Change of face: Chryst looks to bring stability to Pittsburgh program riddled with constant coaching transitions
Ordinary routine turned into absolute chaos for Pittsburgh linebacker Max Gruder. The senior awoke from an afternoon nap last December to a shocking email.
The 65-word message from Panthers head coach Todd Graham — sent through assistant athletic director of football operations Blair Philbrick — informed Gruder and his teammates that he had accepted the head coaching position at Arizona State.
Graham told the team just days earlier he wouldn’t resign, but was already en route to Tempe, Ariz., when the email was sent.
“It was surreal,” Gruder said. “We went from having a coach, playing in a bowl game and then waking up from a nap having no coach.”
Graham’s departure was the latest shocker for a program struggling to find stability. Dave Wannstedt led the Panthers for six years, compiling a 42-31 record before being forced to resign following a 7-5 season in 2010.
Pittsburgh hired Miami (Ohio) head coach Mike Haywood to replace him. But he was fired just 17 days into his tenure after being arrested and charged with domestic violence. That’s when the Panthers brought in Graham to lead the program after a successful run at Tulsa.
But after one season, Graham decided to bolt for a fresh start with Arizona State. The Panthers posted a mediocre 6-6 record and struggled to implement his trademark run-and-gun offense. His email abruptly ended his time at Pitt, leaving interim coach Keith Patterson at the helm for the Panthers matchup with Southern Methodist in the BBVA Compass Bowl on Jan. 7.
Two weeks earlier, on Dec. 22, 2011, Pitt hired Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst as its third head coach in a year. Chryst has brought a welcomed change in the program after a tumultuous few years.
“Just the carousel of coaches was just really hard,” said former linebacker Chas Alecxih, who played at Pitt from 2007-11. “Like with Haywood, he slaps his girlfriend and gets fired. Freakin’ Todd Graham, he up and leaves. It was not how I would have liked my senior year to go.”
Chryst hasn’t shied away from the team’s past.
“There are a lot of things that happened before,” Chryst said during the Big East coaches’ teleconference Monday. “You’ve got to be aware of it as a coach, but all you can do is focus on now and where we’re at. I think stability is, by nature, something that can be brought over the course of time.
“We’re trying to do all we can, taking steps to get there, but I think not until you do is it stable.”
But recent history shows that nothing is certain. The memory of Graham still looms.
“Just the carousel of coaches was just really hard. Like with Haywood, he slaps his girlfriend and gets fired. Freakin’ Todd Graham, he up and leaves. It was not how I would have liked my senior year to go.”
Chas Alecxih, former Pittsburgh linebacker
Gruder read the email and immediately called Alecxih, who was writing a paper for finals week in the Petersen Event Center. Gruder described his teammate’s reaction as “berserk.”
Alecxih remembers the moment clearly. He had weightlifting in the morning and then went to the computer lab. At around 12:30 p.m. he received a phone call from Gruder, who told him to check his email. Alecxih stopped writing and ran into an adjoining room in the Petersen Center to tell his teammates.
“It was all like, ‘No! There’s no way this could happen again,’” Alecxih said. “It was more of just shock. It was also like, I don’t want to say funny, but like, wow. Screw us, right?”
A year later, Graham is on the other side of the country starting another job with the Sun Devils.
Graham said Arizona State was a “dream situation” and where he and his wife wanted to retire. He made similar statements when taking the Pitt job, and also when he was hired at Rice and Tulsa. For the betrayed Panthers players and fans, Graham’s departure remains a sour topic.
“He packed up his stuff and left and hasn’t talked to one person in any form since,” Gruder said. “He’s in Arizona State and I hope he stays there.”
At Arizona State, Graham speaks with excitement about the team’s potential. He’s implemented his signature spread offense and led the Sun Devils to a 4-1 start, in which they’ve outscored opponents 192-64.
“It’s been fast and furious,” Graham said during the Pac-12 coaches’ teleconference on Sept. 25. “It’s been a blessing for me to be able to work for such great people here at ASU and to work with these young men. It’s been a lot of work, pretty much around the clock, but it’s all been very worthwhile to be at a place I love.”
It’s a similar message that current Pittsburgh players heard from Graham just a season ago. Panthers wide receiver Devin Street called Graham’s energetic approach “fake” on Twitter after Graham left for ASU.
Street went on to say Graham was “a quitter, soft, liar, hypocrite” in a later tweet. He curtailed those comments two weeks ago when asked about Graham’s departure.
“I know it is a business and its part of it,” Street said. “You just have to move on and not dwell on it too much and just go out there and play football.”
Senior receiver Mike Shanahan has put the turmoil in the past, saying he is excited about what lies ahead.
“I think we have a really good thing going with coach Chryst,” Shanahan said. “All the assistant coaches are great people. He’s establishing a culture around here that’s been different in the past.”
Street said it feels great to move on from the uncertainty and to start anew.
“I think everything happens for a reason,” he said. “I think we have a great coaching staff here, a great program. I just think we’re in a good place right now.”
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