Matt Cavanaugh has arguably one of the toughest jobs in college football. Entering the season, he knew he was going to be coaching a first-year starter. The hope was that the most experienced quarterback, Bill Stull, would win the job so he could have some time to groom redshirt freshman Kevan Smith and true freshman Pat Bostick.
Stull injured the thumb on his throwing hand in Saturday's win over Eastern Michigan, and had surgery on Monday. He could be out as long as two months, depending on how he progresses through rehab. In Stull's absence, Cavanaugh and head coach Dave Wannstedt will let Smith and Bostick compete this week for the chance to start against Grambling on Saturday.
Cavanaugh's job becomes even tougher than it already was. After breaking in a new starter in Stull, he now has to break in a freshman, whoever wins out this week. Based on his own experience as a quarterback, there is no coach better suited to handle this situation than Cavanaugh. He went through a similar experience as in his college career at Pitt, and is the perfect person for all three quarterbacks to have as not only a quarterbacks coach, but as a mentor. Whether it's Stull, Smith or Bostick, Cavanaugh was in each one of their situations as a player.
As a junior, in Pitt's national championship year of 1976, Cavanaugh took the reins from Robert Haygood. Haygood led the Panthers to a season-opening win at Notre Dame. The following week, returning to his home state of Georgia, Haygood suffered a knee injury, and was lost for the season. Cavanaugh got the call. He went on to start the next three games; lifting Pitt to wins over Temple, Duke and Louisville, before suffering a broken ankle against the Cardinals. He was replaced with Tom Yewcic, a former walk-on. Yewcic filled in for Cavanaugh, leading the Panthers through the rest of the Louisville game. He started the following three games, against Miami, Navy and Syracuse. Cavanaugh returned to action against Army, four weeks after his injury, leading the Panthers to four more wins, a national championship and Sugar Bowl MVP honors.
"I could have very well been a career backup here at Pitt," Cavanaugh said. "Robert Haygood got hurt. I was ready. I got a chance to play. I played well enough that they decided to keep me in there until I got hurt, then (Yewcic) came in."
In his senior year of 1977, Cavanaugh suffered a broken wrist in the season-opener at home against Notre Dame. Rick Trocano came on to help Pitt to three wins, before Cavanaugh returned. Trocano, a true freshman in 1977, led the Panthers to wins over William & Mary, Temple and Boston College, before Cavanaugh returned to lead the Panthers against Florida. The Panthers finished 9-2-1 in 1977, as Cavanaugh led the Panthers to a Gator Bowl win over Clemson. It was also 1977 where Cavanaugh earned first-team All-America honors, despite missing three games.
"Any time you're backing someone up, you better be ready to play," Cavanaugh said. "I think, that was pretty much my career in the NFL. You're not going to get the reps you need during the week, that's just a fact. As a coach, it's your responsibility to know if Robert Haygood's not in, and I'm in, 'What can I do best? Let me do that.' Kevan Smith and Pat Bostick are not Billy Stull. I don't expect them to be. They have strengths that we have to play on. Now, they're going to get an opportunity."
Thirty years later, Bill Stull's injury resembles the same situation Pitt had in 1977. Cavanaugh, as a player, saw his chance as a quarterback from both sides. He found out what it was like to replace an incumbent starter, and he also watched on as players like Yewcic and Trocano filled in for him.
"I can probably sympathize more with Billy Stull than I can with Kevan Smith or Pat Bostick," Cavanaugh said. "I was really down. I felt like I had a great season ahead of me. I didn't know how long I was going to be out. I tried to be supportive of (Trocano). Billy has already made that attempt, even the day of his surgery. Billy was up here being supportive, talking to the guys, lending a hand. I think that's important. That has to come from the heart. You can't make someone do that. I don't think Billy cares as much about (Smith and Bostick) as much he cares about this team."
Tony Greco can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org..
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