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A Relationship Doomed from the Start

The biggest indictment of Dave Wannstedt’s tenure at Pittsburgh came this past season, when the strong — when healthy — Panthers proved incapable of winning the weakest Big East in recent memory. Take note of the previous caveat: when healthy, Pittsburgh was as good, likely better, than any team in the conference. The Panthers weren’t healthy, however, especially on defense, and struggled to make ends meet on a patchwork offensive line. And so the Wannstedt¬†era ends, leaving athletic director Steve Pederson, once again, in charge of a coaching search of extreme importance.

We’ve been on this ride once before. Back in 2003, Pederson — then Nebraska’s athletic director — fired Frank Solich at the tail end of a 9-3 regular season. Nebraska wouldn’t give up the Big 12 to Texas and Oklahoma, said Pederson.

He missed on his top choice, missed on his second, was embarrassed by Houston Nutt’s claim that he had been offered the job and declined. Finally, Pederson settled on his last, poorest choice: Bill Callahan. Four years later, Callahan, along with Pederson, was told to clear out his desk. The Cornhuskers only recently began clearing the wreckage of the Pederson-led disaster.

This is not quite a bedtime story Pittsburgh fans want to hear. In hindsight, perhaps Pederson was merely biding his time until he could bring in his own coach, not one he inherited when he returned to Pittsburgh in November of 2007. Wannstedt had been in place three years by that time, missing bowl play in each season, but won 19 games over the next two seasons.

Pederson couldn’t fire Wannstedt then, of course, though he may have wanted to. Now he has his excuse: Pittsburgh was a disappointment, pure and simple, and all the excuses — valid or otherwise — wasn’t going to keep Wannstedt’s head off the chopping block.

Can we get behind this decision? I suppose it depends on your viewpoint. Do you think Pittsburgh can contend for national titles? If so, Pederson’s move is the right one: he now goes on the search for a coach capable of leading the Panthers into yearly title contention.

Do you think Pittsburgh is a good program, one certainly able to win the Big East with regularity and make annual trips to bowl play? Even if we temper expectations to that point, maybe we can still find no issue with Wannstedt’s firing. That’s only if we ignore the mitigating circumstances behind this season’s collapse — if that’s not too strong a word.

Pittsburgh starred a new quarterback, Tino Sunseri. The offensive line was poor all season. The defense lacked star power, especially after defensive end Greg Romeus was first suspended then injured, costing him all but two games of the season. These are excuses, but they’re valid.

What’s the truth? Boiled down, the relationship between Pederson and Wannstedt was doomed from the start. As at Nebraska, Pederson wanted to put his own stamp on the football program; Wannstedt was a holdover, after all, and while his team played well from 2008-9 this season’s slide gave Pederson all the ammunition he’d need.

So a potential nightmare for Pittsburgh becomes a reality: Pederson begins another nationwide coaching search. To some, on the other hand, a bigger nightmare would have been Dave Wannstedt back on the sidelines at Heinz Field in 2011. It depends on your viewpoint: do you think Pittsburgh can play for national championships?

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  1. Gotham Gator says:

    Didn’t Pittsburgh finally claim a share of the Big East title this year? I’m not sure whether the Big East works like other conferences and awards co-championships if there is a tie atop the standings; I just know that Pitt didn’t get the BCS spot due to tiebreakers.

    It would be a rather odd development if Pitt fired Wannstedt the very same year he won his first conference championship.

  2. Matt Rob says:

    Any thoughts on a certain “Golden” coach from Eastern PA as a potential candidate for the position (considering that JoePa is returning at PSU, and the Owls were hosed out of a bowl invite despite going 8-4).

  3. M Meyer says:

    I think Iowa offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe would be an inspired choice.

  4. ben says:

    as a pitt student, i am sad to see wannstedt go. hearing about pederson’s history at nebraska does not make me feel better. we have the talent to run the pro style system and i’m not sure who out there with the ties in western pa could run this program. i’m not sure if they’re looking for a “pitt guy,” because wannstedt was that guy or if they’re just going to stick with frank cigneti, the offensive coordinator.

  5. ben says:

    pat narduzzi, the defensive coordinator at michigan state may be a shadow candidate if he is willing to move to the big east. he did a decent job coaching msu while mark dantonio was recovering from his heart attack plus he’s been in the big east before while at cincinnati. so, paul, what do you think?
    My list goes like this:
    1. Al Golden
    2. Frank Cignetti
    3. Pat Narduzzi

  6. [...] I’m a Pitt fan, that the guy responsible for bringing Bill Callahan to Nebraska is picking my next head coach isn’t something that’s filling me with a sense of [...]

  7. Husker Al says:

    I think you are off base with this article. Pederson and Wannestadt are freinds, and Wannestadt was believed to be Pederson’s first choice after Solich was fired in 2003, and gave him a two year contract extension just this offseason (which he also did for Callahan the year he was fired.)

    The relationship wasn’t doomed from the start, but from the play on the field.

  8. Uberd says:

    i’m gonna miss seeing that porn stash on the sideline.

  9. ben says:


    the post-gazette and espn name some interesting candidates

    1. russ grimm – o-line coach for the cardinals
    2. marvin lewis – probably ex-head coach of the bengals
    3. tom bradley – d-coordinator at penn state
    4. al golden – previously mentioned
    5. paul rhoads – head coach at iowa state and former pitt d-coordinator
    6. mike leach – former hc at texas tech and overall funny guy.
    7. kevin sumlin – hc at houston

  10. Clayton says:

    As a student at UC, I’m pretty familiar with Wannstedt and I didn’t really think he was a terrible coach. Would we even be talking about Wannstedt being fired if his team last year wouldn’t have botched the extra point against Cincinnati and then pulled out the win and the Big East title? I highly doubt it. Yes, the Big East is mediocre this year, but at least Pitt made a bowl game and that’s more than what us Bearcat fans can say. Yes, Wannstedt didn’t win very many huge games (let’s just forget about 2007 when he beat the Mountaineers/Pat White and kept them out of the championship.)

    Overall, I think it’s a bad decision by Pitt. It also adds insult to injury that his own alma mater would fire him after a 7-5 season. I think any team in the Big East can win the league on a regular basis, and UC and Uconn have proved that. Wannstedt is a solid coach, and he really isn’t as bad as people made him sound.

  11. Uberd says:

    “Dave, pick up the phone, its Jerry calling from Dallas, lets get the band back together. What do you say?”

  12. ben says:

    As a Cincinnati native, I think we have a high tolerance for losing. Heck I had to live with the Bearcats (pre-Dantonio), my high school football team (who lost 36 games or so in a row), and the Bengals all in the same city. In Pittsburgh, the atmosphere is just different. They expect a higher standard of play and want success yesterday. In the current state of college football, Wannstedt did great on the recruiting trail but I could sense that fans were getting restless all season long as the Panthers underperformed and were lackluster on the field. I am more conservative on personnel issues. Give the coach some time to perform and maybe stick by your coach if you give him a decent contract extension. I think expectations were too high for this year’s Pitt team from the beginning and am sad to see Wannstedt go. I can’t speak to the AD’s merits but after hearing about the debacle at Nebraska, it doesn’t make me feel good about the situation.

  13. Clayton says:


    I think you make some great points. We are a little but more used to losing in Cincinnati opposed to Pittsburgh. I just looked at this situation and thought “wow it would be nice to be going bowling this year” and Pitt is going bowling and UC isn’t.

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