NCAA Football: ACC Media Days

CHARLOTTE — The second and final day of the ACC Football Kickoff turned the attention of the media to the Coastal Division, bringing coaches and players from Miami, Pitt, North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Duke through the rotation to preview the upcoming season. That side of the standings includes more questions than answers, with more than half of the division's coaches making their ACC media days debut. 

All four of the new hires in the ACC are in the Coastal Division — Mario Cristobal at Miami, Mike Elko at Duke, Tony Elliott at Virginia and Brent Pry at Virginia Tech — and Thursday's event included lots of talk about how these coaches plan to lead their new programs to success. Three of the four coaches are also in their first-ever head coaching job at the FBS level (Elko, Elliott and Pry), taking on their first run through the media days circuit in this position. 

But while these are first-year coaches, there is some familiarity with the new faces. Tony Elliott has an extensive history with the ACC as a national championship-winning offensive coordinator at Clemson and Mike Elko was a defensive coordinator for Dave Clawson at Wake Forest before taking jobs at Notre Dame and Texas A&M. Even Mario Cristobal has some limited ACC experience from coaching offensive line under Larry Coker early in the Hurricanes' ACC era. 

On the other side of the four first-year coaches are two of the league's more established voices in Mack Brown and Pat Narduzzi, the latter of whom has gone from being a rookie coach at this event back in 2015 to one of the more tenured coaches in the conference. These coaches didn't have the same tone when discussing their expectations for 2022, as both Pitt and North Carolina know who they are and have their focus on chasing championships in the Coastal Division. 

The collection of first-year coaches weren't the only thing drawing attention on Thursday at the ACC Football Kickoff, as the division that produced seven champions in seven seasons from 2013-19 got together for one last run before the league scraps divisions in 2023. Let's get into some of the notable talking points from the day.   

'Early is on time' at Miami 

Cristobal is ready for us to move on from the Turnover Chain. The Hurricanes are going to retire the jeweled necklace that's been on their sideline since 2017, and it doesn't sound like he, or the players, have thought much about it in their preparation for the season. 

"Let's put it this way. We've been working so hard and paying attention to so many other things that, in my opinion, are much more critical to winning football games and having success that [the chain] really hasn't been a subject or a topic," Cristobal added.  "We won't be using it. You guys okay with that? We good now? Everybody got the chain stuff?"

Cristobal continued to come back to the messaging of hard work and attention to detail. How building out a Miami football culture for this program needs to start small, and turning focus away from things like the turnover chain fall into the notion of stripping everything away and starting from the foundation. He's an intense head coach who is demanding that same kind of mental intensity from his players, and he says it's a big part of their message to the team. 

"We always hammer home how you do anything is how you do everything, and that early is on time," Cristobal said. "That's got to be the most important factor in being successful and being productive. You've got to show up and showing up early also shows a level of mental intensity that something is important to you. What's more disrespectful than showing up late? What's more disrespectful than not paying attention to get ready to do your job? Something like that would show a lack of mental intensity. For us there really are no little things."

Miami had one of the worst turnover margins in the ACC last season and ranked in the bottom three in penalties per game. The mental mistakes associated with those shortcomings played a role in losing at the margins, which became evident with the three one-score losses that could have flipped 7-5 to 10-2. If you want to know how Cristobal can quickly take the Hurricanes back to the ACC Championship Game, it starts with winning at the margins with mental intensity. 

Coaches argue for the value of division play 

Most coaches and many fans have praised the future 3-5-5 scheduling model, which will eliminate divisions and allow ACC teams to play everyone else in the conference over a two-year span. However, Wednesday saw Dave Clawson mourn the end of Wake Forest's annual rivalry with NC State that stretches back more than a century. On Thursday, the ACC Coastal Division coaches provided another perspective. 

Brown "loved" the championship game with two division winners and said he "believed" in the Atlantic and the Coastal. The North Carolina coach's stance was echoed and even furthered by Narduzzi, who explained that having a championship to win that's not the conference championship provides building blocks for programs on the rise.  

"I think Pittsburgh has come to where we are today, winning the ACC Championship a year ago, it was developed from our 2018 Coastal Division Championship," Narduzzi said. "I think there has to be a starting point. For me it's okay because we've built something good in the last seven years, and it's just going to continue to go, but I feel bad that some of the other teams maybe haven't been in that championship game, haven't been Coastal Division champions, and they won't have a chance here in the future if that stays true, because I really think that helped build us. 

"When I was at Michigan State, we got beat by Wisconsin in the championship. We were division champions, got to the ACC championship and lost that game. That fueled us to come back and beat the No. 1 team in the country in Ohio State and play in the Rose Bowl. To me that was all fuel. You take little steps as you go, and I think it's a big deal to be a division champion. I think just like AFC and NFC championships, those are big games. There are celebrations after that game. I think it's the same thing with the Coastal and Atlantic."

Brent Pry wins best-dressed of the day 

Yesterday we saw Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham dazzle in a red suit with matching Prada sneakers. Virginia Tech coach Brent Pry was also leaning in to the school colors, wearing a maroon suit with a two-tone orange and maroon tie for the Hokies' media days appearance. 

Lots of coaches wear their school colors, but what took Pry's jacket over the top was the custom lining with the Hokie print. 

How Pitt plans to replace Kenny Pickett 

There are 10 ACC programs with returning starting quarterbacks, giving the league a strong presence as it pertains to having the best signal-callers in the country. All four of the teams who will have new starters this year are in the Coastal Division, and none seem as daunting to replace as Pitt's next steps after Kenny Pickett. The ACC Offensive Player of the Year and Heisman Trophy finalist was a multi-year starter and the key to unlocking the Panthers' ACC Championship run last season, so how will Pitt replace that production?

Narduzzi says the battle is down to Nick Patti, an established veteran who was Pickett's backup for the last couple of years, and USC transfer Kedon Slovis. But as much as Pitt might feel confident with the state of the position, it's still a tough task to replace everything that Pickett brought to the table.  

"Replacing Kenny is never easy," Narduzzi said. "Kenny Pickett was an outstanding football player. He was the leader of our football team. Not only will we miss the leadership he shows on the field, but we'll miss, obviously, the competitiveness he brought to the game every Saturday. So Kenny will be hard to replace. 

"We've got two young men that are fighting for that position right now. Nick Patti, who played in a bowl game, at least the first two series of the bowl game until he was injured, and Kedon Slovis, a transfer from the University of Southern California. Those two guys are battling. They both had great springs. I think we can win a lot of games with both of them. I think that we'll have a very, very competitive August at camp with them."

Pour one out for the Coastal Division 

While Brown and Narduzzi can share the praises of division play and competing for division champions, they cannot reverse course on the scheduling model that will go into place in 2023. The 2022 season is the end of the Coastal Division, which evolved into a beloved and unique portion of the college football world as it produced seven different champions in seven years. The run started with Duke in 2013, ended with Virginia in 2019 and along the way produced plenty of crazy November conference action with head-scratching tiebreaker possibilities. 

So pour one out for the Coastal, the one division in college football that anyone could enter the season with hopes of playing for a conference championship.