Hometown Heroes wanted: Pitt coming up short with local recruits


McKenna Ewen/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT

Former Houston Texans quarterback Matt Leinart (11) hands the ball to tight end Dorin Dickerson (19) in the second quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at Mall of America Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Sept. 1, 2011.

By Ben Bobeck, Staff Writer

Before he played in the NFL with, among others, the Houston Texans, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots, tight end Dorin Dickerson had an All-American career at Pitt. And before that, he played for West Allegheny High School where he was a U.S. Army All-American, the AP PA Player of the Year and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Player of the Year.

Dickerson, currently a free agent, is just one of many players head coach Pat Narduzzi has singled out on Twitter over the past few months with the hashtag #WPIALWednesday in tweets meant to highlight the expansive history of local legends suiting up for their hometown Panthers. But these oft-weekly shoutouts have another purpose — to remind local recruits and fans that the University of Pittsburgh should be the destination for Western Pennsylvania players that yearn to be a true “Hometown Hero.”

The WPIAL, or Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League, has long been a pipeline not just for Pitt, but for some of the most prominent football and basketball programs across the country.

And Narduzzi has quite a list of former Panthers to choose from on his #WPIALWednesdays, between local icons like Dickerson and retired quarterback Tyler Palko, current NFL players Adam Bisnowaty and Dorian Johnson or legends such as Darrelle Revis, Dan Marino, Bill Fralic, Aaron Donald and James Conner.

Given the notable level of talent and long history of success from players that come from the WPIAL, it’s no surprise Narduzzi and his basketball counterpart Jeff Capel would seek to target and sign local recruits in order to keep local talent local. So why isn’t it working?

In football, Pitt has struggled to attract the WPIAL’s top talent in recent years, even with steady pickups such as junior DB Paris Ford from Steel Valley High School and new addition for 2019-20 WR Will Gipson from Aliquippa. The Panthers have found themselves heavily outmatched by the big names of Penn State, Notre Dame and West Virginia in their effort to lure the cream of the crop of local talent. The Fighting Irish landed the top two recruits in the WPIAL the last two years in Pine-Richland’s Phil Jurkovic and Andrew Kristofic, while the Nittany Lions and Mountaineers have combined to secure at least three of the top five western Pennsylvania prospects in each of the last two years.

On the basketball side, where the talent is less plentiful, the struggle has been similar. 2020 Butler Area PG Ethan Morton announced his commitment to Purdue May 9. Morton, rated as a four star recruit and the number one 2020 prospect in Pennsylvania by 247 Composite, had been a priority target for Capel and Pitt since the coach’s tenure began. Yet the highly touted recruiter could not convince the highest-ranked local prospect to ignore the draw of Big Ten athletics and stay home to play for Pitt — the school Morton grew up supporting.

Another 2020 WPIAL basketball prospect comes with a name familiar to Pitt fans. Moon Small Forward Donovan Johnson, brother of former Panther standout-turned-transfer Cam Johnson, has also appeared on Capel’s radar as a potential addition for Pitt — possibly even for the 2019 class, as questions about Johnson’s eligibility to play for his high school next year have led some to suggest he might graduate this year.

But Pitt will have to fend off quite the array of suitors for Donovan’s talents, including names such as Arizona, Maryland, Ohio State, Notre Dame, TCU, Georgetown, Virginia and UNC, the school his brother transferred to in 2017. But like Butler, Pitt has a chance to enter the race for his services with an inside track. In an interview with Rivals, Johnson discussed growing up as a Pitt fan.

“I [grew] up going to the games, and when I was young, it was always my dream to play there one day,” the 6-foot-7 SF said.

Still, Narduzzi and the football program have faced increasing criticism for their approach to recruiting, especially from within the WPIAL. One specific incident came after Narduzzi tweeted a graphic on Signing Day on Feb. 6 highlighting the complete recruiting class roughly 30 minutes before four-star Aliquippa CB and Pitt target M.J. Devonshire announced his commitment to Kentucky. To many outside the program, it seemed as though Narduzzi learned Devonshire had chose the Wildcats over the Panthers and didn’t wait for the player to personally announce that decision before showing off Pitt’s Devonshire-less class.

Another tweet graphic that seemingly had a negative impact on Pitt’s pursuit of a local prospect came more recently. Narduzzi and Pitt’s creative team put together a graphic earlier this month highlighting local players who held Pitt offers, telling them to “Defend Your City.” But the graphic didn’t include everyone that fell under that criteria, namely Central Catholic’s A.J. Beatty, a 2020 three-star defensive end/tight end ranked as one of the top defensive ends in his class.

Beatty made his feelings about the snub clear, quote-tweeting the original graphic with a caption of “Oh aight..” Eight days later, Beatty announced his seven finalist schools, saying, “Blessed and grateful to all the schools that believed in me.” Pitt didn’t make the list.

Narduzzi has continued his heavy push for WPIAL talent across social media, with the aforementioned #WPIALWednesday, as well as occasionally tweeting out messages of support for the still potentially Pitt-bound prospects and sharing messages across various platforms. It’s clear Narduzzi has realized the wealth of talent around Pitt has still not been tapped to its fullest potential. But is this new social media blitz strategy going to be enough?

In the end, whether on the gridiron or the hardwood, Pitt still has yet to produce the results it needs to pair with its recruiting pitches in order to establish itself as a top destination for local talent in both sports. The recently extended Narduzzi still has not won a bowl game, and Capel, despite providing the basketball team with the breath of fresh air it so desperately needed, has struggled to rebuild the talent level of the program in his one season at the helm.

As evidenced by Morton’s decision, even local players that grew up cheering for the Panthers rather than one of their prominent local rivals still don’t see Pitt as a destination worthy of their talent. No amount of tweeting will change this. At this point, only sustained positive results from both major programs can make Pitt the destination for local talent its coaches, recruiters, alumni and fans so desperately want it to be.