Cook: Chryst puts neck on line with choices

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Most Pitt fans are like fans of other schools. They want their team to win big and do it with honor, integrity and the highest quality of character people. But they'll settle for winning big.

Pitt coach Paul Chryst has been around college football a long time. He knows the harsh truth. "Ultimately, there aren't a lot of coaches who aren't judged on wins and losses."

That didn't stop Chryst from making a series of difficult personnel decisions since the end of last season, a 6-7 season, his first at Pitt. Ten players have moved on, either by their choice or his. Two others are suspended for this season for violating team rules. Most were recruited originally by one of Chryst's predecessors, Todd Graham or Dave Wannstedt.

Many of the player losses will have a negative impact on the team in the short term. Tra'Von Chapman, dismissed from the squad last week because of an assault case involving a former girlfriend, is a highly regarded quarterback. Rushel Shell would have been the featured running back this season and given Pitt a big threat against Florida State in the opening game Labor Day night at Heinz Field. Eric Williams had a good chance of starting at safety. Ronald Jones and Khaynin Mosley-Smith, who are practicing with the team but are suspended, would have helped at positions of need, wide receiver and defensive tackle.

Many people are praising Chryst for being a tough disciplinarian. But they also are dying for a big winner. No Pitt team has lost fewer than three games since 1981, and this one isn't likely to do it. Many fans might be less charitable toward Chryst if Pitt goes 4-8 or 3-9 this season.

"I know that," Chryst said. "But I still believe wins are a byproduct of doing everything else right."

Chryst grinned.

Actually, he laughed.

"That's what I'm banking on ... We'll see."

Rough translation:

"I hope they give me time to build a program that will make everyone proud."

Chryst is right to try to build a program, not just a team. Programs endure, teams come and go. Structure is important. "Core values" -- Chryst's words -- are important. Players must know what is expected of them and be held accountable. Otherwise, there is chaos.

It's not an easy process.

Young people make mistakes, often serious mistakes. "Not one of us is perfect," Chryst said. Does a coach give a kid a second chance? There are dozens and dozens of success stories involving athletes who are thankful for a coach standing with them rather than tossing them aside after they do something stupid. Many go on to be solid citizens long after their football days are done.

But a coach also has to do what's right for all his players, not just a select few even if they are stars. Tough decisions must be made in the best interests of the team. Making the right call is the toughest part of coaching, Chryst said.

"No one should have to play God ... You do what you think is right, but you don't feel good about those decisions. They aren't fun. They are hard on everyone."

Chryst said all discipline cases are different. He looks at each individually and doesn't rush to judgment. "Even then, you don't know for sure if you're doing the right thing." That's why Chryst doesn't care what the media and fans think. "I know what the facts are better than anyone. Sometimes, the [public] projections can be runaway truths."

Many criticized Chryst for not taking back Shell, a prized player from Hopewell High School and the most productive schoolboy running back in Pennsylvania history, after he quit the team in the spring and talked of transferring to UCLA. When Shell asked to come back this summer, Chryst quickly said no. Shell ended up transferring to West Virginia.

Chryst did take back redshirt junior linebacker Todd Thomas, who quit the team early in summer camp. Thomas reacted poorly when he opened on the second team. "A player's strength can also be his weakness," Chryst said. "[Thomas] is a very emotional and competitive kid. We like that about him."

Shell and Thomas are "two very different cases," Chryst said.

"I feel good that I can look the players here in the eye about the decisions we've made. I feel good I can look myself in the eye."

Give Chryst credit for one thing: He knows what he wants and isn't afraid to go after it.

"Ultimately, I want it to be their team. I want them to take ownership," he said of the Pitt players. "We have to hold each other to a higher standard. That's OK. It's not about them buying into me or what I want to do. It's about them buying into us and doing things the right way."

Chryst's approach is admirable. It's nice to think Pitt will give him time to build his program. But he had better do more than 4-8 or 3-9, just to be on the safe side.

pittsports - roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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