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A Changing of the Guard

Written by Paul Zeise on .

All you need to know about just how much work it is and just how busy this job is when a big breaking story is taking place is that it is 2:30 A.M and I am finally able to sit down and try to update my blog to make some semblance of sense of today's events.

** First things first - Tuesday was not a good day or a day to celebrate, no matter how you felt about the univeristy's decision to push Dave Wannstedt out the door. Oh, it may ultimately produce the results that Pitt fans are looking for in terms of a championship-caliber program but that, to me, right now, is secondary. The bottom line is a lot of good people lost their jobs on Tuesday and that is never a good thing. Yes, that is their chosen profession and yes, those are things that happen often in that chosen profession and yes, it is a bottom-line business, but there is a human element which is why some of the "dancing on Dave Wannstedt's grave" e-mails I've gotten are just not really kosher in my mind. If you wanted to see a change, that is one thing and frankly I can understand the frustrations of Pitt fans with this program over the past 30 years or whatever. That is an understandable sentiment. What I can't understand is some of the mean-spirited, vitrol directed at a guy who worked his tail off to try and make this program better, who loves Pitt more than most Pitt fans could ever dream of and who really cared about his players and tried to do the best he could for them and tried to have their back. Dave Wannstedt may not be the right coach for the Panthers, but he is far too good of a guy and did far too many good things for the program to be trashed the way some people have trashed him.

** That being said - let's make no mistake about it - this was not Dave Wannstedt's decision, nor was he prepared for it, nor did he want to make it. He was fired for all of the reasons I outlined in my blog entry earlier this morning. The fact that he will remain as a special assistant speaks volumes about how he feels about the university as well as how Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and some of the people in the administration feel about him. Nobody, and I mean nobody - even and especially Steve Pederson - feels good about this decision and trust me it was made after a very thoughtful, very long process and it wasn't an easy decision to make. This is one of those situations where everyone involved feels bad and it was as emotional of a day as I can ever remember covering other than the times when I've covered tragedies (like the day I had to write about the two high school basketball players from Montour who were killed in a car accident right before they were set to play a key section game). Those stories were much more difficult and much more emotional for different reasons and I am in no way comparing the firing of a coach to a tragedy. What I am saying is it was hard watching Dave Wannstedt have to try and pull himself together long enough to make a statement and watching the reaction of all of his players and it was hard watching Steve Pederson answer questions just an hour or two after he basically had to fire one of his long-time friends. And then there are all the assistant coaches, who have no idea now about their futures and the staffers. I was around when Walt Harris was fired and that was much different - Walt was given the chance to find another job, which he did, and by the end of it it was one of those things where everyone involved knew it was time for Walt to move on. In this case, Wannstedt was blindsided by it all and thus not really prepared and like I said, he is very popular so this was not an easy decision at all.

** Some players went with the ill-advised to decision to start using twitter and facebook to voice their displeasure with the move. A couple of seniors even went so far as to say they won't play the bowl game unless Wannstedt coaches it I understand the emotions, I understand why they are upset and they should be. But someone should have given them some better advice - this kind of stuff does them no good, either in the short term or the long term. One interesting thing to come from the players, however, is that Jonathan Baldwin apparently made official his decision to leave for the NFL in a series of text messages to CBSSports.com. This is not a surprise to anyone as it has been well known for a long time that Baldwin was gone at the end of this season. He didn't even pretend to try and hide it, in fact, and so now it will be interesting to see where his stock is by the time the draft rolls around.

** I've had a number of people ask - why this year? Well one thing that became clear about the timing of this - meaning this year, not necessarily this day -- is that nobody wanted it to get to the point where it got really ugly between Wannstedt and the people he worked for. And that likely would have happened had he returned and had another season of bad losses and losses in big games - especially since expectations for next year's team will be high again given the returning talent and recruiting class. At this point, people still feel very good about Wannstedt and he is still well respected and so while this will be awkward for a while, it is not burnt bridges on either side nor is the relationship strained beyond the point of no return. Another year like this one, however, and it would have become very strained. It is a lot like a relationship between a man and a woman - they have a chance to be friends if it ends before the relationship really gets strained. But if they stay in it too long, it gets to a point where there are too many hard feelings to ever salvage even a cordial relationship. Timing is everything in life. There is also enough returning talent that next year will not be a totally wasted year with a new coach.

