Photo: Pat Narduzzi
Six years ago Pat Narduzzi turned down tripling his salary for a lateral move as a defensive coordinator. Five years ago he declined a chance to become a head coach for the first time.
Thanks to his discerning eye, this year, his fourth as Pitt’s head coach, he’s sitting pretty with a job he was comfortable waiting for to accept. A new trophy is on display at his school, Pitt.
Narduzzi led the Panthers (7-5, 6-2) to ACC Coastal title that earned a berth in the ACC Championship game against ACC Atlantic winner Clemson (12-0, 8-0) on Saturday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
“Yeah, no question about it,” he said in a conference call of the satisfaction he feels. “One of the reasons I took the job is because I love the opportunity to compete in the ACC. I love the conference, I love the division that we're in.
“I thought looking at the Coastal, anybody had a chance to win that division and have an opportunity to go play in a championship game. Four years later it's coming to fruition that I was right in what I thought we could go through the division and have an opportunity to play in this game. I always felt like nobody in the division was going to be undefeated, winning that division, clinching it.
“It's a tremendous opportunity that our kids have to go (to Charlotte) and compete against the best in the country.”
In 2012, Narduzzi was enjoying success as Michigan State’s defensive coordinator under Mark Dantonio when he heard from new Texas A&M coch Kevin Sumlin. He was assembling a new staff after his success at Houston earned the A&M job.
Narduzzi turned him down despite a reported salary offer of $750,000 that tripled his Michigan State pay, although he received a boost upon remaining with the Spartans.
He missed on a fatter wallet at A&M, but he didn't miss out on stability. Sumlin had some initial success, but he was soon annually on the hot seat. He was fired after the 2017 season.
In 2014, following Michigan State’s Big Ten title and Rose Bowl victory, then-Connecticut athletic director Warde Manuel, now Michigan’s A.D., offered him UConn’s head coaching position.
Once Narduzzi turned it down, Bob Diaco took it. He was fired two years later with a record of 8-18. He was replaced by Randy Edsall, recycled into his second stint with the Huskies, who is on the hot seat with a 7-29 record in three seasons.
Pitt’s storied program was where Narduzzi thought he could succeed.
“There’s no doubt about it,” he said. “It’s definitely paid off. I love Pitt. I enjoy being here.”
He’s won with the same formula utilized in his time at Michigan State. Pitt has a reputation throughout the ACC as one of its most physical teams. This year’s offense is third in the conference running the ball with 232.7 yards a game, trailing only Georgia Tech (353.7) with its triple-option offense and Clemson (256.3).
Qadree Ollison averages 94.5 yards rushing a game with 10 touchdowns and Darrin Hall 77.9 with nine TDs.
The defensive ranks fifth in the ACC allowing 399.9 yards a game.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said he knew about Narduzzi's defenses at Michigan State but not much else about him.
"I just think he's a great fit for their program," Swinney said. "When I think of Pittsburgh, I think of toughness, I think of grit. I think epitomizes those two things. He's a tough, hard-nosed football coach. He's passionate. He loves the players. He has a defensive background. Their team is kind of built that way."
Pitt won its first ACC title since leaving the Big East to join the conference six years ago despite a slow start that included handing North Carolina (2-9, 1-7 ACC Coastal) its only ACC win of the year in the fourth week of the season.
But after falling to 2-3 with a loss at Central Florida, Pitt won five of its next six. The only loss was a near-upset at Notre Dame. The Panthers led most of the game before falling 19-14.
Pitt followed with wins over Duke, then-No. 23 Virginia, Virginia Tech and clinched the division in the 11th game with a win over Wake Forest. Pitt cracked the rankings at No. 24 after clinching the division, but a loss in the regular-season finale to Miami, the Coastal preseason favorite, dropped the overall record to 7-5.
But the title still makes it a bounce-back season after a 5-7 record last year that followed 8-5 marks his first two seasons.
The overall record has the Panthers as heavy underdogs to No. 2-ranked Clemson. The Tigers are seeking their fourth straight ACC title and third consecutive bid to the College Football Playoff, a run that includes a runner-up finish in 2015 and a title in 2016.
But Pitt in 2016 and Syracuse in 2017 are the only ACC schools to beat Clemson in the past four seasons. Pitt and Clemson are different teams two years later, but it’s enough to give the Panthers confidence entering the game.
“I think that's what young men and coaches dream to do, is to play in those big games,” Narduzzi said. “I've been in a couple of them. They've been fun. It's something that our kids I don't think will have any trouble getting up for, compared to other games. We got to just maintain our focus and stay calm.
“But I think it's great for the city of Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania, really the state of Pennsylvania.”
It’s the place that Narduzzi picked as his job and new home after Michigan State.
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