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Landed in Birmingham

Written by Paul Zeise on .

At some point when all this is over and we have a more light-hearted blog entry looking back at all of this I'll chronicle my trip here to Birmingham, which was an interesting one to say the least.

But for now, we'll focus on the items at hand - Pitt versus Kentucky and the coaching search. The Pitt charter plane - which I tracked on flightaware.com Tongue out by the way -- lands in about 90 minutes and we will get a chance to talk to players and assistant coaches for the first time since Dave Wannstedt was fired.

So I'll a lot more later today in another post but here are some things I wanted to touch on from the last few days since I haven't had the opportunity to yet....

** The big news yesterday was that Dave Wannstedt finally ended speculation and announced he is not going to coach the team in the BBVA Compass Bowl. That is a good thing for all involved for this reason - it is the first step towards the healing process that really needs to take place at Pitt and among its fan base. There are a lot of hurt feelings, emotional reactions and burnt bridges that need to be mended. With Wannstedt now officially out of the picture, the program can begin to move forward. The next big step will likely be the bowl game, which will officially close the chapter on this past season. And then of course the next big step after that will be the hiring of a new coach. It is a shame that Wannstedt isn't with the team but the school really needed to begin to move forward and his decision will help that process along.

** As expected, defensive coordinator Phil Bennett is now the head coach for a week. Bennett has taken some criticism for being a carpet-bagger with his eyes elsewhere around these parts but he has impressed members of Pitt's administration with the way he has handled this entire process and the way he has tried to be a calming and stabilizing force through a difficult time. As one person from behind the wall said to me "he is a professional, he understands the business and he has done a fabulous job of bringing things together for our student-athletes. He has represented us well and we're extremely grateful for that."

** As I wrote about over the weekend --  Frank Cignetti is headed Rutgers, which means the Panthers will not only have an interim head coach, they will have an interim offensive coordinator - tight ends coach Brian Angelichio, who will be assisted by running backs coach David Walker.  Angelichio is a guy who is probably ready to be a coordinator based on his experience and resume so this will be a good audition for him before he goes out and tries to find another job. As for Cignetti, he's being brought to Rutgers because Greg Schiano's offense has been a train wreck the past few years since Ray Rice left. The Scarlet Knights have had no offensive identity since then, they've tried Wildcat, spread, vertical passing -- and all the while the offense has gotten worse. Schiano identified Cignetti because he wants to get back to that pro-style, power-run game that the Scarlet Knights ran with Rice - and ran all the way to an 11-win season.

The move is bad news for Pitt from this standpoint -- it likely means Rutgers is going to try and become a bigger presence in recruiting Western Pennsylvania with Cignetti, who is well known and very well respected in these parts, as the point man. That is not to say Rutgers is going to start beating Pitt for WPIAL kids, but it is to say there very well could be another team cherrypicking players from Pitt's backyard.

By the way, I've had several people e-mail me to criticize both Jeff Hafley and Frank Cignetti for "abandoning" Pitt's players when they need leadership the most. I don't think that is fair -- both had to think about their futures and both were under a lot of pressure to take the job because Schiano is trying to finalize his staff. Hafley just got married, Cignetti has three kids and one on the way, they both need a job and the reality is neither owes Pitt anything. That's the reality of the business - it is cut throat because the stakes are extremely high. This goes back to what I said at the outset of this all -- all of these things are reporting about and writing about people are talking about involve real people, people with real lives and familes and that is always something to consider.

** The defensive line will be depleted for the game as Jabaal Sheard and Myles Caragein - two of the four starting defensive linemen - are not going to play due to injuries. That could mean two true freshmen, Bryan Murphy and Aaron Donald, could be in the starting lineup.

** Two other personnel announcements -- tight end Mike Cruz and safety Jason Hendricks have been reinstated to the active roster and will be available to play in the game. The two, according to Pitt spokesman EJ Borghetti, were suspended from the end of the season until this past Sunday for disciplinary reasons.

** On the coaching search here are a few tidbits that we've talked about for two days on the radio and whatnot but are worth repeating...

(1) The search is going to expand to include a larger group of candidates - and that includes some candidates who don't have any head coaching experience. That brings up the obvious name - Penn State's Tom Bradley - but as of this morning he had yet not been contacted by Pitt. I'm told, however, he will at least get a phone call this time. Incidentally in case you missed it - our own Steelers reporter Ed Bouchette reported that Dan Rooney called Steve Pederson last month to recommend he talk to Bradley and the fact that he didn't even pick up the phone and give Bradley a call has strained the relationship with Pitt and the Steelers. That is bad news for Pitt as they share facilities with the Steelers and have prided themselves in having a great relationship with the city's most important sports organization.

(2) Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and several other key members of the University administration will have a bigger hand in the search now and will be involved earlier in the process from helping to identify candidates to being more involved with the early interview process on some level. This isn't a sign that they have lost total faith in Steve Pederson, it is a sign that they know they have to get it right this time and have no margin for error as this is a make or break decision for a lot of people.

(3) Of the five coaches who were "extensively" interviewed the first time only one - Tulsa's Todd Graham - is still in the mix for a variety of reasons (Al Golden is at Miami, Haywood is not an option, Sumlin is a lot of money ($1 million base, $500,000 in bonus and about $100,000 in other incentives along with a big buyout. He also said he was no longer interested and thinks he can get a bigger job next year) and Rhoads is not interested in moving his family again. Graham would be a good choice for Pitt given his background and is said to be very interested in his job. He currently makes $804,000 in base salary and about another $300,000 in bonuses and other compensation so Pitt would likely have to start negotiating at about the same salary range Wannstedt made (he had a base salary of $1.01 million with about $325,000 in bonuses and other compensation) and will likely have to go to about $1.7 or $1.8 million to bring Graham in. It will be interesting to see how this plays out because Pitt is going to have to pay to get a great coach but the tab on coaches, search firms and buyouts is starting to get high. By the way - Pitt also had some contact with San Diego State's Brady Hoke but I'd say the events of today in Ann Arbor - Rich Rodriguez has reportedly been fired - will take Hoke totally out of the mix as Michigan is his dream job.

Update on Graham: Here is a report from the Tulsa television station KTUL who talked to Graham yesterday and asked him about Pitt. He issues what we would call the classic non-denial, denial as he dances around the question, talks about his wife not wanting to leave and how he has kids at school in Tulsa yet never said the words "I won't be a candidate at Pitt and I am staying here at Tulsa." Again, I'm not sure what he actually said other than he is happy at Tulsa but it is at least the first direct quotes I've seen from him so I figured I'd pass them on.

(4) Haywood's contract was for five years and was in the (total compensation, not just base salary) area of $1.3 to $1.5 million, which means Pitt was willing to make a bit of a financial investment in a coach. And given those numbers, it wouldn't be a stretch to think that Pitt could go as high as $1.7 or $1.8 million for the right coach - so it isn't like they are trying to do this on the cheap and if the right guy comes along they won't lose him because they can't pay him.

I'll end on some questions -- what qualities do you want to see in Pitt's next coach? More importantly - what qualities do you think the next coach MUST have?

I'd just like to get a feel for what Pitt fans expect and want from this next coach.

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