PITTSBURGH — Pat Narduzzi stood just outside the doorway, hands stuffed inside his pants pockets, and glanced at nine national championship trophies highlighting the proud history of a program churning in mediocrity. The youngest gold football is nearly 40 years old. By the math of the latest coach charged with restoring Pittsburgh to relevance, that's far too long.
"We need to put another one in there," Narduzzi said.
The work begins now.
The Panthers officially named the longtime Michigan State defensive coordinator as their fifth head coach in five years on Friday, the search committee unanimous in its belief the energetic 48-year-old can give Pitt the traction it desperately needs to find its place in the new-look ACC.
"He was head and shoulders above the group we were looking at," said executive vice chancellor Jerry Cochran. "He's got this high energy level. He's somebody that is going to love this institution and he's somebody that this institution is going to love."
And, Cochran hopes, somebody the Panthers are going to keep. The head coaching job at Pitt has been a revolving door since 2010, with Dave Wannstedt, Mike Haywood, Todd Graham and Paul Chryst all holding the title. Chryst bolted after three years to take over at Wisconsin, his alma mater, last week. Chryst's departure coincided with the firing of athletic director Steve Pederson, putting Pitt in the unenviable spot of trying to fill two high-profile positions at once.
While a replacement for Pederson is still in the works, Pitt wasted little time closing in on Narduzzi, who spent the last eight years as the architect of the Spartans' relentless defense. Narduzzi has been a coveted candidate for several head coaching jobs in recent years and turned them all down. He was in the mix at Colorado State but took himself out of the running after interviewing at Pitt, which offered something no other opportunity could match: a chance to come home.
"I knew this was the place," he said. "This is a place I wanted to go after and I wanted the job."
Narduzzi grew up about an hour northwest of Pittsburgh in Youngstown, Ohio, where his father served as head coach of Youngstown State from 1975-85. He still keeps a pair of his father's wingtips in his closet and still has the street address of his childhood home committed to memory. Pitt is the closest FBS school to Narduzzi's roots and one Narduzzi believes does not need much of an overhaul to gain traction after spending most of the last three decades running in place.
"You can win a national championship here," he said.
Pitt would settle for a step out of an endless stream of .500 seasons. Narduzzi inherits a program with 81 freshmen and sophomores on the roster, including running back James Conner, the ACC Player of the Year. While Narduzzi allows he'll need some time to get a feel for the locker room, he stressed he doesn't view Pitt as a way station to better things and pointed to his personal history as proof.
Narduzzi worked alongside Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio for 11 years, three at Cincinnati and eight with the Spartans, a decidedly lengthy coaching marriage in an industry becoming more transient by the year. While Narduzzi declined to call his new office a "destination job," he doesn't exactly see the Panthers as a resume builder.
"This is a place I want to be for a long time if they let me," he said.
Pitt just finished its fourth straight 6-6 season and will face Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl on Jan. 2. Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph will serve as interim head coach for the bowl game and is expected to join Chryst's staff at Wisconsin.
Narduzzi is working through a list of assistants he'd like to hire and will spend one last week with the Spartans when they play Baylor in the Cotton Bowl. It's a fitting ending to a remarkable tenure that includes winning the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant in 2013. Michigan State will try to slow down the high-flying Bears, something that has been a Narduzzi specialty. Michigan State has emerged as a Big Ten power on the strength of a defense that smothers opponents into submission. The Spartans have finished in the top 10 in total defense each of the last four seasons.
Expect Narduzzi to take a similar tack with the Panthers.
"When somebody plays the University of Pittsburgh, they're going to know they were in a brawl," he said.
And if that brawl ends with the Panthers on top, even better. Pitt has struggled to develop any sort of consistent buzz since the days of Tony Dorsett and Dan Marino in the 1970s and 80s.
The school doesn't expect Narduzzi to find a way to pack usually half-filled Heinz Field in one season. Building a winner is a process, yet one interim athletic director Randy Juhl believes the school is ready to undertake in earnest. Juhl stress chancellor Patrick Gallagher assured Narduzzi he would have all the resources necessary to put together a competitive program. Narduzzi assured his new bosses he was ready to make it happen.
"There is support from the top to be the best here," he said. "We've got every weapon and tool that we need."