Sports editor Trent Leonard revisits predictive hits and misses

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

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After three years at The Pitt News — one as a sports writer, two as sports editor — my tenure has come to an end.

Working here brought me into contact with incredible friends and allowed me to share the inspirational, tragic and downright kooky stories of others.

I covered a Pitt basketball team that didn’t win an ACC game, and a Pitt volleyball team that didn’t lose one. I wrote about sports ranging from soccer, swimming and sailing to gymnastics, wrestling and Muay Thai. Aside from serious reporting, there was the silly stuff, like looking at Brad Pitt’s best sports roles or lamenting when Pitt athletics changed the layout of its website. 

The great thing about sports media is that, like the medium it covers, you come to accumulate a number of wins and losses over time. Some days you have it, nailing a bold prediction or beating other outlets to a fresh angle. Others, you don’t.

Overall, I’d like to think my career here was full of “wins” — diverse coverage, quality reporting, witty writing and factually sound analyses.

But after looking back over the roughly 200-some articles I wrote over the past three years, it occurred to me that I took some losses along the way. These rare missteps came in the form of predictions gone wrong and analyses rendered useless by circumstances unforeseen at the time.

And so, for your reading pleasure, I’m revisiting the best and worst of my past takes that we can now look back on and judge with 20/20 hindsight.

The misses

I was the primary beat writer for Pitt men’s basketball during its infamous 2017-2018 season in which the team went 8-24 overall and 0-18 in the ACC. Once the conference schedule began, each game recap was just a slight variation on a common theme — “the Panthers lost, the Panthers got killed, the Panthers almost won … but lost.”

I felt for that team. I even — dare I say it — felt bad for oft-maligned head coach Kevin Stallings, who was booed mercilessly by the team’s own fans each game. I believed that some of the reasons for the Panthers’ lack of success were outside his control — like star center Ryan Luther suffering a season-ending injury in the 10th game — and that he simply needed another season or two to implement his own guys in his own system before people could pass judgment. 

On Jan. 23, 2018, with Pitt seven games into its ACC losing streak, I wrote a point-counterpart article with fellow staff writer Colin Martin. He took the widely espoused view that Stallings should be canned while I, feeling the need to play devil’s advocate and defend Stallings’ near-nonexistent honor, said that Pitt should keep him around.

“… with one-and-a-half poor seasons to show in his time at Pitt, people are calling for Stallings to lose his job — which is absolutely ridiculous,” I wrote.

Let’s just be thankful that Pitt Athletic Director Heather Lyke didn’t stumble upon my article and succumb to my words of persuasion.

Stallings was rightfully fired at season’s end after going a combined 4-32 in the ACC during his two seasons at Pitt. It was a message from Lyke that failure would no longer be tolerated. It was the right move at the time, and looked even better when the Panthers landed long-time Duke assistant Jeff Capel as his successor.

Capel has put the Panthers on an upward path back to relevancy in his first two seasons at the helm, leaving no one — myself included — pining for the days when Stallings was still yelling at opposing fans and carrying out elaborate schemes to avoid NCAA sanctions.

Shortly after Stallings was relieved of his coaching duties, I talked with a few of Pitt’s first-year players about how they dealt with the adversity and what they had planned for the future. My article naively painted a picture where Pitt’s top producers would stick around despite the departure of the man who recruited them and transition seamlessly into the next head coach’s system.

“We know the talent level that each of us has, and the possibilities that lay ahead of us in the future,” point guard Marcus Carr said.

“We know our team is young, but we’ve seen the future, what we can have here at Pitt if we all stick together,” his backcourt mate Parker Stewart told me.

The piece did not age well.

Just four days later on March 16, seven players requested their releases from the program, including Carr and Stewart. They transferred to Minnesota and UT Martin, respectively, rendering my article on their future at Pitt completely meaningless.

The next season, Capel’s Panthers looked much improved through their first 17 games. Led by quickly ascending guards Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens, they were 12-5 overall and 2-2 in the ACC. Fresh off an upset win over No. 11 Florida State, I wrote about how Pitt’s rebuild was ahead of schedule and how the team looked primed to finish the season around .500 in conference play.

“It’s still early, but there’s reason to believe that Pitt’s success is no fluke, and that the team should be competitive throughout the season,” I wrote.

Pitt’s success turned out to be just that — a fluke. And the Panthers were far from competitive throughout the rest of the season, finishing on a 2-14 skid. Opponents figured out how to neutralize their backcourt duo, especially McGowens, which was unfathomable at a time when he was averaging 21.8 points per game in ACC play.

Oh, and this past season, I publicly pleaded for Capel to start using center Terrell Brown as a stretch five. I laid out how big men who can spread the floor are invaluable in the modern basketball landscape, and how Brown was better suited for a role outside the arc — where he’s shown surprising touch in limited attempts — than in the paint, where he was largely ineffective. It was all highly scientific and very reasonable, and I stand by it, dammit!

But apparently Capel, like Lyke, doesn’t read The Pitt News, because he did not take my advice. Brown continued to be used like a traditional big man despite weak production around the hoop and on the boards. He didn’t take a single 3-pointer in any of Pitt’s remaining 11 games, so I guess I’ll count my call for him to undergo a late-season role change into a sharpshooter as a “miss.”

