Last Friday, Pitt announced that it had parted ways with offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, and the move was met with a positive reaction from the fanbase at large. But now, the question is how the program should move forward after splitting with its third offensive coordinator since Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi took charge of the team in 2015.
Under Watson, Pitt gained a reputation for its impressive rushing attack, but it was also one-dimensional, as a poor passing game doomed the Panthers on multiple occasions. Meanwhile, Watson’s predecessors, Jim Chaney and Matt Canada, found success during their time in Pittsburgh but sought greener pastures after reeling in SEC job offers.
Given Pitt’s recent history, it’s clear the program faces a unique challenge with this hire, since it needs to not only bring in a coach capable of thrusting the Panthers offense up the national rankings, but also, ideally, one who has an interest in being in Pittsburgh. While not every coach fits that criteria and the best options available should be explored and prioritized, there are a few coaches who may well work.
While this search has only just begun and rumors haven’t even started to circulate about potential replacements, there’s a deep pool of talented options for Narduzzi to choose from. Given that, it’s about time to break down a few options that should be within reach for Pitt.
Scottie Montgomery, East Carolina head coach (former)
Scottie Montgomery most recently served as the head coach of East Carolina but was fired in favor of James Madison’s Mike Houston after going 9-26. Despite that dubious distinction, he could be an excellent fit for Pitt’s open offensive coordinator position.
During his tenure, East Carolina’s offense — and its passing attack, in particular — thrived. Not once during Montgomery’s three years at the helm did the Pirates rank lower than 20th in the nation in passing offense, and they ascended as high as sixth with current NFL receiver Zay Jones on the team in 2016.
Beyond the results, he also has a resume that should be eye-catching to those associated with the Pitt football program, as he previously served as Duke’s offensive coordinator and has ties to the city through his past role as the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receivers coach from 2010 to 2012.
Montgomery isn’t without his issues, as he never fielded a rushing offense that ranked in the top 100 during his time in Greenville. He also struggled to put up points consistently there, but during his time as Duke’s offensive coordinator in 2014 and 2015, the Blue Devils ranked in the top 50 in scoring offense both years. Given that, it seems he has the wherewithal to get the job done in the ACC when he has access to a higher level of talent.
Mike Denbrock, Cincinnati offensive coordinator
Pitt could address two dire needs with one hire by reaching into Ohio and luring Mike Denbrock away from his post as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator, as he masterminded a top-25 offense in 2018 and has a reputation as an elite recruiter. At Notre Dame, he had a hand in bringing in Ian Book, Will Fuller, Equanimeous St. Brown, Ronnie Stanley and Brandon Wimbush, many of whom are currently in the NFL.
Denbrock was also responsible for putting together the country's 23rd-ranked scoring offense and 15th-ranked rushing offense, the latter of which actually outran Pitt’s dynamic 2018 backfield attack by about 12 yards per game. His passing offense, while not prolific, was not a liability and would constitute an improvement over Shawn Watson’s offering in that aspect of the game.
However, the problem with this proposition is that the Bearcats coordinator would be asked to leave a secure situation for a relatively difficult undertaking at a comparable school. So from Denbrock's point of view, it’s unlikely the move would make a ton of sense.
To overcome that, Pitt would have to outbid Cincinnati for his services, and the financial disparity between the AAC and ACC makes that a possibility. Denbrock also fits the mold of coaches Pitt has sought in the past, as he has extensive experience coaching at the Power Five level. So even though Denbrock appears to be a reach, he may well be one of the more likely options out there based on Pitt’s past preferences.
Brian Wright, Toledo offensive coordinator
Brian Wright has done some impressive work as Toledo’s offensive coordinator, as he had the Rockets offense ranked among the top 10 in the nation in 2018, with 69 total touchdowns and 40.4 points per game. On top of that, his offenses haven’t ranked outside the top 20 since his arrival in northwestern Ohio.
Geographically, Wright makes a lot of sense, as he could give Pitt a leg up in its efforts to recruit Ohio, which have been lagging. He has also been able to find underrated recruits and make the most of their talents, which will be a requirement of any coach heading to Pitt.
Considering his consistency and the fact that a move to Pitt would constitute a step up for a MAC coach, despite it being a lateral move in terms of title, Wright would fit well on Pat Narduzzi’s staff and could right the ship for the Panthers offense.
However, there is one significant hurdle to overcome with Wright, and that is that Pitt associate head coach Charlie Partridge once fired him at Florida Atlantic. That is how he ended up in Toledo, and given that detail, it would be surprising to see Pitt hire Wright, even if he is a great option.
Mark Whipple, UMass head coach
The UMass passing offense ranked 113th in the nation in 2013, but by 2014, it had shot up to 11th. Since then, it has ranked among the top 20 passing offenses in the country and has never fallen out of the top 50. And it appears the reason for that is Mark Whipple.
If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Whipple's son, Spencer Whipple, played football at Pine-Richland High School and walked on at Pitt in 2007. Prior to that, Whipple served as the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks coach from 2004 to 2006.
Since his arrival in Amherst in 2014, Whipple has turned the aerial attack of the Minutemen into a thing of beauty, and he's averaged more than 30 points and just under 300 passing yards per game for the past two seasons.
With that said, the UMass running game hasn't ranked better than 100th in the nation since Whipple's arrival. So it’s unlikely a great balance between the passing game and running game would be struck with him helming the offense.
However, if Narduzzi wants to address Pitt’s most glaring deficiency, hiring Whipple could prove to be a savvy move.
Luke Getsy, Mississippi State offensive coordinator
On the opposite side of the Mark Whipple coin is Luke Getsy. Like Whipple, Getsy has ties to both Pitt and Pittsburgh, as he grew up in Munhall, played at Steel Valley High School and briefly played for the Panthers before transferring to Akron. He then went into coaching, returning to Pitt as a graduate assistant in 2010 and enjoying a four-year stint with the Green Bay Packers before moving on to his current role at Mississippi State.
He contrasts with Whipple in that his area of expertise is the running game. Over the past three years, Mississippi State has ranked among the top 25 rushing offenses in the nation every season. However, the Bulldogs haven’t fared better than 89th in passing offense over that same span. So for fans of the mind that Narduzzi should double down on Pitt’s rushing attack, Getsy fits.
Getsy also has Power Five experience, which seemed to be an important factor when hiring Shawn Watson. But between the emphasis on the run and the passing game neglect, one could argue that such a hire wouldn’t actually constitute an improvement over Watson.