Day One of preparations for the BBVA Compass Bowl is in the books for Pitt. The topic of discussion on day one? None other than former head coach Todd Graham.
Part of that is based on the fact that is the first official public setting where either players and coaches had the opportunity to chime in. Senior linebacker Max Gruder has been a very good speaker his whole career, rarely criticizes and is always careful with his words. Gruder didn't mince words when talking about his former head coach.
"I was pretty mad, honestly," Gruder said. "I'm not going to go on a Chas (Alecxih-type) tirade. I feel like as low as that was, it gives me a little bit of freedom to talk about him. It was one of the lowest things I've seen a head coach do. Especially him promising us four days before (he was hired at Arizona State), that he was staying for five years. That was a pretty despicable thing in my opinion."
Has Gruder ever seen anything like this, or can he compare it to another situation?
"Never, ever," Gruder said. "I think it was worse than the (Michael) Haywood incident. It was worse than than everything. It was pretty terrible how he left, how he did it. It was pretty pathetic, in my mind."
At the same time, there's an energy around the players about winning this one for Patterson. It's two-fold. In talked to Gruder, there's a high level of respect for Patterson. It might be easier for a player like Gruder since he's on defense, and since Patterson is his position coach. But, the numbers also back it up. The defense improved each game, and a lot of it was Patterson's approach to putting players in the right position to succeed most. Patterson also has a knack for rolling out different defensive lineups based on the matchup. The goal all along was to produce turnovers, something the Panthers did mightily in the regular season finale against Syracuse to get them to this bowl game. The six turnovers forced in that game were the most for the Panthers in one game in nine years.
Additionally, over the final six games, Pitt held opponents to just 14-of-64 (21.8%) on third down. Over the final seven games, Pitt has yielded just 310.5 yards a game. The defense gave up 271 yards to Rutgers, 251 to Utah, 316 to Connecticut, 366 to Cincinnati (nearly 70 yards below the Bearcats' average), 280 to Louisville, 357 to West Virginia (122 yards below WVU's average) and 333 to Syracuse. In its first five games, Pitt yielded an average of 414.4 yards a game.
Gruder also sees it as an opportunity for Patterson to audition for a chance to even stay on at Pitt under Paul Chryst, or audition for a job elsewhere. There's also subject of whether Patterson or another assistant would walk out on the team this week, in order to take another job at this late stage of coaching staffs being filled all over the country. The players—after all the coaching scenarios they've seen over the last year—have every reason to be skeptical. Yet, they believe in Patterson.
"I think they're going to have an opportunity, definitely," Gruder said. "They haven't at all hinted what's going to happen to him. They're not going to try to avoid (the subject). For now, (the staff) is here. That's all you can ask from them; just to finish the season. I'm sure we're not worried what they're going to do, and I'm sure (Patterson) is not worried.
"Coach Patterson, above all—and there have been some pretty crappy things that went down—I think Coach Patterson has been the most genuine of all of them. For some reason, I don't really know why, but we all believe him. There's been a lot of lies going around. Coach Patterson, everything he says, everyone believes in him. That's something good and something you want to win for; help him out, help us out."
For Patterson, the word shock from his perspective comes to mind. Even though he should be enjoying his first test as a head coach, he says the whole situation of being without a job, or at least uncertainty for the next season, has weighed heavily on his mind.
"It took me awhile to sort through it all," Patterson said. "It was unexpected. Recruiting was going very well. It's still going very well. It caught everyone off guard. I was still reeling from the shock of my father's death. I still think it was a little shock in dealing with that. You come back, you get right back in the middle of recruiting, then boom. It's been a challenge."
Nevertheless, Patterson said he's tried to keep things positive. Judging from Gruder's comments, and the general mood of the team in its first day in Birmingham, there's a trust and a belief in Patterson.
"I've really tried to focus on each individual," Patterson said. "That's really all you can control. The kids have really responded. All the positives—the GPAs. The kids have done everything we've asked them to do. The kids have really responded. They got an energy about themselves."
Quarterback Tino Sunseri might have the most reason to criticize Graham for his departure after Graham threw him under the bus in his postgame comments after the West Virginia loss.
"It is puzzling, I don't understand it," Graham said after the loss. "It was disappointing because it was obviously not what we were trying to execute. You can't take sacks, we sat there and took one right after another."
Was Sunseri disappointed in the way Graham left Pitt?
"No," Sunseri answered. "I think any situation you can look at as a glass half-empty or half-full. I was looking at it half-full. I look at it as he challenged me every day, make sure of the formations of people and be able to take it in and learn from it. I learned a lot from it through this whole year; to keep on battling, keep on fighting for your whole team. I have no feelings on him staying or leaving. Whenever you come to a school, you come because you love the school and you love the players around you, and you want to keep on competing for that school.
"That's how my mindset is; that I'm going to go out there and compete as hard as I can to win this bowl game and be one of two quarterbacks who have won two bowl games here; 19 completions away from breaking the single-season completion record here. We still have a lot to play for; three straight bowl wins. We're excited about that, we're excited about going out and representing the University of Pittsburgh. We have a lot of alums everywhere, and we just want to be able to represent them."
Sunseri did comment on new head coach Paul Chryst, saying that he met the new head coach the day he was introduced on December 22.
"I got to speak to Coach Chryst when he came in," Sunseri added. "I was coming in to get my cleats and my ball to be able to throw over the break. He happened to be there, and I happened to talk to him for a little bit. He's one of those guys that's a west coast guy, with a pro-style mindset. He's done some great things at Wisconsin. He did some great things in the (Rose) bowl game. You were able to see that in the game, and the playaction off of it. He's been able to put up a lot of points and win a lot of games. A lot of people are excited."
The Panthers return to the practice field today in Birmingham with an 11 am practice.