The staff changes that Paul Chryst announced on Monday weren't exactly conventional, but they more or less followed the formula that Chryst has established since taking over as head coach at Pitt in December 2011.
To replace Dave Huxtable as defensive coordinator, Chryst promoted Matt House from defensive backs coach. House was in his fourth year as a full-time college assistant in 2012, and the extent of his play-calling experience is limited to the BBVA Compass Bowl in January.
Chryst also added John Palermo to the defensive coaching staff, but despite Palermo having 38 years of coaching experience, he will "float" between positions, spending time with the defensive ends (who will still be under the watch of defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield) and the outside linebackers (who will still work with linebackers coach Chris Haering).
While those two moves may go against the usual hiring practices in college football, they are in line with the design of Chryst's coaching staff. After all, Chryst named Joe Rudolph offensive coordinator last year after Bob Bostad left for the NFL, and Rudolph had just four years of experience as a full-time assistant prior to 2012 (the same number as House).
And compared to some of the other offensive coaches, Rudolph is long in the tooth. Quarterbacks coach Brooks Bollinger had one year of coaching experience prior to coming to Pitt, and that year was spent as head coach at Hill Murray High School in Minnesota. And receivers coach Bobby Engram's coaching experience is contained in one year as an offensive assistant with the San Francisco 49ers.
But Chryst balanced that inexperience with a pair of veteran coaches. Offensive line coach Jim Hueber has 37 years of coaching on his resume, and running backs coach Desmond Robinson started in the business in 1981.
Chryst looked for the same balance on defense when he put together his first staff last year. House, Breckterfield and Haering combined for seven total years of experience as full-time assistants prior to 2012, but Huxtable had been coaching for nearly 30 years. With Huxtable off to N.C. State, Chryst brought in another 30-year veteran in Palermo.
"I think his experience is going to be valuable," House said of Palermo. "He's a guy that has seen it all and done it all; in 38 years, you've seen a lot of football."
Chryst said Palermo's experience will be a benefit, but he downplayed it as a significant factor in the hire.
"That certainly is a benefit, and I do feel like J.P. will be great in the room with Matt and Chris and 'Nokes and (defensive graduate assistant) Hank (Poteat)," Chryst said. "I personally like it when (hiring an experienced coach), if possible, but you're not going to do it just because he's a veteran. He's got to be able to bring things to it. But that is one of the residual benefits to it."
Still, House thinks Chryst's design for the staff is a solid one.
"That's the one thing I think Paul has really done a great job of. There are some people say there's a lack of experience, but I know this: in that room, the thing Paul has done is he has got a lot of different personalities that can reach a lot of different kids that have a lot of different levels of life experiences and football experiences. That's what I think Coach Palermo brings, more than anything."
House said that he thinks personnel decisions are one of Chryst's strengths.
"Paul's a great evaluator of people, even with his players. Whether it's a player, a coach, a secretary, I think Paul does a great job of mixing and matching people and trying to put somebody in the best position to succeed. I think that's one of his strengths.
"I think, truthfully, not only in the coaching staff but in the whole building, he does that."
The verdict on Chryst's staff design will be rendered in the coming years, but after one season, a few things were evident. Engram and Bollinger were both successful as first-year assistants, and Rudolph appeared to take to the coordinator role well (albeit with guidance from Chryst, a former offensive coordinator himself). And by all accounts, Hueber and Robinson had the veteran presence they were expected to bring, as well as solid positional coaching and positive reviews on the recruiting trail.
For a variety of reasons, the defensive staff didn't show quite as well in 2012. The defense as a whole did improve over the course of the season, but uncertainty remains about the coaches on staff. If Year One of the new defensive staff can mimic the successes the offensive staff had in 2012, then Chryst may have assembled a group of coaches that could help transition Pitt into a period of stability and success.
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