Before Pitt opened last season against Florida State, Artie Rowell admitted he was nervous.
About to make his first start in front of a top-15 opponent, Rowell received some words of advice from someone who was in his shoes not too long ago.
Former Pitt center Ryan Turnley — less than a year removed from his final game as a Panther — sat Rowell down and got him ready to take over his old position.
“It kind of took my mind and eased me a little bit,” Rowell said.
Turnley was a volunteer assistant coach at the time, and has since transitioned to become a graduate assistant on the Panthers coaching staff. This year, he has been joined by two more recently graduated Panthers, former receiver Mike Shanahan (2008-12) and former linebacker Scott McKillop (2004-08), who are on the staff as volunteer assistants.
“Any time you get good guys that want to get into this profession, you’re excited,” coach Paul Chryst said.
All three took similar paths to their coaching positions at Pitt. Turnley and Shanahan had stints in NFL training camps — Turnley with the Buffalo Bills, Shanahan with the New York Jets — but were cut before the regular season. Turnley returned to coaching last summer after a phone call with offensive line coach Jim Hueber shortly after the Bills let him go.
“He said he’d talk to coach Chryst,” Turnley said. “And a few days later coach Chryst said, ‘Come on down, help us out, volunteer on the O-line.’”
Shanahan tried to break into the Canadian Football League in the spring, but was cut by the Montreal Alouettes at the end of June. That’s when he got back in touch with Chryst, who welcomed him back as a volunteer assistant.
“I knew I liked coaching, but I wanted to do it at the college level just to see how much I would like it,” Shanahan said.
McKillop was the only one of the three to see regular-season NFL action after he was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the fifth round in 2009. He played in all 16 games that year, but a severe knee injury in training camp in 2010 effectively ended his career.
He, too, tried some other routes back to the NFL, including the CFL, before reaching out to Pitt director of football operations Chris LaSala in May.
Despite most positions being filled, the staff found a spot for McKillop as a volunteer defensive assistant.
As volunteer assistants, McKillop and Shanahan are not allowed to assist in on-field instruction of players. Still, both said just being around a football team feels like the right fit for them.
“One of my things is if I’m not truly passionate about something and I don’t truly love it, in my mind I don’t feel there’s any need to do it,” McKillop said. “I feel like a lot of people just punch the time clock in whatever job they do. I want to be passionate about it.”
As younger coaches, all three said they’ve tried to relate to the players as much as they can. It wasn’t long ago they were going through the same things, not just as football players but also as students at Pitt.
Still, they’re all also adjusting to the coaching struggle of telling a player how do to something, explaining it to them again and still not having the player get it.
“That’s definitely frustrating,” Shanahan said. “I say to myself all the time, ‘I was probably the exact same way when I was young,’ learning a new offense and everything. I definitely see the frustration, so it’s kind of been a little bit of an adjustment.”
And while all three are recent Pitt alumni, they predate the current coaching staff. Shanahan and Turnley were recruited by former coach Dave Wannstedt, but were seniors on Chryst’s first team in 2012. McKillop was originally recruited by Walt Harris, but played under Wannstedt.
“For me, it was even more special for [Chryst] to be as open to me as he is to his former players,” McKillop said.
Chryst said that ultimately it didn’t matter whether they were “his guys.” What mattered was that they were Pitt guys and, more important, good guys.
“Just because Scott didn’t play for us, this is his place,” Chryst said. “We’re really fortunate to have them all.”
•NOTE — Chryst announced that redshirt sophomore Chad Voytik will be the starting quarterback for the opener Aug. 30 against Delaware. Voytik took every snap with the first team in training camp and played in relief of Tom Savage in last year’s bowl game. He played in four games last year, completing 6 of 11 passes for 116 yards with one rushing touchdown.
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.