Well, so much for a nice vacation and holiday weekend to relax before I head to Birmingham for the BBVA Compass Bowl. But that's the nature of this business - news knows no bounds and when it breaks late Friday on a holiday weekend, a lot of people are left scrambling. But that's a part of the attraction of this business - the adrenaline rush of scrambling to follow a big story at the drop of a hat. I love the fact that you just never know what to expect even when it ruins the best laid plans on a holiday weekend.
That being said - my goodness has this turned into a total debacle for Pitt and the athletic department and frankly, it is one that, to quote Chris Farley in "Tommy Boy", is going to leave a mark for quite some time. I would challenge any of you to come up with a worse scenario for Pitt than the one which has unfolded over the past six weeks......
Let's review what has happened here and how many things have put Pitt's program in a bad light and in some ways embarrassed it:
(1) Team gets steamrolled by biggest rival - West Virginia - with Big East on the line.
(2) Team beats a lousy Cincinnati team to get to 7-5 and celebrates by making snow angels like it won the national championship. Team is then rewarded by being given one a spot in one of the worst bowls on the entire docket and is matched up against a 6-6 team from a basketball school with a suspended quarterback.
(3) Popular coach is forced/convinced to resign agrees to go along with the plan -- then hours later goes back to fight for his job. And when he does, he finds out that the guy he thought was in his corner the most - the chancellor - had already signed off on the decision to relieve him of his coaching duties. This power struggle, however, drags the process out for more than 24 hours and creates some very uncomfortable moments for the staff, the administration and the coach.
(4) Finally after nearly 30 hours of wrangling and back and forth, it came time for said coach to publicly "play along" and read a prepared statement but he is still very emotional (and ultimately unable to go along with the plan) and instead walks out of the news conference with all of his players and assistant coaches by his side. This obviously blows a huge hole in the "he resigned on his own" story, especially since it is all captured by television cameras and his emotional reaction during the few minutes at the podium is plastered all over the local news for a night.
(5) The athletic director is then unfortunately left to clean up the mess and answer questions from the media about just how uncomfortable the situation was. His answers are more cryptic than informative and, right or wrong, he comes off looking much less than credible.
(6) The defensive coordinator represents the school at a pre-bowl news conference because the recently reassigned coach still hadn't made up his mind about whether he was going to coach the team in the bowl game or not. The defensive coordinator is asked about the situation and said the head coach will coach in the bowl game - only to be refuted less than six hours later by the head coach who said he hadn't made up his mind and wouldn't be until after the New Year. The head coach then tells people around him he won't coach the game but tells some of his players and others that he will. All the while he leaves Pitt's program in a state of flux and without any leadership and/or stability.
(7) Recruits from a nationally rated recruiting class begin to de-commit by the boatload.
(8) The top choice for the job heads to the ACC to take the Miami job.
(9) An 8-day search yields a hire that, based on the reaction around town, certainly didn't inspire the fan base and many question whether it was a thorough enough search. New coach talks long and often about character, integrity and discipline and is introduced by athletic director who talks long and often about his character and morals.
(10) New coach is arrested for alleged incident involving domestic abuse of his baby's mama. He is released from jail and told he was being fired.
(11) Athletic department issues a statement about the firing of Haywood but make nobody available to talk about it publicly in order to try and calm the masses and reassure its fans that the administration is in control and will get it right.
(12) Throughout the whole circus members of the current team go to Twitter and Facebook and other social media outlets to voice their displeasure with the athletic director, calling him things like "the guy who came in and changed us from adidas to Nike" as well as the program. Some seniors tell media outlets they aren't playing the bowl game and one of the highest profile players - a receiver-- texts a national reporter that he's leaving school early because, his words, the quarterback stinks and the offensive coordinator has a conspiracy to make him look bad so he stays in school for another year and thus said offensive coordinator is calling bad plays. Players then try to retract most of what they said but at that point it is too late as the damage has been done.
As one parent of a player said to me - "we have no coach, the players have no idea who is coaching them in the bowl game, the athletic director and chancellor appear to be out of answers and now we have no incoming recruits, either. This is not what we signed up for."
It is clearly a mess right now but I'll say this -- Pitt can rectify it all by making the right hire so I'd urge fans and observers to wait to see who gets the job and what he does to settle this down before you make a judgement either way. But until then, until there is a new coach in place and the program is stable again, this will continue to be a mess.
