So here’s a fun college football bedtime story: once upon a time in Wisconsin, the head football coach left town to become the head coach at Arkansas. Pitt’s head coach (who used to be an assistant coach at Wisconsin) could’ve gone back to be the new head coach at Wisconsin, but Wisconsin’s boss said it was too soon.
But then, two years later, Wisconsin’s coach left again. This time Wisconsin’s boss decided it was time to bring his old friend back and hired Pitt’s coach to go back to Wisconsin. So then Pitt went out and found a new head coach. That new head coach decided to hire his new offensive coordinator from… Arkansas.
Is everybody with me so far?
Such is the weird, full-circle story of Jim Chaney, the new offensive boss for the Panthers hired by head coach Pat Narduzzi on Sunday. Chaney leaves an Arkansas team that he helped lead to a 7-6 record and a 31-6 win over Texas in Houston at the Texas Bowl on December 29.
But more impressive is the résumé Chaney brings with him to Pittsburgh from Fayetteville; not because of the numbers, but because of the wide range he has shown as a play-caller.
During his nine seasons as Purdue’s offensive coordinator (1997-2005), Chaney became known for using a one-back spread offense that earned the nickname of “basketball on grass.” In his second season, a 6-foot tall sophomore named Drew Brees became the Boilermakers’ starting quarterback.
In three seasons under Chaney’s guidance, Brees went on to set the Big Ten conference records for passing yards, touchdown passes, total offense, completions and attempts. He also tied an NCAA record with a 99-yard touchdown pass against Northwestern in 1999 and held the NCAA record for pass attempts in a single game with 83. He was named a finalist for the Davey O’Brien Award (1999), won the Maxwell Award (2000) and was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy twice (1999 and 2000). During the 2000 season Brees led Purdue to an 8-2 record and their first-ever Big Ten Championship.
Chaney’s offense was so popular that he taught it to several coaches, including a young head coach named Urban Meyer who was starting his first job at Bowling Green. (Yeah, that Urban Meyer; the one running that same spread offense with Ohio State in the national championship game Monday night.)
After leaving Purdue, Chaney spent three seasons as an assistant for the St. Louis Rams, where he adopted a pro-style philosophy and went on to use it when Lane Kiffin hired him as the offensive coordinator at Tennessee in 2009. In 2012, his pass-happy attack with the Volunteers, led by quarterback Tyler Bray, was ranked 15th nationally (315.58 yards per game) and 22nd in scoring (36.17). Bray’s top targets were a pair of receivers named Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter, both of whom now play in the NFL.
Bret Bielema brought Chaney to Arkansas in 2013, and the Razorbacks adopted a run-heavy offense that rushed for 208.7 yards per game. The running back duo of sophomore Jonathan Williams and freshman Alex Collins rushed for 900-plus yards apiece, only the second time ever in program history. In 2014, that rushing average increased to 218 yards per game (24th in the nation), and both Williams and Collins surpassed the 1,000-yard mark.
So what does this history lesson mean for fans at Pitt? Why is Chaney such a great fit for a Panthers offense that was 40th in the nation this past season in yards per game (435.4), and 43rd in scoring (31.8)? It means they will have a coordinator that has an excellent reputation for getting the most out of his personnel, and his top three returning players were all sophomores last season.
Reigning ACC Player of the Year James Conner ran for 1,800 yards and broke Tony Dorsett’s touchdown record with 26. Quarterback Chad Voytik, was 40th in the nation in passing efficiency (140.2) and also averaged 4.3 yards per carry. Wide receiver Tyler Boyd’s 1,261 receiving yards were 11th-best in the nation, and Boyd is already considered by many as a can’t-miss prospect for the 2016 NFL Draft.
More importantly, it means Narduzzi won’t have to spend his first year as head coach looking over his offensive coordinator’s shoulder. That kind of security will allow him to spend more time using his gifts as a premier defensive mind to fix a defense that saved its worst 2014 performance for last.
Jim Chaney is not a perfect fit because his presence suddenly vaults Pitt into contention for a national championship, or because his track record suggests as much. He’s a perfect fit because he can take what Pitt has right now, make it work immediately and make it better.
And for Narduzzi, he needs to get as much as he can working for him as soon as possible.