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Back from Layoff - Some Bowl Notes and Staff Notes

Written by Paul Zeise on .

It has been a while since we updated things but I've been on vacation since the day the new coach - Michael Haywood - was introduced. The plan was for me to take the week after the season off then come back when the Panthers began to practice for the BBVA Compass Bowl but the firing/forced resignation of Dave Wannstedt changed that.

I worked through the coaching change but had to get my vacation days in and seeing as there are only a few days left in the year, it sort of forced my hand -- but I lucked out in this way: Wannstedt shut down any and all media access --- yes, you read that correctly, Pitt has shut down all media access to the current team until after the first of the year, which speaks volumes to just how little the school cares about this bowl game (and of course, if Pitt doesn't care about it, why should fans? Then again, judging from ticket sales, well, they don't!) -- to the current team and practices until Jan. 2nd, the day before the team leaves for Birmingham. So I was able to escape for a week or so and I'll take most of this week off as well and while much of my vacation was spent in bed with the flu, it has been a welcome break.

However, I figured since my e-mail inbox and the Q&A inbox was starting to fill up I'd check in, give some of my thoughts on what has happened since Haywood was hired and try to offer some updates on what is happening with the current team and address some issues.I'm off for the rest of the week but I will check in at least once more before we get back after it full blast next week and don't forget, Thursday night we will have the "Pitt edition of the Subway Nightly Sports Call" on CW-15 as Jory Rand and I discuss all things Pitt with you, the fans.

** First - the number one question people have asked me is this -- Who the heck is coaching this team in the bowl game?

Here is what I can tell you -- nobody really knows and the reason that nobody knows is because Pitt has allowed this situation to spin completely out of control to the point where it is now an embarrassment. The bottom line is this --- Pitt's administration tried to do the right thing by allowing Wannstedt to step down and remain a part of the athletic department rather than outright fire him, like most schools do when they want to make a change.

Then Pitt's administration tried to do the right thing by giving him a few days to decide if he wanted to coach the bowl game. As of today, he still has not given Steve Pederson his final decision. And the times I have talked to him over the past two weeks - the last time being Thursday - he said he was "going to work with the team, get them prepared, run practices and then wait to see where he is at and how he feels next week" before he makes his decision. Now, that is what he has said and that is what he is saying on the record.

Unfortunately, he has also told a number of people around him he is not likely to coach in the game and that he doesn't want to go through a week of news conferences and luncheons and all of that "play happy" stuff. If it was just about the game, he would coach but all the other stuff he's not sure he wants to go through.

I do know this - if he doesn't coach, it will be defensive coordinator Phil Bennett who will be in charge and run things through the bowl. And while Hafley is gone and at least one more is likely to be gone shortly, for the most part the current assistants will coach through the bowl game.

Again, I understand what Pitt was trying to do in not just outright firing Wannstedt but this has become comical in so many ways and the school really looks silly. This is why "a different direction" should always mean "a different direction."

Simply put, if you want to make a change and fire the guy - which is indeed what happened here - make the change, make the clean break and move forward. That's how you avoid this kind of silliness. Pitt is now essentially in a holding pattern for at least another week until the recently fired coach decides whether he wants to coach or not.

And not to channel Dan Hawkins here, but "This is Division I football. It is the Big East. It ain't intramurals brother." Wannstedt will land on his feet, likely in the NFL, he's been around the block a few times and he's owed a lot of money -- and while I admire the gesture of trying to take care of one of your own, there is no real reason Steve Pederson shouldn't have stepped in a few weeks ago and put an end to this lingering situation. It happens all the time every year in Division I football, where the stakes are extremely high.

** To that end, I've had a lot of people e-mail me about how the new coach should have kept a few assistants around and how he will struggle to recruit in Western Pennsylvania because he didn't. I'll say it one more time "new direction means new direction"and it was clear from the minute Haywood took the podium to meet the press for the first time that he was bringing in his own staff and starting over and heading in a new direction. He made it clear when he said "I'll have eight of these nine spots filled in a few days" and he made it clear when he met with the assistants and only really even seriously talked to and offered one - Jeff Hafley - the opportunity to stay, albeit in a little bit different role (Chris LaSala is staying put, but the football operations role is a little different than a typical assistant coach role)

I like all those guys, the assistant coaches, and I hated the fact that they all lost their jobs but that is part of their chosen profession and they all understand that. And frankly, I'll be shocked if any of them have a difficult time landing on their feet because they are all excellent coaches. But I am also quite sure there are more than nine good assistant coaches in this country and I am even more sure that any assistant coach who is a good recruiter can recruit anywhere so the fact that none of them are staying around doesn't mean the program is doomed to fail.