I know there are a lot of people who are calling this "Pitt's Armageddon" but that is an overreaction because a lot of programs have gone through this kind of stretch and recovered.
Now, if you want to tell me you are concerned about the people conducting the search being able to get it right, that is fair. This last month has certainly been a compilation of the finest moments in terms of the leadership skills and competence of either Mark Nordenberg or Steve Pederson as it has been one misstep after another.
Both are now under the extreme microscope and their margin for error on getting it right has dwindled. But both have also done a lot of good for the university and thus have earned the benefit of the doubt, at least to some degree.
And they can still get it right if they are able to hire an excellent coach who can turn things back around quickly. And while making a "splash" or "winning the press conference" were not considerations with the hire of Haywood, I'm not sure if Pitt has the luxury right now of not at least trying to generate some excitement with the next hire.
Ultimately, though, it is about winning and losing and if the new coach wins, and wins big, the events of the past month will be just an embarrassing footnote in the history of the program.
** The Michael Haywood hiring obviously turned out to be a debacle based on the events of the past few days but to me it isn't the most embarrassing thing that has gone on in the past month for this reason - it was a situation that was beyond Pitt's control.
The guy had never been arrested before and by all accounts seemed to be a good guy - there was no way to predict that he'd get into a domestic dispute unless there was some hard evidence - not message board rumor nonsense - that there was a pattern of this kind of behavior. And Pitt did the right thing by cutting their losses and swiftly firing him.
So to me, while it is a black eye for administration that the 'high character guy" they hired to replace Dave Wannstedt ended up getting arrested, it is a situation that they didn't bring upon themselves and thus it - standing alone - is something the school could recover from and do so rather quickly (think Notre Dame and George O'Leary).
But the incident in question didn't just happen in a vacuum - it happened in the context of what has become a very tough month of highly visible miscalculations, missteps and just outright mistakes - and that is what makes it much tougher to explain away or move forward from.
Which brings me to what I think has been the most mind-boggling thing which went on during this past month -- this whole "will he/won't he" coach the bowl game nonsense with regards to Wannstedt.
Pederson and Nordenberg tried to do the right thing and give Wannstedt some time to regroup and get away from things a few days before making his decision but it has turned into a situation which has grown a life of its own, almost like a high-profile game of cat and mouse which makes both sides look bad. It also has made Pitt look incompetent and worse, it gives the impression that there is no leadership right now in the program.
Wannstedt was fired -- errrr, resigned -- on a Tuesday - he should have been given until the Friday of that week to give his answer so at least there was some stability throughout the coaching search and transition to a new coach.
** To that end, I spoke again with Dave Wannstedt last night and he said he will give Pitt his final answer either tomorrow or Tuesday right before the team gets on the plane to go to Birmingham. Hey why so early? I mean the game isn't until Saturday......
In all seriousness, I know the bowl game is the least of Pitt's worries but several players have said to me "we have no idea what is going on or who is in charge" and that is not a good thing.
Many of Wannstedt's players think he will decide to coach, a number of people around him tell me he has said he won't coach but he still maintains on the record that he doesn't know what he will do. So who do we believe in this one?
Stay tuned, this part of "As the Pitt World Turns" at least is mercifully coming to an end.
** I'm not sure if we got to this in my previous blog but there is a possibility that Frank Cignetti could still be running a Big East offense next year as he interviewed with Rutgers and is apparently near the top of Greg Schiano's wish list. I spoke with someone close to that program who said Schiano wants to go back to a pro-style offense with the emphasis on the run game and Cignetti would obviously deliver that. Cignetti also has a few other things he is considering but it appears to be a very real possibility that two of Pitt's best assistant coaches - and recruiters (Jeff Hafley and Cignetti) - could be working at Rutgers next year. And here is why that would be bad for Pitt - Cignetti would give Rutgers instant credibility in recruiting in the western half of Pennsylvania where they aren't currently a factor.
** Speaking of recruiting, Bill Brink and I contacted as many of the nine remaining verbal commitments as we could get a hold of yesterday and it is clear that this recruiting class is a wash. I don't know that Pitt is going to be able to salvage any of it as it is now down to seven and Lafayette Pitts told Brink he was going to look elsewhere as well. So Pitt is now at six recruits and counting and I've read various reports that at least two more are on the verge of decommitting so in the next few days it could be down to four.
