When I first arrived at Pitt in August of 2012, I knew a handful of truths about the school’s athletic programs.
The football program was in perpetual turmoil. People didn’t seem to like this Todd Graham guy. A good running back in Ray Graham coming off an injury. A new, quiet head coach from Wisconsin. Nobody seemed particularly excited.
Men’s basketball was the polar opposite. Despite coming off the worst season of his tenure at Pitt, the Panthers had Jamie Dixon, one of the best coaches in the nation. They had a mysterious giant from New Zealand coming in, a short-haired, clean-shaven Kiwi named Steven. The best recruit Dixon had ever landed! No CBI this year!
Early returns confirmed early biases. The first Pitt game I ever attended was the football opener against Youngstown State. Rain and lightning delayed the start, but Pitt probably wished it had delayed the game in whole. The Panthers lost to the Division I-AA Penguins, an embarrassment of epic proportions that imprinted the first lesson every member of the first-year class had to learn: a Pitt victory in football is never a sure bet.
The basketball team was different. The Panthers were supposed to win every game they played. That was Pitt basketball under Jamie Dixon. An elite program with an elite fan base and an elite coach. And the 2012-2013 team was good. I camped out in the Petersen Events Center lobby, staying awake all night to watch Michael Carter-Williams sputter as fans taunted him for a shoplifting incident and an unranked Pitt team upended the No. 6 Syracuse Orange.
The Panthers lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament that year, but the notion seemed certain. Pitt was a basketball school. Jamie Dixon would be here forever. The football program might even go 6-6 forever.
I started writing for The Pitt News after that basketball season, starting as the women’s tennis beat writer. Covering sports for a college paper is always tricky because, as a student, you inherently enter the job as a fan of the team you’re covering.
But as I moved up the ladder from women’s tennis to volleyball to baseball to women’s basketball to editor, I tried to shed biases, and in doing so tried to look at the program from the press box rather than the bleachers.
Slowly but surely, I saw the change sprouting up. The move to the ACC was the catalyst. The new conference made it harder for the Pitt basketball team to succeed and easier for the football team to do so.
Football coach Paul Chryst left, and in his place came an energetic, promising first-time head coach in Pat Narduzzi. The Youngstown, Ohio, native, unlike many of his predecessors, was the first domino of a reversal in the program that began to manifest in 2014.
In his first season, Narduzzi moved the program forward, going 8-4 after three straight 6-6 seasons. He appeared on ESPN broadcasts and national podcasts. He sat next to his star running back James Conner as the player announced that he was diagnosed with cancer.
While Narduzzi’s star grew brighter, Dixon and the basketball program’s faded. After missing the tournament prior to the football coach’s first season, he barely eked into the tournament the next season and fell in the first round in a disheartening loss to Wisconsin. It was his last loss as a Pitt coach, as he bolted to TCU.
Pitt replaced him with Kevin Stallings, a vanilla hire that angered Pitt fans and, in retrospect, completed the flip. Pitt is a football school now, and Narduzzi is the face.
It’s cliche, but it’s wild just how much can change in such a short span. I saw the same happen with me working at The Pitt News these past four years.
I met some of my best friends. Passive voice was finally eliminated from my writing — damn it. As a result of trying to drive half of my new friends crazy, I developed a warped, twisted affinity for the bands Nickelback and Creed. I met talented writers, athletic department members, thoughtful and inspirational athletes. Pulling all-nighters became easy.
The work also forced me to develop and embarrassingly encyclopedic knowledge of pretty irrelevant teams. I can rattle off the leading scorers of random Pitt ACC contests, or recall the name of the Iowa kicker who hit the 58-yard field goal to beat the Panthers for Narduzzi’s first loss — it was Marshall Koehnen. When watching a game at home I’m painfully aware of when a player is nearing a career high or milestone. I’ve filled my mind with so much knowledge that would be useless to someone not embarking on a career in sports writing.
It wasn’t always pretty. As an editor, I yelled the words “I quit” quite frequently. Being stuck in the William Pitt Union until 1 a.m. three to four times a week frequently drove me stir crazy.
Still, The Pitt News afforded me the ability to cover nationally televised events, travel to conference tournaments, interview legends like Dan Marino and Tony Dorsett and reach a group of passionate, and only sometimes mean-spirited, fans. I grew as a writer, and while I am still a quivering ball of awkwardness outside the office, I’m more confident as an interviewer and a reporter, and it’s thanks to The Pitt News.
I’m going to miss hopping on the William Pitt Union elevator, hitting the fourth floor button and Nickelbombing the production room with a full-volume Spotify play of “How You Remind Me.” I’ll sure as hell miss having a Taco Bell in the basement of my workplace, although my intestines probably won’t.
With my college paper tenure coming to an end, and every memory looking out the back door, it’s hard to say it, but it’s time to say it.