- Heather Dinich, ESPN Staff Writer
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PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst gave his team two playbooks to master this offseason -- one containing Xs and Os; the other a New York Times bestseller.
This spring, the Panthers are reading “The Traveler’s Gift,” a fictional story written to inspire readers to overcome obstacles. Every week, each position group presents a book report to the team.
“We go through it, talk about the main points, how can it affect our team and help our team, and how it affected you individually, what lines spoke to you,” receiver Devin Street said. “It’s a chance for guys to get up and interpret things and just be themselves in front of everyone. It’s a chance for guys to come together. I think it’s a great tool that coach has used to bring us together and teach us and prepare us for this upcoming season.”
When Chryst was hired at Pitt in December 2011, the program turned the page on instability.
After a tumultuous time in which Chryst became the program’s third different head coach in three straight seasons, there was no greater affirmation of Chryst’s commitment to the Panthers than his disinterest in the Wisconsin job when it came open just one year after he was hired. Chryst spent seven seasons on the sidelines with the Badgers, where also played and graduated from. Instead of flirting with the possibility of becoming head coach of his alma mater, though, Chryst didn’t even discuss it with his staff. Instead, he made it clear he was sticking around in the ‘Burgh to bring stability to a program in desperate need of some. While the Panthers still have a long way to go on the field, those within the program say Chryst has made important changes that have it heading in the right direction.
“I think it changed when Paul took the job,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “It might not have been felt yet -- it’s kind of that deceleration getting ready to accelerate in the opposite direction, but that is when it changed, and it is the right guy. His approach to what this group needs is really all based around stability, and consistency, and accountability. When that is your mantra, when that is everything you want from these young men, you do have a chance to get there a little bit faster.”
Chryst is not a rah-rah guy. Not even close. His blue-collar, down-to-earth personality fits in well in the Steel City, and it has helped earn the trust of his players. There weren’t any phony lines, but there were changes -- some major changes, like a higher standard of accountability and better leadership, but there were also more subtle changes, like eating together in the cafeteria, and a set of Dominoes in the locker room.
“As simple as that sounds, guys are sitting down there and we’re playing Dominoes, and starting conversations, and build that bond a great team needs,” Street said. “For him to see that, something so simple, a little game of Dominoes, that speaks volumes about his character right there.”
Quarterback Tom Savage said Chryst -- and the opportunity to play in his offense -- were the two biggest selling points to him when he decided to transfer for the second time in his career.
“I think they really built the family atmosphere here,” Savage said. “It’s not like you walk in here and it’s strictly business. You can walk in here on Saturday, and there will be some people around, and you can sit and talk and relax. It’s not just a business like it is at a lot of other schools. That’s a huge foundation for where an elite program has to be, where it’s fun to be around.”
While the intangibles are coming together, the spring game was evidence that there is still plenty of work to do on the field before the Panthers open their first season in the ACC on Labor Day against Florida State.
Pittsburgh enters its second season under Chryst with far more questions than answers. There are offensive linemen who have changed positions, a quarterback (Savage) who hasn’t taken a snap in a game in two years, and the leading returning running back, Rushel Shell, has decided to transfer. With each new obstacle, though, Chryst never seems to flinch, and his message stays the same -- keep working.
“You don’t come in and tell people, ‘Hey, trust us,’” Chryst said. “Actions speak louder than words. Part of it is just being myself, or the assistant coaches, just being that same guy last spring, this fall, winter. Probably more than anything that helps, and I think, too, that there’s been some addition by subtraction for various reasons. Guys are choosing to be here. The most important thing is being consistent, and for all of these guys, it’s the same faces.”
Pitt doesn’t need another new chapter. It has already begun to write its own report under Chryst.
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