Now, I've said consistently that this recruiting class is not nearly as relevant as next year's because any time there is a coaching change there is going to be player attrition and recruits who go elsewhere, but you can't have a class where you don't sign at least a few quality players and that is what this is shaping up to be.
Again, Pitt can recover from this with the right hire, but even the right hire under the best circumstances (meaning, he's hired this week) will only have three weeks to try and get a class of recruits together and that is going to be very difficult for anyone to do which means the class is likely to end up with a bunch of projects and reaches and that's never good because those guys are often shown the door in a year or two when it becomes evident that they can't play at this level. And that hurts the APR numbers and everything else.
So while I don't agree with the doom and gloomers who believe this is the end of the world, it is certainly now shaping up be a situation with longer term ramifications, especially considering the Panthers need to replenish the roster over the next two seasons.
** The news about Michael Haywood getting arrested and not surprisingly getting fired means the coaching search is up and running again. Hooray!!! Anyone check the FlightAware.com sight recently?
This time around there are going to be two notable differences -- Nordenberg is going to be more involved and engaged in the process than before and it is going to take place when the team is out of town - and thus those of us who cover the team will be away from it as well. I've already recruited Brink and perhaps our other fine young reporter Michael Sanserino to assist in the process of tracking the search from this end here in Pittsburgh and I'll work it in Birmingham.
Also, given that Pederson has already contacted coaches and already interviewed some, there is no reason it couldn't get wrapped up quickly as he could easily pick up the phone and see if Todd Graham or Kevin Sumlin are still interested. Either would be an excellent choice and Graham actually has some experience in the Big East.
Those two, along with Al Golden and Haywood were interviewed for the job. Pederson also talked to Paul Rhoads on some level and Pitt had some contact with Brady Hoke and Dana Holgorsen as well.
But according to a good friend in the business, New York Times college football writer Pete Thamel a few of those guys told Pederson they weren't interested which means there will likely be more candidates who emerge over the next few days.
And one thing which is clear is this - Pitt can't limit itself to head coaches any more, especially since, as Thamel reported based on conversations he's had, a number of coaches didn't even want to talk to Pederson about it.
There are so many good assistant coaches who are ready to step up that Pitt won't be doing itself any favors by eliminating them just because they don't have head coaching experience.
Pitt needs to find the best coach it can get and that means leaving no stone unturned. The first time around, the recruiting class was a consideration in the timeline to hire a coach. Since that ship has sailed and those bridges are already burned, there shouldn't be a rush to get a guy in place ahead of signing day.
** To that end and because I know this name is always the subject of much discussion in these searches at Pitt -- Pederson told me Tom Bradley would be a "very strong and very attractive candidate" for Pitt and someone he would strongly consider despite the fact that he is a "Penn State guy." He said Bradley has a lot of good qualities and that it wasn't his "Penn State ties" that eliminated him from consideration but rather the fact that he has no head coaching experience. Pederson said he really wanted to focus on head coaches but if the school was going to look at assistant coaches, Bradley would certainly get a long hard look.
** I will be traveling to Birmingham tommorow and Brink will be in South Bend to cover Haywood's first court appearance but somebody will be here to cover any news that comes out about the current team - tomorrow we will find out the status of Mike Cruz, Jason Hendricks and several others who are currently suspended but may be reinstated to play in the game -- over the next day or two until I get settled in Birmingham. I'll then update this blog several times a day from down there and keep it active pretty much through signing day. I'll also bring back the Q&A next week and keep it going through signing day.
** A lot of people have asked me how Pitt could have handled this all differently and came off looking better and this is what I would say -- I admire the gesture of letting Dave Wannstedt resign but once it became clear he was not going to go easily or quietly, Pederson just needed to fire him and move forward with Phil Bennett as the interim coach. That would have gone a long way towards solving some of the silliness that has gone on in the past month and it would have also brought more stability to the program during the transition.I firmly believe if that all would have been handled in a more clean and concise way, the events of the past few days would have been viewed as far less of a disaster.
** Happy New Year to all of you, even to my harshest critics like Joe D.......