** Now, here are my thoughts on the new guy: Find the best guy available. If he is a Pitt guy, that's fine, if he is not, that is fine, too. If he is a sitting head coach, great, if he is a coordinator, too. Like Steve Pederson said at his news conference - he is not going to be limited by any parameters, he wants to find the best coach. That, to me, is the best approach and I know a lot of people have their reservations of "another NFL guy" or a "another Pitt guy" or "another defensive guy" (all things which have been e-mail complaints to me) but the bottom line is the next guy may be all of that. He is going to be his own man and his own coach, so there is no reason to write him off before he gets a chance based on past experiences with failed hires.Also, I hate the fact that some people don't want certain candidates because they "might use Pitt as a stepping stone to a better job." I'd ask this - if I could tell you right now that the new coach will win 50 games over the next five years and in that time also win the Big East three times and win two BCS bowl games - would you sign up for that today knowing it might mean he'll leave for a different job? I think most fans would say "absolutely" and they should - the only way you can use a program as a stepping stone is if you win and win big. I've said it before - WVU, Utah and Louisville are three examples of programs that benefitted greatly from having guys come through, build a winner and then leave for better jobs.

** Steve Pederson said yesterday he has a short list of candidates already and I'd hope he does. My first question is this - how many of them are minorities? I ask this not because I think that Pitt necessarily needs to hire a minority coach - they need to hire the best coach - but I find it amazing that the athletic department of an urban university which has a stated commitment to diversity and clearly, this is something that is valued by Mark Nordenberg and Steve Pederson (I know because I've talked to both men about it), has not had a very good track record of minority hiring for its major positions. Think about it, here are the major hires (coordinators, mens and womens basketball coaches and athletic directors) at Pitt over the past 15 years or so --  Frank Cignetti, Phil Bennett, Matt Cavanaugh, Steve Pederson, Dave Wannstedt, Agnus Berenato, Paul Rhoads, JD Brookhart, Jeff Long, Walt Harris, Ben Howland, Ralph Willard - about the only minority I can come up with who was hired for a major position was Traci Waites, and her time obviously did not end well. I'm not an advocate of the Rooney Rule of the NFL (which states you must interview a minority before you hire a head coach) but I do think the idea of at least talking to some minority candidates is a good thing because it at least gives guys a chance to get their name out there and sometimes - like in the case of Mike Tomlin, the guy may just blow away the people doing the interviewing to the point where he is hired. Like I said, Pitt needs to hire the best coach but I do hope that when some of the legitimate candidates - as opposed to the ridiculous ones like, oh, I don't know, Mike Leach? -- start leaking out that some of them are minorities who have the kind of resumes that would generate some excitement.

** That being said, here is a list of some names I've heard thrown around from various people - most who have no idea, some who have perhaps some idea but not as much as they think and some who have obvious agendas to try and get their friend/client/associate/family member's name out there:

Mark Stoops - Florida State defensive coordinator - The youngest member of the Stoops family of Youngstown fame. His older brothers are the head coaches at Oklahoma (Bob) and Arizona (Mike). He's never been a head coach, but he turned around the defense at Florida State in one year and is considered an up-and-comer who, at 43, is ready for the next step.

Teryl Austin - Florida defensive coordinator - Of all the "Pitt" guys out there, this one is the only guy who would really, I think, have a legitimate shot to get an interview. Austin played at Pitt from 1984-87 and at 45 he, like Stoops, is ready to take the next step. He is best known for his work as a recuiter when he was at Michigan from 1999-2002 and he was cleaning up recruiting in Western Pennsylvania. He is still known as a top recruiter and in the six years since Pitt last had an opening (and Austin was considered too young and not experienced enough for the job) he has added two Super Bowls as an assistant coach (once with Arizona and once with Seattle, though his team lost to the Steelers both times) and he has added his current position - a coordinator in one of the top programs in the country - to his resume. Austin is a family man and he is a minority to boot. It also can't hurt that he has spent a year working with Urban Meyer and studying that offense every day at practice. He is the kind of hire Pederson talked about making - excellent character, record of success, a history of being a part of successful programs and he is an excellent recruiter.