I think one of the greatest fallacies is that someone has to be from a certain area or have some ties to said area in order to be able to recruit that area. Yes, it would help to get off to a quick start but anybody who is a good recruiter will be able to quickly build relationships with area high school coaches and cultivate it.

I'm quite sure, for instance, that Hafley, had he been put in Michigan or Arizona or Florida or whatever, would have had the same success he had in New Jersey in terms of getting Pitt into the door of high schools and the homes of recruits. Why? Because he is a great recruiter and he works harder than just about any coach I've seen. He was relentless, he worked extremely hard to build new relationships in New Jersey - where yes, he had some ties already but still had to work to build new ones every day -- and he went after it every single day. That's really what recruiting is, especially if you have a good program to sell.

So in short, Pitt will be fine provided Haywood hires good assistants who understand how to recruit and aren't afraid of burning the midnight oil and busting their tails to go and meet coaches.

And this idea that somehow the WPIAL coaches won't work with Haywood and his staff because they don't have ties to the area or whatever is laughable and ridiculous. First off, if you really believe that there is a high school coach in the area isn't going to work with Pitt's head coach to try and get some exposure and scholarship opportunities for his players, then you aren't really paying attention to the way things work. Coaches want exposure for their kids, they want their kids to get recruited and they, for the most part, will work to help that process along. Secondly, if a high school coach is indeed cutting off a major university in his backyard because he doesn't like where the head coach and his assistants are from - or because he was friends with guys on the previous staff - then that high school coach should be fired for dereliction of duty and never allowed to coach again.

I bring this up because I have received several frantic e-mails about Hopewell's Rushel Shell ever since Friday when Mike White wrote about him and he listed his top five schools as Penn State, Alabama, Florida, Ohio State and Oregon. One e-mailer wrote "this is why we need coach Wannstedt, to have a chance to land this kid." Here is a reality check for Pitt - they weren't going to land Shell with Dave Wannstedt as the coach. They had no chance. They weren't going to land him with Sal Sunseri, either. Nor were they going to land him with Jackie Sherrill or any other former Pitt guy who is a so-called ace recruiter. The kid was never coming to Pitt and thus the coaching change didn't cost Pitt a chance at him. There are other guys in this class from the WPIAL that Pitt may have had a better chance to grab with Wannstedt still the head coach, but Shell is not one of them.

I have no doubt that whoever comes in and takes over the assistants roles will have an opportunity to work with WPIAL coaches and form relationships with them because it is a relationship that will in the end benefits both sides of the equation.

** We already know that Miami offensive coordinator Morris Watts will be Pitt's offensive coordinator, Bill Elias will coach outside linebackers and be recruiting coordinator. There are also a number - at least four from what I am told -- other Miami assistants coming to the staff but remember, the Redhawks are playing in the GoDaddy.com bowl which isn't until Jan. 6th so it will be another week or ten days or so before the staff is officially finalized.

** A couple of people have e-mailed me about the status of Jason Hendricks and Mike Cruz and officially their status has not been announced. But from what I am told, both are being disciplined currently for some sort of discretion and while they are suspended at the moment, it may be a situation where both are able to return for the bowl game.Again, this is something which we will be given an official clarification on Monday. Again - there has never been an athletic departmenet that wished a season would just go away quietly and quickly and never be heard from again more than this one. It is to the point where every question I've asked about this team has been answered "we'll get to that right before we get on the plane next week."

** I have received tons of e-mails from fans "concerned" that this great recruiting class is de-committing at an alarming rate. And yes, there were once, what 18 or 19, players committed and now there are only ten and rumors are flying that two more are on their way out the door. I'll say this - you shouldn't lose much sleep about this for a few reasons. For one thing, you don't know if any of those guys will actually be players but for another, you don't know if they will fit into whatever system Haywood will run. And finally - who is to say that Haywood won't bring in some of his own recruits who are better and/or better suited to play his system? So I'd say wait until signing day to see what the class looks like before we declare a state of emergency.

** All of that being said, I think recruiting in Western Pennsylvania - and really this entire state - has been a little bit overrated over the past ten years. I think if Pitt fans are honest with themselves they will take a look at a lot of the in-state and WPIAL players on this roster and admit that if they weren't from here, they wouldn't be nearly as high on them. I'm not saying Pitt shouldn't recruit Pennsylvania hard, but I am saying the days of building a program mostly on Pennsylvania kids - particularly when the absolute best ones usually go elsewhere -- are long gone.

** Sticking with the "new direction" theme, this will be the first time in quite a few years that I will be looking forward to covering spring football practices. And it is a good year for me to be there for the entire time as well seeing as the two basketball teams I primarily cover - West Virginia men and Pitt women - aren't likely to make deep runs into March this year. But the spring will give us a good sneak peak at how the new coaching staff will operate, what they value and what kinds of practices they will run. It will be a new-look team and while change isn't always good, it can be a good thing.

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