If you ask many Penn State fans, Pat Narduzzi’s days at Pitt are fleeting. He was one of the hottest assistants in the country when the Panthers hired him away from his defensive coordinator job at Michigan State to replace the departed Paul Chryst in late 2014. Even modest success as a head coaching, the thinking goes, will put him on the fast track to landing a gig with a more well-heeled program — a path similar to the one taken by his predecessors, Chryst and Todd Graham.
If you ask many Pitt fans, James Franklin won’t be with the Nittany Lions for long either. After two underwhelming seasons, they feel he is on the hot seat – not equipped to coach his way off it this season or next, especially in a Big Ten East headlined by Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio.
It would be a bummer, though, for the Pitt-Penn State rivalry to lose either coach before the end of the four-year series that begins Saturday in Pittsburgh, because they’re perfect villains for a new era of hostility between these neighboring schools.
I mean, geez. The ink wasn’t even dry on James Franklin’s Penn State contract when he uttered some fightin’ words:
“Our recruiting philosophy: we are going to dominate the state. We are going to dominate the state. I’m calling all the high school coaches, I’m calling all the people in the state that we need to come together like never before. And I think with everybody pulling the rope in the same direction, there’s no reason why we can’t take this program where everybody wants it to be.”
People really only remember the “dominate the state” part, and for good reason. It’s short enough to become an instant motto and go straight onto T-shirts in shops on College Avenue. But the second comment is frankly the one more dismissive of the Panthers. Calling “all the people in the state” to “pull the rope in the same direction” to take the program where “everybody” wants it to be? He might as well have looked in the camera and said “drop dead.”
How could you not hate that guy, if you’re watching back in Oakland?
And it’s not as if he stopped there either.
In September of his first season, he called into Pitt’s radio network flagship unannounced as “James from State College” and hijacked the morning show, turning it into a Penn State sales pitch for about 10 minutes. This ruffled a lot of feathers.
He famously allowed offensive line coach Herb Hand to engage in a Twitter war with Pitt assistant John Peterson that included this dis:
Win bowl game✔️
Better record vs common opponents✔️
More seats full on game days✔️
Higher academic ranking (US News&W/R)✔️
— Herb Hand (@CoachHand) January 22, 2015
He will not commit to the future of the rivalry after 2019, when this four-game series is scheduled to end.
Narduzzi has been putting in a lot of work making himself nice and hateable, too. In a press conference last October, he appeared to throw some indiscreet shade at the Penn State quarterback situation. Via the Post-Gazette’s Sam Werner:
“You could have a talented quarterback with a bad play caller and make him look bad. You see that around the country, some closer than others.”
Everyone knew he was implying that Nittany Lions offensive coordinator John Donovan had been wasting Christian Hackenberg’s talents. And that one really got under Penn Staters’ skin because he ended up being right about the situation. Hackenberg was taken in the second round of the NFL draft while Donovan was canned shortly after Penn State’s regular season ended last November.
Then in February, with both Pitt and Penn State among the finalists for the services of four-star rated defensive back prospect Damar Hamlin out of Pittsburgh Central Catholic, Narduzzi gathered a bunch of folks in a conference room for the announcement. When Hamlin picked the Panthers, Narduzzi and Co. went all the way over the top.
— Pat Narduzzi (@CoachDuzzPittFB) February 2, 2016
Was it a ridiculous stunt for the commitment of a good-not-great prospect? Absolutely, especially considering Penn State had, to that point, won the vast majority of recent head-to-head recruiting battles. But it was a very effective salt-rubbing visual. Penn State and Franklin got killed on local social media all night, especially after news followed shortly thereafter that Aaron Mathews, another Western Pennsylvania recruit out of Clairton, was flipping his commitment from the Nittany Lions to the Panthers’ so-called #412Crew.
And let’s not forget Franklin’s accusations of negative recruiting from this summer in which he pointed to other Big Ten foes “as well as others” for using the Jerry Sandusky scandal against Penn State. He may or may not have meant Pitt, but given Narduzzi’s Michigan State ties and his close proximity to Happy Valley in his new gig, it’s reasonable to speculate that Franklin was referencing him.
These are pretty extensive rap sheets for guys who haven’t coached a game against each other yet, and that’s great for the rivalry business.
So often in college sports today, coaches go out of their way to avoid giving other programs bulletin-board material and keep their public comments about rivalries squarely in banal territory. But not these guys. They’re not afraid to trade a barb or two, evoking Joe Paterno’s comment years ago that he didn’t want to retire and leave college football to the “Barry Switzers and Jackie Sherrills of the world,” referring to the Pitt coach (Sherrill) who went 2-3 against Penn State at the height of the rivalry in the late 1970s and early ‘80s.
One guy going to another program or the other getting sacked would throw a wrench in all of that good, clean hate. So if you’re a Pitt or Penn State fan, root like heck for your team Saturday at Heinz Field. Enjoy every last drop of the losing coach’s humiliation and savor it for the rest of your life, if you wish.
But maybe think twice before wishing for it to end before 2019, because this give-and-take is fun.