The halls of the Pittsburgh football offices are thick with the smell of new carpet and fresh paint. The offseason renovation project, the one that coincides with the latest iteration of a program seemingly stuck in neutral, is nearly complete.
Pat Narduzzi can’t help but shake his head, sitting in the office of his first head coaching job. The updates to the facility they share with the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers are pretty swanky, a far cry from the first facility upgrade Narduzzi oversaw in his nomadic coaching career.
He was a young assistant under Floyd Keith at Rhode Island in the mid-1990s when Keith decided the crumbling offices needed a facelift. The Rams’ budget only allowed for little more than a trip to the local hardware store. So during the offseason the entire staff pitched in, turning the offices from borderline fire hazard into something more respectable.
It was hot, messy and tedious and in the end worth it, hammering home a point Narduzzi learned while growing up the son of a football coach: There are no quick fixes.
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“You’ve got to put the work in,” Narduzzi said. “That’s all you can do. If you don’t do that, the rest doesn’t matter.”
His father, Bill, bounced around before building Youngstown State into Division I-AA power in the 1970s. The Narduzzis lived less than two miles from campus and the bus would often stop there in mid-afternoons to pick up the Narduzzi boys to hang out with the team during practice.
There were nights the elder Narduzzi could have made the trip home in 20 minutes. Only he didn’t, preferring instead to sleep in a bean bag chair in his office hoping the time saved would free him up to find the advantage that would serve as the difference between winning and misery.
Pat Narduzzi is not a social media star like some of his peers – with the exception of “Pitt Is It,” a twitter hashtag that doubles as a sign he’s landed another recruit. His preferred method of communication is face to face, not fingers to keypad.
“I’m not a salesman, I’m a football coach,” Narduzzi said. “I’m a people person. I like to be around people.”
Narduzzi, 49, built his reputation as one of the nation’s top defensive minds by figuring out what his players and coaches did well, then putting them in position to do it. When he and head coach Mark Dantonio arrived at Michigan State in 2007, the Spartans hadn’t been to a bowl game in three years and played in front of many empty seats.
So forgive Narduzzi if he stifles a laugh when asked how to get Pitt past the mediocrity of four straight 6-6 regular seasons, most of them played to half-full crowds at Heinz Field.
“Same old Pitt, right?” Narduzzi asked. “I guarantee you if you Google ‘Same Old Spartans’ you'll find stories talking about when me and Mark got there in ‘07.”
By the end of the fourth season, Michigan State had won its first Big Ten championship in two decades. All that success brought its fair share of attention – with Narduzzi capturing the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant in 2013 – but no head coaching gig. Maybe it was Narduzzi’s defensive background, the kind that can generate solid teams but not sellout crowds. Or maybe he was just being picky.
Every year Narduzzi said he’d go to the national coaching convention and hear “horror stories” about friends who took head coaching jobs that proved to be bad fits. It proved to be a reality check.
“I realized I’ve got it good,” he said.
Narduzzi practically sprinted to Pittsburgh to take over the Panthers on the day after Christmas last year, drawn by the chance to join a program with potential but few results after three erratic years under Paul Chryst.
Narduzzi’s first meeting with the team wasn’t so much an introduction as a pep rally. He splashed statistics across a whiteboard to illustrate just how close the Panthers were to making a step that has eluded them for the better part of 30 years.
“He was like ‘Guys you are right there,’ ” said junior running back James Conner, the reigning ACC Player of the Year. “He installed that determination in us, the realization that we can achieve big things.”
Narduzzi kept preparing for the time when he’d finally be in charge. One of his first calls was to Jim Chaney, whose stops included stints as the offensive coordinator at Purdue, Tennessee and Arkansas. Even with the Razorbacks on the verge of turning the corner, Chaney moved 1,000 miles east to coach for a guy he barely knew.
“I like coordinating for defensive guys,” Chaney said. “It seems to work out well. I trusted Pat, and he seems easy to talk to.”
That ease served Narduzzi well this spring during appearances at alumni events while trying to stir passion in the fan base. He’s encouraged by the response, but wary of the obstacles ahead.
But it’s not the first time he’s had to rebuild.
“There are no perfect jobs out there,” he said. “Anybody who thinks there’s a perfect job, they’re crazy. It’s what you make out of it.”