When Pitt hired Paul Chryst 21/2 years ago, his task -- whether he knew it or not -- went beyond coaching a football team.
Chryst took over a program that was in the midst of an image and reputation crisis, in the wake of not one, but two botched hires. Over the past two seasons with the Panthers, he has had to rebuild relationships that had frayed in the Todd Graham era and change the perception of Pitt from "that school that keeps changing coaches."
Like most local coaches, Shady Side Academy's Dave Havern was a fan of former Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt and was put off by the smooth-talking Graham in his one-year tenure.
It didn't take long, though, for Chryst to win him over.
"I'm probably not real ready to welcome the new guy with open arms," Havern, who played at Pitt in the late 1960s and early 1970s, said. "So you take that into consideration, not that I'm anything special, but he had to impress the hell out of me because of what the other guys had done. That speaks more for Paul that he came in and, at least in my case, I just felt eminently comfortable with him and his staff."
For Woodland Hills coach George Novak, one telling moment came a few weeks back when he invited Chryst to speak at a football camp for young adults with Down syndrome. Not only did Chryst come, but he also stuck around for hours playing catch with the campers.
"I think he's doing things the right way," Novak said. "I think what he's done with the high schools is good."
When quarterback Chad Voytik welcomed Chryst and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph to his home in Cleveland, Tenn., in 2012, Voytik wasn't quite sure what to expect. What he got was straightforward honesty.
Rather than sell Voytik on the star he would be if he kept his verbal commitment to Pitt, Chryst laid out the facts: Tino Sunseri was a returning starter, so it would be an uphill battle for Voytik to play right away. If he came to Pitt, there was a chance he could win the job two or three years down the road. That's exactly what happened.
"That might turn some guys away, but to me and my parents, we liked that," Voytik said. "It was kind of refreshing for us because we had just dealt with dishonesty before. We liked that, and seeing that honesty was definitely a key part of me wanting to stay."
In many ways, Chryst's approach to recruiting is a reflection of his bigger philosophies on program-building. He wants players who truly want to play at Pitt and are willing to work for it.
For recruiting, that means a low-pressure approach, and more emphasis on finding a good fit than convincing all the five-stars to play for the Panthers.
"We've had a lot of guys come through here that we've liked and not everyone of them has picked Pitt," Chryst said in his South Side office. "It might be wrong to say this, but that's OK. It's not the right fit for them.
"I definitely tell kids that this isn't sales. To me, you've got someone making a really important decision. The best way to make a good decision is to be informed. I think our job is to show them what Pitt is and, more importantly, who Pitt is."
In his 10 years as Shady Side coach, Havern has seen all types of recruiting approaches. In 2012, one of his players, safety Reggie Mitchell, was being recruited by Graham at Pitt and by Chryst and Rudolph when the two were at Wisconsin.
Even though Havern is a proud Pitt alumnus, Mitchell chose the Badgers.
"I didn't trust Todd Graham recruiting my kids, and I told him that," Havern said.
Two years later, Havern had no problem endorsing running back Dennis Briggs' decision to go to Pitt.
Mitchell even transferred to Pitt last year.
"Chryst is just a solid guy," Havern said. "He's going to do it the right way. He's not going to cut any corners, and that's what comes through when you talk to him and when you see him coach."
Chryst doesn't buy into recruiting hype when it comes to five-star or website rankings, but he also doesn't underestimate its overall importance.
"Recruiting, in a lot of ways, is everything," he said. "Because that's your players. Your players are everything. And you get your players through recruiting."
Recruit to win
At first, Voytik's friends couldn't understand why he would turn down offers from two SEC schools -- Vanderbilt and Mississippi State -- to go play for a cold-weather team in a supposedly inferior conference.
Now, when he goes home, they ask him if he really knows Panthers receiver Tyler Boyd.
"They always ask me about him and stuff," Voytik said. "'Do you ever hang out with him?' "
For as much as Chryst can rebuild the relationships and implement his vision for the program via recruiting, ultimately the players will be responsible for the next step of rebuilding Pitt's football image. That next step is winning games.
Of course, it helps to have young stars like Boyd and running back James Conner, both sophomores who have already garnered national attention for their performances as freshmen. Boyd graced the cover of Athlon Sports' regional college football preview issue, and Conner could make waves this season if he plays both running back and defensive end, as he has hinted.
In all likelihood, their class will play a significant role in determining whether Chryst is successful at Pitt in the long run.
"We talk about it a lot," Conner said. "I think there were 12 true freshmen [who played] in our class, and our class was the first class coach Chryst brought in. So by the time we leave, by the time we're juniors and seniors, it'll really be our team. I saw the success he had at Wisconsin and I think we can have that same success here."
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.
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