If the phone lines to travel agencies, airlines and hotels in and around Charlotte, N.C., were jammed Friday afternoon, blame Pat Narduzzi.
Speaking before a room full of Pitt fans eager -- some might say starving -- for a championship, the coach said his team will be in Charlotte on Dec. 1 for the ACC championship game.
At the end of the Kickoff Luncheon at Heinz Field -- after he named seniors Alex Bookser (Mt. Lebanon), Quintin Wirginis (Fox Chapel) and Dennis Briggs (Shadyside Academy) as this season’s captains -- Narduzzi boldly and without hesitation said, “Next time we’ll see you is in Charlotte for the ACC championship game because we’re going.”
Later, Narduzzi said he wasn’t making a guarantee, only expressing the team’s stated goal. After all, the 13th game in Pitt’s 2018 schedule -- as it’s printed in the media guide -- is the Dr. Pepper ACC championship game.
“That’s the goal,” Narduzzi said. “These guys have talked more about it than ever. I don’t make any guarantees. You know that. But that’s what we’re shooting for, and if we aren’t shooting for it, what are we doing? What are we wasting our time for?”
The most recent time Narduzzi made a promise concerning his team was at halftime of the Pitt-Miami game Nov. 24, 2017, when he told ESPN sideline reporter Allison Williams that Pitt (4-7 at the time) will win the game. Pitt was ahead 10-7 and went on to upset No. 2 Miami, 24-14.
Actually, Narduzzi was full of absolute statements Friday. Earlier at the luncheon, he had high praise for Wirginis.
“In my 29 years of coaching linebackers, being around linebackers, he’s the best one I’ve ever had, and that’s a fact,” Narduzzi said. “I just don’t say those things. I tell it like it is.”
That’s a significant statement from Narduzzi, who coached three All-American linebackers at Michigan State, including Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Greg Jones.
Wirginis, whose next start will be his first in four seasons at Pitt, has quickly assumed the title of leader of the Pitt defense after sitting out last season with a knee injury. Narduzzi calls him “a computer.”
“It’s a combination of everything,” Narduzzi said of what makes Wirginis special. “To me, to have a great (middle) linebacker or any linebacker, you have to have intelligence. He’s got that. He’s like a computer in there.
“He’s an explosive football player. He’ll be a surprise to every offense he lines up against this season.”
Wirginis was replaced last season by Saleem Brightwell, who Narduzzi called “a great linebacker.”
“But (the difference) is night and day.”
He also called Briggs “the most mature player I’ve ever, ever coached.” Briggs, a strong safety, will be Pitt’s first two-time co-captain since Aaron Donald.
Briggs talked about the two sides of Wirginis, a friend for many years and a teammate since 2014.
He remembered seeing him at a Fox Chapel basketball game years ago “head to toe in body paint” and wondering, “Why isn’t that guy playing power forward?”
Then, when they were among several Pitt athletes who went on a mission trip to Haiti, he remembers Wirginis “reading the gospel to young men and women.”
Each of the 19 seniors made a brief statement about the teammate sitting next to him.
Running back Qadree Ollison gave Bookser, who will be a three-year starter on the offensive line, the ultimate compliment anyone can give a Pittsburgher.
“I never knew this term before I got here, but the definition of Yinzer is right here next to me,” said Ollison, who grew up in Niagara Falls, N.Y. “He wears Pittsburgh on his sleeve, and he lets everyone know where he’s from.”