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Pitt football fights to overcome steppingstone status |

Pitt football fights to overcome steppingstone status

Jerry DiPaola
| Saturday, December 20, 2014 10:42 p.m
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Pitt offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph during a game against Syracuse on Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Pitt offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph during a game against Syracuse on Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014 at Heinz Field.

Stored in old boxes in Darren Rovell’s home are several sports magazines from the 1970s and ’80s.

Rovell, a sports business analyst for ESPN who makes his living studying the health and wealth of athletic programs, occasionally leafs through them. He notices a common theme.

“It’s amazing how many times (Pitt football) appears in those pages,” he said.

Pitt won a national championship in 1976 but lost coach Johnny Majors only days later to his alma mater, Tennessee.

Three years later, Majors’ successor, Jackie Sherrill, started a three-year string of 11-1 seasons, but he was gone by 1981. Since then, Pitt has had only one season of double-digit victories (10 in 2009).

Back in the news for different reasons, Pitt finds itself in its fourth coaching search since firing Dave Wannstedt after the 2010 regular season. That’s the most for a Power 5 conference in that span. Intentionally or not, Todd Graham and Paul Chryst used Pitt as a steppingstone to jobs with more money and a presumed better chance to win.

Pitt fans might feel slighted. Graham stayed one season after trying to make everyone believe he cared about the future of the program. Chryst went home to Wisconsin after three seasons of honest rebuilding.

Rovell, however, said it’s difficult not to get stepped on in today’s college football world.

“There are more programs that are steppingstones than destinations,” he said. “Out of 128 FBS schools, 20 are destinations.”

Pitt seldom has been a place where a football coach has put down deep roots. Only three coaches in the past 75 years lasted longer than five seasons: John Michelosen (1955-1965), Walt Harris (1997-2004) and Wannstedt (2005-2010).

Michelosen and Harris took losing programs and made them respectable. Wannstedt, a Pitt graduate who would have stayed through retirement age, toppled under the weight of heavy expectations and players acting inappropriately off the field.

The longest-tenured Pitt coach is Jock Sutherland, who reigned from 1924-38, resigning when chancellor John Gabbert Bowman decided he wanted to de-emphasize football.

That’s not the case today.

Patrick Gallagher, who took office in August as Pitt’s 18th chancellor, made the bold move last week of firing athletic director Steve Pederson with four years remaining on a contract that paid Pederson $577,083 in 2013.

If that’s an indicator of Gallagher’s willingness to spend perhaps double Chryst’s $1.526 million salary, Rovell doesn’t believe that’s the best way to keep a coach.

“The problem is money doesn’t stop it anymore,” he said, citing Florida hiring Jim McElwain away from Colorado State despite a $7.5 million buyout. “The business has been totally professionalized. Coaches have big agents, and those agents, if they’re worth their salt, will push for a big contract.”

Pitt legend Tony Dorsett follows the program from afar, and he said he’d like to see Gallagher make a “big splash” with the next coach.“Call it hopeful or wishful thinking. I doubt that’ll happen,” he said. “You think of a name like Nick Saban, but you look at those guys, and they make millions and millions of dollars. It’s unbelievable. A lot of these coaches at big-time schools make big-time money, so they’re probably pretty happy with their situations.”

Dorsett remains optimistic Pitt can find the right man.

“It’s a very good, very quality school,” he said. “They’ll get the right man.”

An older coach who has had success — such as Marshall’s 57-year-old coach Doc Holliday — might make sense. If he wins within the first three years, his age would make him a lesser target for poaching. Graham was 47, Chryst 49 when they left Pitt.

Rovell said there are basic elements that would help Pitt retain a coach.

“What is going to prevent Pitt from being a steppingstone is winning and a great environment,” he said. “That a coach feels good being there. I’ve seen Pitt games on TV, and I don’t think the game-day experience is particularly special.”With so many games televised, selling college football without a recent tradition of winning is difficult, he said.

“Let’s take away the fact that college football is in a harder position than other sports, getting cannibalized by TV,” he said.“It’s a product that has to appeal to 65-year-olds with money and 20-year-olds with future money. You have to figure out how to balance that. Some of it is about options. Pittsburgh has more options for the entertainment dollar.”

And in case anyone asks, he said, an on-campus stadium is not the answer.

“That’s fool’s gold,” Rovell said. “If you win, they will come. Not, if you build it, they will come.”

Staff writer Bill West contributed. Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review pitt football reporter. You can contact Jerry at 412-320-7997, or via Twitter .

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