PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — Paul Chryst is navigating Pitt through a time of both great excitement and great uncertainty, coming off another disappointing finish and coming into the powerful Atlantic Coast Conference, but you can count at least one Big East-era Panther legend among the undaunted.
Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who starred at Pitt in 2002 and finished his abbreviated college career as a Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2003, believes Chryst, the fourth different head football coach hired by the school since he played for Walt Harris, will lead another renaissance for the program.
“They have a great leader in Coach Chryst. He’s an unbelievable man, and he’s done a great job with every program he’s been to. He’s going to get this program to the top of the ACC in a short period of time,” Fitzgerald said during a celebration at Stage AE honoring Pitt’s formal entrance into the conference.
A maiden ACC voyage that begins with Orange Bowl champion Florida State on Labor Day will also cross paths with Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, and Miami, each of whom is picked by Athlon Sports to finish ahead of the Panthers in the Coastal Division.
The magazine forecasts a third consecutive six-win season for Pitt, but Fitzgerald insists better days will come if the Blue-and-Gold maintain a blue-collar focus, and if athletic director Steve Pederson stands by Chryst.
“They have the right man in charge,” he said. “I would just tell those guys to continue to work hard, and be ready for great things.”
Pederson, according to Fitzgerald, has also put the program back on the right track by engineering the off-the-field events leading up to “#PittACC Day,” as it was deemed by City Councilman Bill Peduto.
“It opens up so many recruiting avenues. Half the population of the United States is in ACC territory. We’re going to be in so many households, competing against the top universities in the country.”
Fitzgerald’s No. 1 uniform, which Rushel Shell stood to inherit from Ray Graham prior to the former’s departure from Pitt, will now be vacated permanently. While spending the day with athletic department brass before joining the festivities on the North Shore, he found out his jersey will be retired during the Sept. 2 season opener.
“You think of Tony Dorsett, you think of Dan Marino…Mike Ditka…Hugh Green…countless other players who have played at an elite level at the university. To be mentioned in the same breath as those names kind of throws you for a loop,” he remarked.
Fitzgerald, once hailed by Athlon as the greatest receiver of the BCS era, will join those four aforementioned greats, along with four others–Bill Fralic, Marshall Goldberg, Mark May, and Joe Schmidt–as the only Pitt players to have their numbers retired. He will become the fourth to have that honor despite playing for the school less than four years, and the first since restrictions on freshmen playing major college football were lifted in 1972.
“I’m so honored and thankful for the relationships I’ve built over the years here,” Fitzgerald said. “I was 17 when I came here, as a boy, and I feel like, at 20, I left as a man. It holds a special place for me.”
In the meantime, he’ll continue to keep one eye on playbooks and game film for Sundays, and the other on the TV to watch his alma mater on Saturdays.
“Make sure you go buy your tickets. You’re going to be in for a treat.”
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)