The recruiting question
The 13-9 win was a program-changer for Pitt in 2007.
That game saw the Panthers upset their rival, the No. 2 West Virginia Mountaineers, in the season finale, turning a dismal 4-7 record into a 5-7 mark that was full of momentum and the promise of a better future.
For the first time in his three seasons as head coach at Pitt, Dave Wannstedt had something tangible to sell, something more than being “a Pitt guy” and returning the Panthers to their “western Pa. roots.” The win over WVU was actual proof of progress, and it generated a huge boost for the program.
That’s more or less how it happened. Pitt did get a big boost that offseason, landing 12 recruits between Dec. 1 and Signing Day, including some of the biggest scores in the class. The immediate bolt of energy was considerable and the coaching staff was able to capitalize.
But the momentum didn’t necessarily carry over. Those recruits in the 2008 class who took official visits to Pitt the weekend after the 13-9 game got caught up in the hype, but the prospects in the following class - the class of 2009 - weren’t totally sold.
In fact, Pitt didn’t land a commitment in the 2009 class until Stoneboro offensive lineman Cory King broke the seal with a verbal pledge on June 5. King started the class and the standard June push, but even that annual ritual, where Pitt lands a bunch of recruits in June, lost some of its luster: the Panthers only got five commitments in June 2008, one of the lowest totals in the last 15 years.
The class eventually rounded into form with four-star prospects like Dan Mason, Todd Thomas and Ray Graham committing in the fall and winter, but it ended up being ranked No. 47 nationally - the lowest of Wannstedt’s six recruiting classes at Pitt.
So why didn’t the excitement of the 13-9 game extend into the recruiting efforts for the 2009 class? There were a few contributing factors.
While Pitt fans were excited about the win over WVU and the emergence of what seemed to be a very good defense led by a great linebacker plus a bona fide superstar running back, the fact remained that the Panthers were still coming off a 5-7 season in which the highest single-game attendance at Heinz Field was 40,145 - a Wednesday night loss to Navy - and the average attendance was 33,314.
There was momentum that could be sensed by those close to the program - fans, media, etc. - but it wasn’t resonating with recruits.
To make matters worse for the fans, a few programs around Pitt were having a good deal of success. Penn State had 11 commitments before King became Pitt’s first commitment on June 5. West Virginia had seven by that point. And Big East foe Rutgers had five commitments before Pitt got one, including a pair of Pennsylvania standouts
Penn State and Rutgers ended up signing 22 recruits who had offers from Pitt in the class of 2009. Not coincidentally, the Nittany Lions went 9-4 the previous season and Rutgers was 8-5. Neither team won its conference, but both posted winning records - as opposed to Pitt, who went 5-7.
Pitt’s current situation certainly seems to share a lot of parallels with what Wannstedt’s group experienced in the spring of 2008. Pat Narduzzi’s Panthers are coming off a huge win that gave them an immediate boost on the recruiting trail. They have a very promising defense. And they’ve got a potential star on offense (this one is a quarterback; the 2008 team had a running back).
All of those things make the fans very excited, but they don’t overshadow a 5-7 record and attendance that averaged 36,295 (for context, Michigan led the nation in attendance with an average that was more than three times Pitt’s number).
People who watch the program closely see progress, see a corner potentially turned and see what looks like promise on the horizon. But the Pitt coaches are recruiting against teams that can sell better game day atmospheres and better recent records.
So what can be done? Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix. In 2008, Wannstedt and staff finally broke through for a winning record and a bowl game appearance. They still only had two commitments prior to June - no matter the situation, Pitt never seems to get much recruiting traction in the spring - but grabbed eight commitments in June and finished with the No. 33 recruiting class in the country. The 10-win season that followed in 2009 gave a real, tangible boost to recruiting for the 2011 class (although that boost was lost when Wannstedt was fired at the end of the 2010 season).
And so it is for Narduzzi this offseason. There will rough stretches in recruiting. This week was certainly one of those when JUCO safety JaQuan Brisker said on Wednesday he was considering being a “hometown hero” at Pitt and then committed to Penn State on Thursday, which was followed by four-star Ohio athlete Mershawn Rice, who had been high on the Panthers, committing to Purdue on Friday night.
It won’t all be rough, of course. Pitt will get its regular June run of commitments and have a solid commitment list heading into the season. But along the way, some top targets will opt to go elsewhere. In the meantime, the biggest thing Narduzzi can do for his recruiting efforts will be on the field. Like Wannstedt did in 2008 and 2009, the best - perhaps the only - way to right the ship is to start winning. The 2018 schedule is unforgiving, particularly in the non-conference slate, but having success on the field is really the only way Pitt’s recruiting will take a big step forward.