Some members of the media sat down with new Pitt athletic director recently. On Saturday, I mentioned that he touched on the subject of playing Penn State and West Virginia, but there was a lot more to it that I wanted to jump into.
The Post-Gazette's Sam Werner has the full transcript, which is more than worth your time. A few things jumped out at me and I'll hit on some of those.
The Fan Experience Committee
First things first, there's the Fan Experience committee, which JD mentioned a few days ago. The response has been very positive and Pitt got several hundred responses by the following morning. In short, this is going to be a 20-person or so committee that meets to discuss the fan experience at Pitt games and how it can be improved. It's really a great idea that will get direct feedback from real fans outside of the university. It was something Barnes did at Utah State and he deemed it successful. The focus of it is really on football, but he added that it could be extended to other sports as well.
Football is, of course, the cash cow. And while it'd be great to get input on other sports, let's not kid ourselves here. Football is what needs the most work and is the most important. Men's basketball, the next most high-profile sport, doesn't have the attendance issues plaguing the football program.
The interesting thing here is that the committee isn't only going to be looking high-level things. At Utah State, a lot of the details were reviewed. Like, every, single, one.
One of the challenges was how we shepherded folks through the concession line ... More port-a-potties were brought in. How we communicate with our fans in a consistent manner...
We had a challenge — not that we have it here — but as an example, we had a challenge with the band and the cheerleaders and the coordination of their efforts in a choreographed way, along with the PA. We also changed the next year some of the ticket packaging and some of the offerings.
Barnes added that those are pretty minor things, which, of course, they are. But the one thing he said that was spot on was that, collectively, they're a big deal. If you take anything out of the fan experience thing from this, just know that the committee is probably going to look at every single detail of attending games.
Football, football, and ... football
Barnes was asked about his vision for the athletics department and gave a pretty long answer that basically ended by saying the most important thing was getting football to excel.
I've told all our coaches this as we go around the room, a rising tide lifts all boats, and that rising tide is football. If we can get football right, then all of our programs succeed...getting football to a level that we would like, which is, 'Hey, let's go win a championship. Let's compete at the national level.' If we do that, we will succeed. We will get to our goal which is to win championships in every sport.
This type of answer should satisfy just about every fan. For football fans, it's clear that that's where the focus is. Barnes (correctly) believes that by strengthening football, other things will fall into place. That doesn't mean that the wrestling program can't do better or that the tennis program can't compete more if Pat Narduzzi fails - but winning at football just makes everything else easier.
Football is where you'll find the most passionate donors. If the football team wins more, attendance and donations increase. That raises more money, which Pitt can then invest into other programs. It sounds like such a ridiculously easy formula, but it's the truth. Barnes isn't showing a lack of commitment to track, to soccer, to baseball. He's simply focusing on the easiest way to improve those programs.
I should add here that Pitt really has no excuse not to be more competitive at other sports even without football succeeding. As I wrote earlier, too many programs have done far too little and with the ACC money that Pitt now has, those programs should already see a boost in terms of additional recruiting money, key hires, facility improvements, etc. But football success will help Pitt even more.
If you build it, FREE FOOD WILL COME
Another thing Barnes touched on was the need to look at Pitt's facilities. This isn't a two or three-year thing, boys and girls. Barnes mentioned they will be putting together a facilities master plan, which looks about ten years out.
A cursory glance at Pitt's facilities shows major issues for several programs. The tennis team plays its matches at Alpha Tennis and Fitness in Harmarville, far away from campus. And while the fairly new Petersen Sports Complex provides a quality home for baseball, softball, and soccer, the wrestling, track (indoor), gymnastics, and volleyball programs are inside of the 60+ year-old Field House. Eventually Pitt will need to look at major renovations or a new indoor facility entirely.
Barnes himself even touched on the latter when asked if he was satisfied with the Panthers' facilities:
In some cases absolutely not, in some cases absolutely yes. I think this facility [the Petersen Events Center], the answer is yes. Heinz Field, absolutely. Other facilities — perhaps practice facilities, training facilities, sports that don't even have facilities — no.
The facilities plan will likely take a look at continuing to improve the practice/training facilities for things like football and basketball, but some sort of plan for the indoor Olympic sports is going to be a big focal point.
It's also clear (as if it wasn't before) that Pitt isn't looking at the on-campus football stadium thingamajig. So how will they lure students to games on the north side?
We've got to make that experience great, too. Usually free food helps. Whatever we do, there will be free food.
That's currently the number of Pitt athletics programs. And Barnes says it isn't going to change anytime soon:
When you think about all the legislative changes that have happened, or those that could happen, I think it would be irresponsible to think about adding sports when we're right now about making sure that we take care of our current student-athletes at the level we need to. When I say that, I'm talking about cost of attendance, meals legislation and whatever other items might come down the pipe that we've got to be ready to deal with. At this point in time, 19 [is good]. We're not focusing on anything other than being excellent with the 19 we have.
I'll certainly agree that Pitt needs to focus on improving its weaker programs (and there are many) rather than worry about 'expansion' yet. But in the ACC, I'd also like to see the school eventually grow. Lacrosse and Field Hockey aren't going away and are growing sports in Pennsylvania. 12 ACC programs have men's golf and parents are starting their children younger and younger. To not look at getting into those sports would be foolish.
I'm with Barnes on wanting to hold off for now on expanding until Pitt can build up some other sports, but those are three that I'd like to see the school add at some point.
ALL THE TWEETS
Barnes acknowledged the social media role and how it's important. We all know Pat Narduzzi and his staff use Twitter heavily, but Jamie Dixon? Not so much.
According to Barnes, that will change. When asked if Pitt's coaches will be getting more onto the social media bandwagon, he had this to say:
Yes. I do. It started with just text messages. Yes, it'll go that way. How do you get to your recruits, how do you get to your fans? Eventually, if that's the most effective way to do it, that's what we'll do. It is what it is.
We'll see. While I certainly acknowledge its importance, Dixon clearly doesn't feel that way. He tweets so infrequently that it's borderline news when he does (Dixon, by the way, has two tweets to his name in all of 2015).
I'd like the coaches that aren't using Twitter much to be more active on social media, but if they are winning and doing they're job without it, I wouldn't force their hands. But due to the basketball recruiting issues Dixon and company have had recently, a great case could be made that he needs to do it.
The other 'problem' is that you don't want it to come off as phony. Narduzzi's a high-voltage kind of guy that has the attitude to do it. It would look kind of silly if Jamie Dixon and his more laid back demeanor was out there tweeting emojis and #412crew hashtags. There's got to be some kind of balance.
As an add-on to the scheduling writeup I had over the weekend, the transcript (go read the whole thing, folks) provides more detail.
While Barnes wants to play Penn State every year, he acknowledges that might not be realistic (he actually says it's not). And we know that Pitt isn't all that interested in facing West Virginia in football, but why not basketball?
You've got this balancing act between you want to build your RPI and bring some strategy to what you're doing [and] fan interest is really important. Where does that come?
To recap, Pitt wants to make sure its RPI is good enough and wants an opponent where there's fan interest? West Virginia clearly would help accomplish both, so Barnes actually validated why Pitt should be playing the Mountaineers. I don't think he intended to do that, but if those are truly two areas of importance, there's not much reason not to play the game. FWIW, he added that he and Dixon hadn't spoken much about it yet.
So what do you think? What stood out to you?