Paul Rhoads - Iowa State head coach -- I've been told that Rhoads would not be interested at this time because he doesn't want to uproot his family again but you never know what to believe in these situations and until he says no, I'm not sure that he won't be asked. I also know that there is a history here with Pitt fans that wasn't always good, especially when his defenses struggled in 2003 and 2004. It also doesn't help that he is coming off a 5-7 season and that could be hard to sell (though I would point out that the guy who coaches at Auburn, left Iowa State, which has been a coaching graveyard forever, after a one-win season and now is one win away from the national championship). However, that being said the guy has really done a great job of getting that thing turned around very quickly, especially since he took over when the Cyclones were coming off a one-win season. He took them to a bowl game in his first year, this year they beat Texas for the first time in school history and it looks like the team is ready to have a great season next year. He is a lot like Wannstedt, too, in that his players love and respect him and will play hard for him. His teams have in some ways overachieved over the past two seasons. He also is very well liked and respected by Steve Pederson.

Chris Petersen - Boise State head coach - Obviously this is a pipe dream of many Pitt fans but if Steve Pederson doesn't at least pick up the phone and call the former Pitt assistant (yes, in 1992 he was Pitt's quarterback coach) to see if he is interested, then he isn't doing his due diligence. Again, he's a pipe dream but you never know until you ask.

Dana Holgorsen - Oklahoma State offensive coordinator - If you are looking for the hot assistant out there, this is your man. Oklahoma State's offense is high powered and he has been rumored to be involved in several jobs, including coordinator jobs at both Florida and Texas. So if he is indeed on the list, Pederson better talk to him quickly.Holgorsen's offense averaged 537 yards and 45 points per game. He worked for a number of years at Texas Tech under Mike Leach, so he knows offense and knows how to put on an entertaining brand of football as well. He would clearly fit the profile of the type of coach Pederson said he wants to hire.

Al Golden - Temple head coach - I know, I know this is a pipe dream, too. I mean why would he leave what is the greatest job in the country to come to Pitt......Wink However, given the job he has done at Temple, he may be a legitimate candidate for a lot of jobs. The only thing that would hold him back is he is viewed as a serious candidate to take over for Joe Paterno at Penn State and Pederson is not likely to turn to a guy who already has his eye on another job - especially THAT job.

Frank Cignetti, Jr. -- Pitt offensive coordinator - If there is a guy on the staff who has even a slim chance to be hired it is Cignetti and a year ago, I'd have said he is a slam dunk to be the guy. But Cignetti rubbed some people the wrong way by pursuing other jobs last year after just one year at Pitt and when his candidacy for the Chicago Bears offensive coordinator job became public it certainly didn't help his chances to be the heir apparent to Wannstedt. Still, Cignetti is young, he is energetic, he has a reputation as an excellent recruiter and he has worked for a number of successful coaches. He would be a good spokesman for the Pitt program and because of his name would have instant credibility in these parts.

Greg Gattuso - Pitt defensive line coach - The best unit on Pitt's team year in and year out was the defensive line and part of that was because Dave Wannstedt recruited for that position so hard and brought in a lot of good players. But talent is only the first step and there is no doubt that Gattuso did a great job of teaching that talent and molding them into an excellent unit year in and year out. He also has head coaching experience (at Duquesne) and was an extremely successful head coach, he is known as a good recruiter and he is a Pittsburgh guy.

There are also the usual suspects at Pitt for these things, you know - Marvin Lewis, Tom Bradley, Tim Lewis, Sal Sunseri, etc., etc. - but I would hope that those names are just names at this point and none are really even remotely being considered. And that is not because I don't think they are good coaches, just that they are not coaches who fit the profile of what Pederson claims he is looking for.

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