Pat Narduzzi brings discipline to Pittsburgh Panthers football
Pat Narduzzi’s affinity for football is not what anyone would term understated.
Watch the head coach on the sidelines at a University of Pittsburgh Panthers’ game, and you’ll see a man displaying a passionate and perfectionistic approach. His eyes dart back and forth, studying the scene. He’s animated and energetic while directing players onto and off of the field. His voice carries over the stadium noise, imploring his players to give more, to dig deeper.
While fans only see this part for a few hours a week during a game, Narduzzi understands that game-day swagger without everyday substance is nothing more than an empty exhibition.
“Leadership is about being real as a person,” he says. “Kids, players and coaches – they want to know how you feel. Tell the truth and don’t beat around the bush.”
Since he arrived at the University of Pittsburgh in December 2014, Narduzzi has been doing just that. His leadership and insight are bringing a Panther program steeped in tradition back to the forefront of college football.
Pitt was known as the Western University of Pennsylvania when students Bert Smyers and John Scott assembled the school’s first football team in the fall of 1889. They played exactly one game in that first “season,” – resulting in a loss to Shady Side Academy.
From these humble beginnings, the football program slowly emerged as a powerhouse, producing nine national championships, 24 College Football Hall of Famers and eight Pro Football Hall of Famers. The first undefeated season came in 1904. The first title, as declared by football historian Parke H. Davis, came in 1915, when a new head coach named Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner led the charge.
Still, Pitt’s greatest years might have come in the late 1970s and early ’80s, which included Tony Dorsett’s Heisman Trophy run in the 1976 national championship season and the 1982 Sugar Bowl win over Georgia.
It would have been impossible to know then that the seeds of another important era in Pitt football were being sown roughly 70 miles northwest. Bill Narduzzi took over the Youngstown State Penguins in 1975, when his son, Pat, was just 9 years old. Over the next 11 seasons, Bill guided YSU to two Mid-Continent championships, and Pat, who played for his father as a freshman in 1985, gained a priceless education in strategy, teamwork and discipline.
“Detailed discipline,” Narduzzi says now. “Most times, we had an 11 p.m. curfew in high school.”
Narduzzi remembers a time he was just minutes late. He blamed the fact that he had hit every red light on his way home. His father’s response? “He said, ‘Excuses don’t matter,’” Narduzzi says. “‘When you leave someone’s house, you better plan on hitting those red lights.’”
Narduzzi has handed the lesson in discipline down to his own children and his players: To be early is to be on time. To be on time is to be late, and to be late is to be forgotten. Accountability is the backbone to achieving your potential.
But Narduzzi isn’t just here to hand down rules. He wants football to be fun, too.
An open door
The songs blasting from the speakers at Pitt’s practices aren’t selections from Narduzzi’s personal collection. They are the current and hip tunes made by – and for – the young, and they are the reason Pitt’s coaches, having amplified their commands to be heard over the din, come out of the first days of training camp with rusty, raspy voices.
“We want noise at practice,” Narduzzi says. “When you’re playing on Saturdays, it’s noisy. So practice should be noisy, too.”
Just as the 51-year-old Narduzzi wants practice conditions to simulate Saturday games, he wants players who approach the game with the same zeal that he and his coaches have. He remembers the time Pitt was recruiting a player who checked off all the boxes in terms of physical attributes and translatable skills, but he sensed the individual lacked personality and passion.
“Do you really want him sitting in your meeting every day?” Narduzzi asked offensive line coach John Peterson.
“No,” Peterson replied.
Those who are brought in to the program find a highly communicative environment.
“Coach Narduzzi always has an open door for us,” says junior offensive lineman Brian O'Neill. “If we need to talk, he's there. It's great to have a head coach you feel comfortable talking to about anything. It doesn't have to be about football.”
That’s the kind of environment Narduzzi and his wife, Donna, have tried to foster at home with their four children.
“I know we’ve got a good household when our kids can tell us anything, be it about a boyfriend or whatever,” Narduzzi says. “It’s the same thing in the coaching profession. When you relate to the players and can get to their level, they get to yours.”
Narduzzi has spent a lifetime in football, but he’s never lost the goosebumps that accompany kickoffs or the pure joy of a perfectly executed play.
“You can be a CEO or you can be a kid bagging groceries,” he says. “No matter what you’re doing, you’ve got to enjoy it. Load those groceries in the car and say, ‘Have a great day!’ I don’t feel like I have to work too hard to enjoy what I do.”
Pitt football wanted to continue their storied legacy and that’s why the school sought a determined leader like Narduzzi for the role.
When Pitt was looking for a new football leader – someone who could end a string of middling results – Narduzzi, the Michigan State University defensive coordinator, was a natural choice, especially given his regional ties from his dad’s time in Youngstown.
Narduzzi, who had held previous coaching positions at Miami University, the University of Rhode Island, Northern Illinois University and the University of Cincinnati, picked up more than just football from his father.
“My dad was a woodshop teacher for a couple of years,” Narduzzi says. “He was good with his hands. That’s kind of what we’ve done with this program. A rebuild is something I enjoy. We’re trying to lead this thing the right way, with the right people.”
Shortly after Narduzzi’s arrival, Pitt began renovations to its South Side practice facility that resulted in a night-and-day difference in the team’s locker room, players’ lounge and meeting room. Previously, lockers were older than some of the players, with doors literally falling off their hinges. Now, everything is state of the art, a fitting refurbishment for a program that is a rising contender in the ultracompetitive Atlantic Coast Conference.
From the facilities to the culture to the games, which last year featured wins over two teams (Clemson and Penn State) that finished in the top five of the final College Football Playoff rankings, Pitt’s players are getting a first-class experience under a man whose passion is palpable.
“We’re not just coaching football, we’re changing lives with these young men,” Narduzzi says. “Some of them don’t have a male figure in their lives. So, when a mom drops her son off to play at the University of Pittsburgh, we want her to know we’re going to help him grow into a self-sufficient man.”
For more information, visit www.pittsburghpanthers.com.
Huddling up with Huntington
Pat Narduzzi was still the defensive coordinator at Michigan State University when a charity golf outing in East Lansing, Michigan paired him with a representative from Huntington.
“Do you have a personal banker?” the rep asked Narduzzi.
The concept was foreign to the coach.
“I think I’m the personal banker,” Narduzzi joked. “Or really, my wife is. I haven’t seen a paycheck or written a check in I don’t know how many years.”
From there, Narduzzi learned the value of having a professional oversee his family’s financial relationship so that their investments and planning could be managed proactively and conveniently.
Coaches like Narduzzi tend to lead a transitory lifestyle (the fact that Narduzzi spent eight seasons in East Lansing was considered a lengthy stay in a field with frequent turnover). So, the stability the Narduzzi family has experienced in its relationship with Huntington has been helpful. It also made the Narduzzi’s move to Pittsburgh in 2014 much less stressful.
“It’s a pain in the butt to switch everything over,” Narduzzi notes. “You’re selling a house out of state, wiring money for transfers, paying a mortgage on a second home and more. Huntington is just a phone call away for us, and they’ve been great.”