Pitt seniors overcome turmoil to retain fond memories
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Most of Pitt's fifth-year seniors signed their national football letters of intent Feb. 6, 2008, just a few months after the Panthers' 13-9 upset victory against then-No. 2 West Virginia.
Those seniors will run out of the tunnel at Heinz Field as Pitt players for the final time today. The careers of the players who signed on after one of the greatest wins in Pitt's history have had highs, lows and tumultuous coaching changes.
Despite all that, the seniors who spoke this week said they would look back on fond memories.
"We've all hung out, we've all been able to grow as friends," quarterback Tino Sunseri said. "It's really going to hit you when you're out there with all those guys that you've really done so much work with."
Since Dave Wannstedt's forced resignation after the '09 season triggered a long run of instability, this group of seniors has, through two interim coaches, the brief Mike Haywood era and the one-year tenure of Todd Graham and now Paul Chryst's first season, provided continuity that a revolving door of coaches could not.
"I think that in the periods where you don't really have a coach, you look to the seniors to see how they handle it and I think that we were confident and we didn't overreact, for the most part," senior center Ryan Turnley said.
Sixth-year senior guard Chris Jacobson said his message to younger players throughout the tumult was simple.
"Every player is going to have adversity. Just keep plugging away," Jacobson said. "Like we did when coach Wannstedt got fired, we just kept moving forward, bought into whatever coach came through the door. That's how it's supposed to be."
This year, that meant buying into Chryst's system and philosophy, the third (fourth if you count Haywood) of their careers. While the results have been erratic, Chryst said he appreciated the opportunity to coach these seniors.
"Just being around them day in, day out, there's a good group of guys that I think love the game," Chryst said. "[They] work at it and prepare, then go out and play it the best they can. To me, those are pretty good qualities."
When asked to recall their favorite memories at Pitt, different games popped up. Running back Ray Graham cited the Panthers' 2009 prime-time win against Notre Dame. Jacobson pointed to the win against Virginia Tech this season, and said the 2009 finale against Cincinnati -- even though Pitt lost, 45-44 -- was one of the most memorable games of his career. That game, though, also teaches another important lesson: Senior day memories are much sweeter if they come with a victory.
Younger players acknowledged what the seniors have done to keep the team together the past few seasons, and how important it is to end their Heinz Field careers with a win.
"We've been a tight-knit group, and it's mainly because of those guys," junior wide receiver Devin Street said. "Mike Shanahan, Cam Saddler, Tino [Sunseri], Ryan Turnley, guys like that who have kept the program together. I think these coaches have done a great job, but the seniors have been the heart of this team."
A win against No. 21 Rutgers today would do more than just send the seniors off with rosy memories, though. It would also be a big step toward extending their careers for one more game.
Pitt needs to win its final two regular-season games to reach a bowl, which at this point would likely be a third consecutive trip to the BBVA Compass Bowl.
"I'm not really worried about running out of the tunnel, I'm just worried about winning the game," Turnley said. "If we do that, it'll be a great senior day."
First Published November 24, 2012 12:00 am