CHARLOTTE, N.C -- Merry Christmas. I hope all of you are spending time with friends and family and relaxing and enjoying the holiday season.
OK, the sappy part of it is over, let's get to the stuff that Pitt fans are interested in -- tidbits from the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
** First, as if we didn't need more evidence that Pittsburgh fans are everywhere -- the sports bar across from my hotel is called the Locker Room (it is about the 4800 block of S. Tryon Street) and painted on the front of the building is a very large Steelers emblem.
** Last night, Henry Hynoski received the greatest gift of all -- he became an uncle as his sister gave birth to a baby girl.
** The Panthers practices have been crisp and intense, which is hopefully a good sign that they will be ready to play the game. I know today - Christmas day -- Dave Wannstedt is not going to give them much time to enjoy the holidays. He is treating it as normal Friday and they will spend almost their entire day in meetings. I don't know if that is the right approach given that they've been here all week working hard, but it is the way he wants to do things. The players get to see and visit with their families from 11 to 1 and that is it for Christmas. It appears as if the team is at full strength - all of the injured guys have been practicing and more importantly -- they all made the grade and there are no academic casualties.
** One of the best events at any bowl game takes place at this bowl here in Charlotte. The two teams who participate in the bowls get a chance to ride in a NASCAR car at Lowe's motor speedway thanks to the Richard Petty Driving Experience. The fun thing about the event is seeing a bunch of big, tough football players getting into the cars with a little bit of fear in their eyes as they are about to go 170 MPH around the track. And then once they get back, the smiles are priceless. Having done it myself twice now I'll say this - if you are an adrenaline junkie, you need to go experience this for yourself. I am roller coaster lover and have been to coasters all over -- none of them compare to the rush this provides. And I'll never disrespect NASCAR drivers because to be able to go that fast for four hours - while dealing with the heat inside the car and all of the smells and fumes and the fact that there are 40 other cars on the track going just as fast and cutting you off. While at the track they had a tire changing contest and John Malecki won the thing.
** Tuesday night both teams went to the Charlotte Bobcats-Detroit Pistons game at Time Warner Cable Arena. First, I'm not saying those two teams stink, but when Gerald Wallace is by far the best player on the floor and Chucky Atkins looks like Allen Iverson compared to the rest of the guards, well I'll let you draw your own conclusions. But the players seemed to enjoy the game and then at one of the time-outs there was a lay-up contest between the two teams. Each team had three players at half court and the first player in line had on a game jersey (as an aside, I would presume that Pitt is going to wear white jerseys for the game since that was the jersey they had in this contest). The rules were simple, the first guy dribbled to the basket, made a lay-up ran back and then took the jersey off, handed it to the second guy who had to put it on and then go make a lay-up, etc., etc. Pitt's three players were Cedric McGee, Aaron Berry and Nate Byham and they won, easily I might add. It began with McGee, who threw down a monster dunk to get the crowd -- which was obviously pro-North Carolina -- on its feet, then Berry was lightning quick and made his lay-up......that's when, well, it got a little interesting as Byham, who was a tremendous basketball player, attempted to dunk but, got his feet all mixed up, his timing on his jump bad and luckily for him he was able to at least throw the ball in the air and it fell through the hoop....though his teammates in the stands voiced their displeasure at his inability to dunk the ball. It was a fun event to watch unfold and certainly one that Byham will not be allowed to forget any time soon. "The whole reason he wanted to go last was to end it with a big-time dunk," McGee joked the next day. "Man, it should have been me..."
** I had a very good conversation with Frank Cignetti about next year and he offered me a few really interesting tidbits. I asked him who'd replace Dorin in the office and he said "we don't have one, he's a once in a decade kind of player" and as such the offense will be designed a little differently for next year's team (imagine that, changing the offense to fit the personnel)....He said look for more three wide receiver sets and even some four wide receiver sets to take advantage of what he thinks will be a team strength - the receiving corps. He is very high on freshman Devin Street "He might be our second best receiver right now," he said and, this should make a lot of people happy, he claims that Greg Cross has improved so much this year that he will be a big weapon next year. He said he has seen a lot from Cross who has successfully transformed himself into a receiver. The line is going to be an issue, at least early in the season, but he believes that the pieces are in place for the offense to be even better than it was this year. "The bar is set high," Cignetti said, "and we're not about to back away from those expectations, we want to be better and we have the players to be better."
** Dave Wannstedt said this week that this bowl game was a nice reward for his seniors -- the guys who have worked so hard to get this team back to the brink of something special. "It would have been a crying shame if that group and this entire team, the last time they were together was in that locker room at Heinz Field after the Cincinnati loss. This week has been fun for these guys, they've gotten a chance to put that behind them and really just feel good about all they've accomplished. And now they have a chance to play one more game together and hopefully go out on a positive note." I tend to agree -- this group has done a great job over the past four years and deserved better than what happened to them on Dec. 5th at Heinz Field being their final career game.