as offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, his pro-style attack turning running backs John Clay and Montee Ball into stars. Sunseri won’t lack for options to give someone the ball to now that senior tailback Ray Graham has returned from a torn ACL that cut short his junior season and freshman Rushel Shell decided to stick with the Panthers even after the coaching change.
The explosive Shell set a Pennsylvania high school record for career rushing yards. He has been slowed by injury during training camp and when he returns he’ll be one of five players who could see significant time lining up behind Sunseri.
Shell is more than ready to wait his turn and praised Graham and the rest of the backfield for making him feel at home.
“”Ray has been like an older brother to me on the team,” Shell said. “I listen to everything he tells me and he gives me great advice. It’s not just him at times either—it’s the first guy to the last guy. Everyone is just feeding off of one another and trying to get better.”
The schedule isn’t exactly the most user-friendly. Pitt, which opens on Sept. 1 against Youngstown State, will host conference games against Louisville, Temple and Rutgers and travel to Syracuse, Connecticut and South Florida. That doesn’t include nonconference dates with Virginia Tech and Notre Dame.
Getting through in good enough shape to emerge with a conference title and just the second BCS berth will be difficult. It’s a challenge Chryst and the Panthers accept. After all the off-the-field stuff, they’re only too happy to put the focus back on football.
“Football is back to being fun now,” wide receiver Devin Street said. “These guys make it fun but at the same time we know what the goal is and know what we have to do.”