Roughly two months ago, Pitt wrapped up spring drills with the annual Blue-Gold game at Heinz Field. In less than two months, the Panthers will be back at it with the start of training camp. At the halfway point, Pitt head coach Todd Graham held an impromptu session with the media to talk about the state of the program. A few Pitt players were also on-hand as well.
One of the things Graham addressed, sort of, were the situations at Ohio State and West Virginia; two schools Pitt has traditionally recruited against, and two schools close in proximity to the Pitt campus. Ohio State has been under one giant microscope this entire offseason, which has included the resignation of head coach Jim Tressel and Terrelle Pryor deciding to forego his final year of eligibility. Ohio State is now in facing sanctions from the NCAA in regards to some of its players receiving improper benefits.
"We explain to the guys we don't want to take short cuts, we don't want to cut corners," Graham said. "Cheating is cheating. Cutting a corner is cutting a corner, whether it be a small one or a big one. We work hard on that. It's not worth winning if you're doing those things. You're always found out. You reap what you sow. You get what you work for. I really believe that. Sometimes things can benefit you for a short period of time. Eventually, it's going to be found out."
When it comes to improper benefits and possible NCAA violations, Graham said it's one of his prime responsibilities to educate his players on what is right and what is wrong. He says it might be difficult to make sure players are doing the right thing if it comes to communicating with fans, alumni and booster. He adds that it's his responsibility to advise them.
"It's very difficult," Graham said. "On the same hand, I'm ultimately responsible for that. That's why I'm talking about educating (the players). I talk to them about, you can rattle off ten or eleven wins in a row, everyone gets excited and that's when those sort of things start happening. Someday, you go to a restaurant, and someone wants to give them a complimentary meal, or they go out to a golf course or something like that."
At West Virginia over the last week, their coaching situation came to a head when incumbent head coach Bill Stewart stepped down in the midst of allegations he, or someone close to him, had been feeding certain members of the media incriminating information about head coach-in waiting Dana Holgorsen. Holgorsen will now take over as head coach a year earlier than expected following the whole fiasco.
As if the Pitt-West Virginia rivalry needs any more fuel to its long history, Graham and Holgorsen have a history of their own. Holgorsen accused Graham of getting players to fake injuries, to slow down a 2009 meeting between Houston and Tulsa. Holgorsen was Houston's offensive coordinator at the time, while Graham was head coach at Tulsa. The Cougars prevailed in that game 46-45. The two coaches have been involved in a pair of other shootouts in recent years; a 70-30 Houston win over Tulsa in 2008 and a 65-28 win over Oklahoma State over Tulsa last year.
Graham wouldn't specifically comment on his relationship with Holgorsen, acknowledging he's got his own worries, specifically just being a first-year coach at his own program.
"We have a lot of things going on here that I'm focused on," Graham said. "We're working hard here, and I haven't really paid attention to anything going on (at West Virginia). I've got good friends that I have that are there that I have a lot of respect for. I think it's inappropriate for me to comment on anyone else's situation. I've got to be focused on mine."
One thing Graham did comment on, in regards to West Virginia, is clarifying that the two new systems coming into the Big East focus on a fast-pace offense that produces a lot of points. While that may be similar, the structures of both offenses are entirely different.
"I think football is football," Graham said. "I think there are going to be some different schemes, and things like that; two very new systems coming into the league. I think they're very different. Both of them have been very successful, and both of them are very difficult to defend. Where they're really, really similar is the emphasis on tempo, and just how that changes the game. The key to tempo is efficiency, and not making mistakes, and not turning the ball over. I think we're very similar in that regard. As far as the plays, and those type of things, we are very different."
Graham also touched on recruiting. Pitt has one commit so far, that coming from Sto-Rox receiver Marzett Geter. Among all Big East schools, Pitt has the fewest commits at this time. Graham says there's no need to panic. He feels good about the direction his first full year of recruiting is going.
"Things are going well," Graham said. "Right now what we're doing is developing relationships. We're in the process of recruiting the best and the brightest. We got a lot of confidence in where we're at. It's still very early for us. We'll be well on our way by the start of the football season. I have a lot of confidence in that. I'm very thoughtful in how we go about that. It's not just about looking at a film and offering a scholarship. A lot of research goes in to making sure. The worst thing you can do is bring someone here that doesn't fit.
"I have a lot of confidence on that. Our coaches do a great job. We've had great turnouts at our camps. I love recruiting. I love getting to meet a lot of quality young people that I've had an opportunity to meet that have been on our campus and in my office. I'm looking forward to the future."
Another area Graham touched on was the offseason conditioning routine. Though he doesn't get as much of a chance to spend time with the players as strength coach Shawn Griswold does, he said he's pretty pleased in what he has seen of the players' development.
"I think the key is continue the mental preparation of what we've got to be able to accomplish," Graham said. "People think that it's all about the physical development throughout the summer. We'll get there, from a physical standpoint. I have no doubt. We have the best strength coach in the country that will prepare us mentally every day straining and training them."
One area that could be interesting for the rest of the Big East, is the influx of new coaches in the conference as a whole. Of the eight football teams, only Greg Schiano of Rutgers and Doug Marrone of Syracuse has been at his respective school longer than two years. In addition to Pitt and West Virginia, UConn has a new coach in Paul Pasqualoni. Louisville, South Florida and Cincinnati all have second-year coaches. A lot of new philosophies will give the conference a new look in that sense.
"How much anyone's preparing for any specific offense, I don't know a whole lot that is going on," Graham said. "(The Big East) will be different, I think. I think it's going to be challenging, even for us. We're coming in and learning new opponents as well. We have a new staff at UConn. You got a new offensive system at West Virginia. It's going to be different, and we're looking forward to it."
The program will get a boost over the weekend, as all the incoming freshmen will be on campus to begin classes. They will also be implemented into the program. Graham said it's possible for any of them to contribute as early as this year.
"We're excited about those guys," Graham said. "I think they're coming in here around the 19th or the 20th. I feel really good about that group of guys, and what they bring. They're a very talented group. It's very important that we come in and establish the standards, the direction of where we want them to go. I'm looking forward to great things from those guys.
"If you got character and discipline, and think that you're tough, you work hard, there's a place for you. I think we've seen that. We've got a bunch of quality personnel here. We got some really, really talented guys coming in. The key is blending that and making sure that we're focused on character, discipline and integrity. If we're bringing out the best in that, then I think we're going to have a great season."