On Saturday they’ll do it for the first time as coaching equals.
The kids who played against each other in high school growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, then became two of the nation’s top defensive coordinators will meet as head coaches when Pittsburgh hosts Youngstown State on Saturday.
For the 49-year-old Narduzzi, the kickoff will signify his long, slow climb through the ranks, one that ended when the Panthers tabbed him to replace Paul Chryst last December. For Pelini, the Penguins are a chance to come home and revive his career following his only sporadically successful tenure at Nebraska.
Yet both men insist Saturday isn’t about them but about the players they’re trying to get ready for seasons being met with drastically different expectations.
The Panthers were picked to finish sixth in the ACC’s Coastal Division even though they have two of the nation’s top skill position players in running back James Conner and wide receiver Tyler Boyd.
The Penguins are ranked 14th in the Football Championship Subdivision, a nod to the immediate impact Pelini’s arrival is expected to make and the program’s history, which includes a trip to the Division II national title game in 1979 when Bill Narduzzi was Youngstown’s coach and son Pat was working as a ball boy during gamedays.
Pat Narduzzi will try to put the history out of his mind, but it won’t be easy.
“I could sing the (Youngstown) fight song if you wanted,” he offered with a laugh.
Some things to look for as Pelini and Narduzzi prepare for a warm pregame handshake that will turn decidedly more fiery once the ball is kicked:
Narduzzi is tasked with a challenge Chryst could not overcome: beating the Penguins in his first game as a head coach. Youngstown State drummed the Panthers 31-17 in the 2012 opener, a loss that proved symbolic of Chryst’s uneven tenure. Rather than ignore history, Narduzzi plans to mention it so his team can avoid repeating it.
“To me, it becomes personal that that happened,” Narduzzi said. “I think it’s great to play with an attitude and play angry. That’s what we’ll try to do. We’ll put a little anger in a bottle and throw it out there on Saturday.”
Pelini was brought in to restore some luster after eight straight seasons in which the Penguins failed to make the FCS playoffs. He won at least nine games in each of his seven years with the Cornhuskers. If he can reach that number with the Penguins, Youngstown should play deep into November if not beyond.
“You don’t want to coach in a place where winning doesn’t matter,” Pelini said. “I think winning matters to people. They expect and demand success.”
The Panthers will play without Boyd, who will serve a one-game suspension after getting pulled over in June and charged with DUI. Narduzzi has remained intentionally vague on who will fill in, though redshirt freshman Elijah Zeise impressed during fall camp.
Boyd, who apologized for his mistake, has tried to become a mentor while he waits to make his season debut on Sept. 12 at Akron.
“I’m going to continue to push all these guys and make them believe in themselves and not just look at me or another vet to get the job done,” Boyd said. “I’m trying to let all the other guys know that we need everybody. Everybody has a role on this team.”
AP college football site: www.collegefootball.ap.org