My predictive misses weren’t just limited to Pitt basketball. One point I made at the beginning of Pitt football’s 2018 season now looks particularly foolish.

The Panthers started out the season in impressive fashion, beating Albany 33-7 in their home opener. Granted, the blowout victory came against a weak FCS opponent, but I was encouraged by the schematic creativity I saw from offensive coordinator Shawn Watson. He unveiled a balanced West-Coast style that saw seven different Panthers record at least two carries and allowed quarterback Kenny Pickett to go an efficient 16 of 22 for 154 yards and two passing touchdowns.

So, I wrote a piece about how I thought Watson’s system would succeed and allow Pickett to flourish as a passer even when the Panthers played stiffer competition.

“If Saturday’s game was any indication of what we can expect to see from the offense, then Pitt could be in line to return to its 2016 form, when the Panthers averaged an ACC-second-best 40.9 points per game,” I wrote.

Well, that certainly didn’t happen. Despite a stellar rushing attack, Pitt was often hindered by its inability to throw the ball, which seemed to stem from Watson’s lack of creativity in the passing game. The Panthers ranked 123rd out of 130 FBS teams with an average of 139.7 passing yards per game, and couldn’t seem to score unless future NFL backs Quadree Ollison or Darrin Hall ripped off a breakaway run. Watson was fired after the season in favor of the more passer-friendly Mark Whipple.

Photo Courtesy of Trent Leonard

The hits

We used to run a staff column called Weekly Pick ‘em in which members of the sports desk would make score predictions for different games in the upcoming week. On Oct. 26, 2018, we ran an edition looking ahead at the weekend’s best NFL games.

“Our TPN staff is here to give our patented predictions, guaranteed to be correct 100 percent of the time,” I sarcastically wrote in the lead paragraph.

That sentence turned out more prophetic than sarcastic when I nailed the exact score of the Steelers-Browns game, 33-18. A beastly performance from former Panther James Conner helped Pittsburgh run up the score, and a botched two-point conversion after Cleveland’s last touchdown preserved my projected result.

This past Pitt football season, I predicted that the Panthers would finally end their tortuous losing streak to North Carolina and beat the Tar Heels at Heinz Field in a down-to-the-wire, entertaining matchup. I said that Pitt would sack opposing quarterback Sam Howell at least five times, though he’d complete a pair of long touchdown passes. I also said that Pitt would commit its usual allotment of penalties and a trademark special teams screwup (which, granted, didn’t take a crystal ball to foresee considering that had become par for the course).

The Panthers sacked Howell exactly five times, while he completed two deep touchdown passes of 34 and 21 yards. Pitt committed double-digit penalties, and kicker Alex Kessman missed a 26-yard field goal. Had UNC kicker Noah Ruggles missed his 32-yard field goal attempt at the end of regulation, the score, 27-24, would have just off my guess, 26-23.

By any measure, it was a spectacle of a game, ending with Pitt finally breaking its Carolina curse in overtime, 34-27.

The season before, I laid out the case for Pitt to become ACC Coastal champions with four games remaining in the regular season. With a 3-1 conference record to that point, I projected the most likely scenario for them to finish 6-2, the ideal finishing point for previous division champs.

“Ideally, the Panthers would knock off the two one-loss teams right above them in the standings — Virginia and Virginia Tech — over the next two games, thus dealing each two losses and securing the tiebreaker over both. Then, after beating Wake Forest — a safe assumption — the Panthers could lose to Miami in the season finale, assuming Miami suffers one more lethal ACC loss in the three games between now and then, likely at Virginia Tech — and still come out as Coastal champs,” I wrote.

That’s … almost exactly how it turned out. Pitt did secure those crucial wins over Virginia and Virginia Tech before cruising to victory over Wake Forest to clinch the Coastal title for the first time since joining the ACC in 2013. The only part that didn’t unfold as planned was Miami actually walloping Virginia Tech, 38-14, but losing both its other games to middling Georgia Tech and Duke opponents, though the Hurricanes did beat Pitt in the season finale.

One prediction I made stands out as being simultaneously correct and very wrong. Three months before the start of Pitt football’s past season, I gave a brief breakdown of each matchup and whether I thought the Panthers would win or lose. I guessed that they would win seven games and lose five in the regular season, which did happen.

As for the specific game results, however, I often missed the mark. The first four games were especially a mess — I said Pitt would beat Penn State and Virginia but lose to UCF and suffer an upset at the hands of Ohio. The complete opposite happened, with Pitt taking care of Ohio and upsetting UCF but falling to Virginia and Penn State. Aside from that 0-4 starting stretch, I was 6-2 in my other picks, but I’m not sure that was enough to make up for the early lack of foresight.

But anyways, that’s the beauty of this business. You can make a career off staying ahead of the curve, noticing sports trends before competitors and providing readers with thoughtful and accurate insights. Or, you can generate buzz by playing the role of heel and consistently making bold, controversial and often incorrect predictions (looking at you, Skip Bayless).

As for me, I’m ready to start a new slate of spot-on analyses and botched predictions for another newspaper’s sports section — just as soon as there are any sports to cover again.