Johnny Majors and Jackie Sherrill owned it. Foge Fazio and Mike Gottfried did well with it. So did Dave Wannstedt, whose goal was to ‘build a fence’ around it. Not so with Paul Chryst.
In the crucial recruiting competition of Western Pennsylvania, Pitt and Chryst are not winning in a manner the hometown team should. The exact nature of the recruiting losses — or perhaps victories — won’t be known for years and will be determined by the Panthers' record on the field, not by the listings of an Internet site.
There were five players in the region this year who were listed as at least four-star talent, meaning they were elite recruits: Offensive linemen Mike Grimm, Bethel Park, and Alex Bookser, Mt. Lebanon, defensive backs Dravon Henry, Aliquippa, and Montae Nicholson, Gateway, and running back Shai McKenzie, Washington. The first two chose Pitt, the last three did not.
Henry will matriculate at West Virginia, Nicholson at Michigan State and McKenzie at Virginia Tech. Of all the losses, Henry going to West Virginia was the toughest. Pitt has a long history of great Aliquippa players on its roster. To lose that pipeline and to lose it to another school in the region was hugely disappointing.
Last year Pitt lost Robert Foster to Alabama and Pat Kugler to Michigan.
No school can be expected to keep every stud prospect at home, but two out of five this year is simply not good enough.
Who knows what determines how a 17- or 18-year-old will pick a school. McKenzie, for example, said at least part of the reason he chose Virginia Tech was it was somewhat equidistant between his mother in Georgia and his father in Western Pennsylvania.
But, for sure, there are other reasons. Three are primary:
• The ability of Chryst and his staff to sell Pitt.
• The atmosphere at Pitt games.
• Pitt’s recent record.
Chryst has taken a considerable bashing for the notion he does not like to recruit and/or is not good at it. It has not been shown to be true that he doesn’t like recruiting. Nor has he been at Pitt long enough to determine how good he is at it. For certain, he is not the flashy, outgoing personality that people have come to connect with recruiting success. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be good at it in his own way. Coaches can connect with players on many levels.
The empty seats — the absence of a big-time atmosphere — certainly is a factor. Why play in front of empty seats, 30,000 or so people, when you can play in front of a football-mad capacity crowd at every home game?
Why play for a team with a long history of mediocrity?
In the latest rankings by rivals.com, Pitt's 2014 recruiting class is 40th in the country, which is not good, and ninth in the ACC, which is worse.
It’s a nasty cycle. In order to get better recruits, Pitt needs to win more. In order to win more, it needs better recruits.