PITTSBURGH – There can be no doubt that coach Paul Chryst came to Pitt with a reputation as a good decision-maker.
What play to call on third-and-8.
Which quarterback to start in the opener.
Who among an inexperienced group should play wide receiver.
How to proceed with a richly gifted Wisconsin newcomer named Russell Wilson.
How to enable Pitt freshman tight end J.P. Holtz to run free in the Notre Dame secondary.
Those are the easy ones. These days, after a rewarding career as offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, Chryst is making choices of another sort that not only impact the product on the field but also the lives and the futures of the players, coaches and, indeed, the entire Pitt program.
So far, he’s doing OK, but you get the feeling he can’t wait for the season to start just so he can focus on football.
Let’s look at the cases of five former and present Pitt players who ran afoul of Chryst’s standards and those set by his superiors. Four of them are no longer with the team, even though each could have helped no later than 2014.
A fifth – linebacker Todd Thomas – was given a reprieve by Chryst, proof that he does not rule with an iron fist or broad stroke. He considers each transgression separately, because he knows he’s dealing with individuals who have unique personalities and problems.
First, running back Rushel Shell.
His story has been well documented, but it easily could have taken a different turn if Chryst had been worrying more about his current team than the future well-being of his program.
When he refused to consider Shell’s request to return to the team – three months after Shell walked out on his teammates – Chryst wasn’t concerned about how tough it might be to score from the 1 without him.
He had set a tone and needed to follow it: Players can’t run the program, deciding to leave and come back on a whim. The coach – the adult – must make the decisions, no matter how tough they may be.
Chryst wasn’t being cruel by refusing to mend broken ties with Shell. He knew another program would welcome Pitt’s wayward running back, and – sure enough – Shell’s name now appears on West Virginia’s roster.
Pitt, however, didn’t need the hassle.
Two other players were told to leave this year after they were cited for a drug offense on campus. Actually, three were involved in the incident: tight end Andrew Carswell, safety Eric Williams and defensive tackle K.K. Mosley-Smith. Chryst dismissed only Carswell and Williams.
Mosley-Smith was suspended for the 2013 season but allowed to practice with the team. If Mosley-Smith follows the rules and stays out of trouble, Chryst will consider bringing him back in 2014.
Fans asked why Carswell and Williams are gone but Mosley-Smith remains. Chryst didn’t say much about it publicly, but repeat offenders are treated differently, and there were things in the past of those two players that Chryst didn’t like.
Chryst will allow a second chance under certain circumstances, but not a third.
That’s three players who would have played this season, Shell as the marquee running back and Carswell and Williams as key reserves. All three are now unwelcome.
Chryst broadened his focus beyond the 12 games that begin on Labor Day with defending ACC champion Florida State. If Pitt loses a few of those games that it might have won with Shell, that’s the price that must be paid. The program is better off in the long run.
Players know that stepping outside the law and into criminal territory won’t be tolerated. They also know that if you miss most of spring drills while telling people you plan to transfer, that’s what you better do. There will be no turning back.
It should be noted here that Thomas was allowed to return after threatening to transfer, but his case is different. He changed his mind within 24 hours of leaving. It also should be noted that the reason for Thomas’ unhappiness – his demotion to the second team – hadn’t been reversed by the end of training camp.
The most athletic linebacker on the team will remain a backup until Chryst is satisfied that he has done his penance and earned his way back to the first team with a better work ethic and team-first mindset.
Finally, we should consider the sad case of freshman quarterback Tra’Von Chapman, who served a three-day jail term for an attempted assault on a former girlfriend.
Chapman, the jewel of the first recruiting class produced by Chryst and his staff, was thrown off the team 26 days after he was released from jail.
It was a difficult decision because Chryst and his coaches liked Chapman, who graduated from high school early and enrolled last January. He worked with the team during spring drills and was considered a candidate for the starting job in 2014.
Yet, the nature of Chapman’s offense gave Chryst and Pitt’s top administrators – all of whom were involved in the decision – no choice.
First of all, the crime was attempted assault on a woman – reduced from assault as part of the plea bargain. There is no excuse for such a heinous offense.
Second, Pitt fired former coach Michael Haywood on Jan. 1, 2011, two weeks after hiring him, for assaulting a woman. Although the players in these tragedies are different, the public perception was the same. Pitt couldn’t fire a coach and welcome back a student-athlete when they committed similar crimes.
When Chryst didn’t announce a decision for nearly a month after Chapman left jail, it appeared that Chapman, who had no prior criminal activity in his past, might be allowed to return. Chapman even told a reporter that the coach wanted him back.
In the end, however, Chryst said no, proving he has little or no tolerance for criminal activity among his players.
Chapman is a talented athlete who likely will salvage his situation by enrolling in another school, sitting out the season (something he would have done at Pitt) and staying out of trouble.
Pitt’s team is losing a player with the potential to help on the field. But Pitt’s program is gaining a reputation for zero tolerance.
Which is more important, the win/loss record or the reputation?
Eventually, they will need to co-exist. Pitt must find a way to win with good people.
Meanwhile, the weeding out process continues.