PITTSBURGH (AP) — Randy Juhl was kidding, sort of.
The longtime Pittsburgh administrator was serving as the school's interim athletic director in the winter of 2014 when the Panthers hired Pat Narduzzi to give the program a jolt after Paul Chryst headed home to Wisconsin.
Shortly after Narduzzi was introduced, Juhl brushed off the notion that Pitt had a limited ceiling in the Atlantic Coast Conference. By Juhl's math, if the university can help find a cure for polio — as Jonas Salk did in 1955 — then it “sure as hell can win 10 football games.”
It may have taken longer than Juhl or Narduzzi anticipated, but the 20th-ranked Panthers (9-2, 6-1 ACC) are on the verge of doing that. The recently minted Coastal Division champions need to win at Syracuse on Saturday to reach 10 regular-season victories for the first time since 1981.
And yes, it's a big deal, tangible proof that Narduzzi believes the standards have been raised during his seven steady if not always spectacular years on the job.
“It’s been a long time,” Narduzzi said Monday. “To me, that means something. In 40 years, there’s something to prove when we go up there this weekend.”
Even if the Panthers have already proven something of sorts over the past two months. The team picked to finish fourth in the Coastal in the preseason instead sprinted to the stop in early October and stayed there as quarterback Kenny Pickett turned the school record book into a dry- erase board and sophomore wide receiver Jordan Addison became practically uncoverable.
Four years ago, the Panthers emerged from a blah nonconference schedule to claim a surprising Coastal championship. Their reward? Getting drilled by Clemson.
Back then, simply getting to Charlotte felt like an accomplishment. Not so much this time around. The celebration early Saturday evening at chilly Heinz Field after a 48-38 thriller over Virginia was spirited, but not over the top.
There's still more work to be done. A lot more, one of the reasons Pickett — whose school records this season include most career yards passing, most yards passing in a single season, and most touchdowns responsible for among a litany of others — opted to return in 2021 rather than head to the NFL.
“I don't think I'd be here if I didn't think this team was special,” Pickett said. “I knew we were capable of doing this. To say what you want to do and go out there and do it, it's a great feeling.”
One that's been rare at Pitt for the better part of four decades. The Panthers' last appearance in a major bowl came 17 years ago, when they were blown out by Urban Meyer, Alex Smith and Utah in the Fiesta Bowl. The current crop of Panthers wasn't even in elementary school back then, and most weren't even in high school when Narduzzi took over the program the day after Christmas in 2014.
During an era where patience can be in short supply at the FBS-level, Pitt has stuck with Narduzzi while he's fielded teams that have flirted with a major breakthrough while also stubbing their toes repeatedly.
It looked like it might be more of the same in 2021 when an impressive road win at Tennessee was immediately followed by a stunning home loss to Western Michigan. Narduzzi stressed everything was still on the table for the Panthers, and they have responded by winning seven of eight, including victories over Clemson, North Carolina and Virginia Tech.
In other places, staying somewhere between 5-7 and 8-4 — as Narduzzi has done in each of his first six seasons — isn't good enough to keep earning the right to come back. Pitt instead has doubled down on Narduzzi's methodical approach to team building, one that hit a crescendo when Pickett found Addison for the division-clinching, 62-yard touchdown in the final minutes against the Cavaliers.
“Anything that’s going to be great takes time,” he said. “Sometimes people are impatient.”
Narduzzi is impressed with his team's maturity while allowing it's still a week-to-week thing. He thought Pitt had a handle on success after topping the Volunteers. Seven days later, the Panthers gave up 44 points at home to a team currently tied for last in the Mid-American Conference's Western Division.
“Do they slide back into that, ‘Hey, we’re good again (and get sloppy),'" Narduzzi said.
Four years ago, Pitt wrapped up the Coastal at Wake Forest, then headed to Miami for a somewhat meaningless regular-season finale and was promptly drilled. This group seems to be more focused. Earning a trip to Charlotte is no longer the goal. Pickett's poise guiding the nation's third highest-scoring team, Addison's playmaking and the defense's ability — at least of late — to deliver in gotta-have-it moments have raised expectations internally and made Juhl's words seven years ago prescient.
“You have to win an ACC Championship to be anything,” Narduzzi said. “That’s just the way it is. Our kids have a different attitude about that now, too, I think.”
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