PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pat Narduzzi spent eight years transforming Michigan State’s defense into one of the most intimidating in the country.
Pittsburgh is hoping he can do the same with the Panthers as they try to find their niche in the new-look ACC.
A person familiar with the decision told the Associated Press on Wednesday that Narduzzi has reached an agreement with Pitt to replace Paul Chryst, who left last week to take the same job at Wisconsin. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the school had not yet made an announcement. A press conference is scheduled for Friday.
The 48-year-old Narduzzi has spent the last eight seasons building the Spartans into one of the nation’s top defenses. He won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant in 2013 when Michigan State finished in the top 10 nationally in every major statistical defensive category on its way to a 13-1 record.
The hiring is a homecoming of sorts for Narduzzi. He grew up in Youngtown, Ohio — about an hour north of Pittsburgh — while his father Bill coached the Penguins from 1975-85 and spent one season with the program as a freshman linebacker before transferring to Rhode Island. He went into coaching immediately after graduating in 1990, with stops at Miami (Ohio), Rhode Island, Northern Illinois and Cincinnati before following Mark Dantonio to Michigan State in 2007.
Narduzzi helped Dantonio turn the Spartans into one of the Big Ten’s elite programs by putting together an aggressive “press quarters” scheme that relies on man-to-man coverage on the outside and safeties who work close to the line of scrimmage.
If he can replicate that success with the Panthers, Pitt may finally break out of a maddening stretch. The Panthers are coming off a fourth straight 6-6 regular season and face Houston (7-5) in the Armed Forces Bowl on Jan. 2. Despite the mixed results, the program believed it was heading in the right direction with Chryst, who provided a sense of stability during his three-year tenure. Yet Chryst couldn’t refuse when Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez called asking Chryst to return to his alma mater following the stunning departure of Gary Andersen for Oregon State.
Chryst’s decision to leave caused a seismic shift in the Pitt athletic program. Longtime athletic director Steve Pederson was fired the day Chryst was introduced as the head coach of the Badgers. While a permanent successor to Pederson has yet to be named, whoever gets the job will have to work in lockstep with Narduzzi to give Pitt a needed dose of buzz.
The Panthers have played in front of largely stagnant crowds at usually half-filled Heinz Field. Narduzzi is the program’s fifth full-time head coach since 2010, a list that includes Dave Wannstedt, Todd Graham — who bailed after just one season in 2011 for Arizona State — and the affable but hardly charismatic Chryst.
Narduzzi inherits a young team that has more than 80 freshmen and sophomores on the roster, including running back James Conner and wide receiver Tyler Boyd. Conner was named the ACC Player of the Year after running for 1,675 yards and a school-record 24 touchdowns while Boyd is one of the most electrifying skill players in the country. Both will stick around for at least one more season, giving Narduzzi a solid jumping off point as he tries to forge his own identity in his first head coaching job.
He already has one advocate in town in Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, who played at Michigan State from 2010-12 and spent plenty of practices facing Narduzzi’s intricate defense.
“I could just always tell that our players loved him,” Bell said. “They loved playing for him … he is a guy who is always for his players.”