Gorman: Pitt should change approach to coaching search
In a cruel twist of fate, Dave Wannstedt stood at the same podium where he was hailed six years earlier upon introduction as Pitt football coach and offered what was clearly a forced farewell.
If devotion to his university, loyalty to his players and a coach’s character defined success in major-college football, Wannstedt wouldn’t have been forced to “resign” Tuesday. That Panthers players gave Wannstedt a standing ovation and surrounded him in support spoke volumes.
But let’s be real here.
This is about winning and losing.
And Wannstedt lost more big games than he won.
Despite Steve Pederson calling Wannstedt the “consummate Pitt man, the consummate gentleman” and talking about how much the university values everything he has done, the Pitt athletic director made clear that Wannstedt’s Panthers came up short in the Big East the past six seasons.
“We will find the right coach, and we will find somebody to pick up where Dave left off and help us achieve a championship level here,” Pederson said. “I keep lists like every AD would, particularly when you have a coach who you knew wasn’t going to coach for a long time further.”
That was no longer up to Wannstedt after the Panthers lost a three-way tiebreaker for the Big East title and received the consolation prize of an invitation to the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala.
Pederson made it clear that winning only a share of the Big East title isn’t acceptable at Pitt, which should have come without explanation after Walt Harris was run out of town in 2004 despite clinching the Big East’s automatic BCS berth by winning a four-way tiebreaker.
Wannstedt has served as a great ambassador for the university, one whose character and charisma helped rebuild bridges Harris had burned between Pitt and its alums, between Pitt and WPIAL coaches and players. He also served as a positive role model for his players, who have been effusive in their praise of Wannstedt as a teacher and father figure.
Yet they took advantage of his leniency with their lack of discipline. The arrests of All-American defensive end Jabaal Sheard for fighting and, later, backup tailback Jason Douglas for a hit-and-run while driving under the influence left Wannstedt little margin for error this season.
The nationally televised losses to Utah, Miami, Notre Dame, Connecticut and West Virginia sealed his fate. The latter two defeats cost Pitt a chance to win the conference title outright for the first time in school history.
“This was a hard season,” Pederson said. “This was a tough year all the way around, both on and off the field, and that wears on everybody.”
What Wannstedt’s successor will wear is one of two tags: he’ll either be a Pitt man, or he won’t. And Wannstedt is proof that being a Pitt man — a consummate Pitt man, at that — isn’t enough.
Pitt’s short list should have one requirement that supersedes all others: It needs a coach who embraces the college game in a way Wannstedt wouldn’t.
That shouldn’t preclude Pitt from hiring a coach from the NFL ranks, one with NFL experience or one that runs a pro-style offense and defense. The next coach needs to have the character and charisma of Wannstedt on the recruiting trail and alumni circuit but be more innovative on game days.
To do that, Pitt has to conduct a serious search.
Pitt has been trying to recapture its glory years by reaching back to them.
When it was looking for another Johnny Majors in the early 1990s, it hired none other than Johnny Majors. When it was looking for another connection to its 1976 national champions, it hired Wannstedt and Matt Cavanaugh.
When Pitt was looking for an athletic director like Steve Pederson, it hired none other than Steve Pederson, after he was run out of Nebraska when his firing of Frank Solich and hiring of Bill Callahan backfired.
This is no time for Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg to be a one-man search committee, as he did when hiring Wannstedt. This is no time for Pitt to ignore minority candidates in favor of those with connections to the university. This is no time for Panthers boosters to call the shots.
If Pitt wants to be taken seriously, it has to conduct a serious search.
Pitt has to hire the right man. And he has to win.
If not, this is Nebraska all over again.