Buckle up, folks, because this will probably be a longer post. Along with the news of Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson getting a five-year extension yesterday, Pederson sat down for about 45 minutes with a small group of reporters to talk about his past, present and future at Pitt, as well as his thoughts on a number of larger issues in college sports. Some of this is covered in the story Ray Fittipaldo and myself put together for today's paper, so if you haven't read that already I'll put in some shameless self-promotion. Away we go...
- One of the most tangible results of Pitt joining the ACC for all sports next season is the windfall it will provide the university financially. Most estimates put the ACC's future television payouts at around $20 million per school. In addition to investing more into football and basketball, that money also allows the school to better fund it's non-revenue sports. Pederson said that, as of next year, all of Pitt's varsity sports will be fully funded. Notably, that includes the baseball team, which won 42 games and came up just short of an NCAA Tournament bid. The only team that won't be fully funded is men's soccer.
"We will work through that," Pederson said. "We certainly think they're in a competitive mode, but we'll continue to improve that. I think all our programs are in a position now. We've never been one that felt we were going to be at the top of the spending category. We're going to work hard, we're going to kind of do more with less and we've tended to be a little more thinly staffed, we've tended to be a little bit more of a lean organization, but I think it's worked to our advantage that way. We're not going to change dramatically how we do things, but scholarship funding and so forth does make a difference in terms of how many players you have on your team, and probably the quality of players you have on your team. I think everybody's going to be at a great competitive advantage.
"There's a lot of factors sometimes in what we're doing here, sometimes it comes down to balancing it on an equity basis and so forth. So that's the only reason. We're very close, but technically we just want to make the right moves here to make sure that we do the right things for all of our programs all across the board."
- In terms of facilities, Pederson said his top priority is finding a long-term solution for an outdoor track and field venue, which Pitt currently lacks.
"The track becomes the No. 1 priority," he said. "We've continued to improve the Field House, we've continued to improve Trees Pool. Obviously this building [the Pete], not only did we build a great building, but we've maintained it. Heinz Field gets better every year, we feel like our football complex is in great shape, we continue to update that on a regular basis. The Petersen Sports Complex has been unbelievable for us, all the way across the board. We're really starting to see some benefits from that. Short of solving this track issue, we're in pretty good shape right now.
"We waited awhile for the Petersen Sports Complex, longer than we would've liked to have waited, but then when we did it, we really had to do it right. That's kind of our feeling with this."
- Pederson did say that Pitt's baseball stadium, Charles L. Cost Field, which currently has seating for 900, has the ability to expand if the need arises. This especially becomes an issue if Pitt is able to continue its success in the ACC, one of college baseball's premier conferences, and could theoretically host NCAA Tournament games.
"When we built the stadium, what we wanted to do was try to build it so that we could have good crowds all the time," Pederson said. "One of the issues in baseball becomes, not so much your Saturdays and Sundays, but your weekday games. You hate to kind of overbuild when you know during weekday games it's going to be hard to get a bigger fanbase, but really down the left field line, there's room for a lot of expansion, and actually we have plans that could go into place that the infrastructure's built and it would really just come down to adding bleachers or adding the stands to go into the stadium. There are some creative things you can do, too."
- As Pitt gets set to officially enter the ACC next month, Pederson recalled the first time the idea came up. Just as it seemed externally, he said everything fell into place very quickly. His first real conversation with ACC commissioner John Swofford came only about a month before the deal was officially announced in September 2011.
"The first time that it became real for me was the first real conversation John Swofford and I had about this," Pederson said. "To me, that was when it goes from an idea to more the reality of all this. As we had discussion, it became clearer and clearer that there could be a way to get this done if we both were on the same page with what they were looking for and what we were looking for.
"We really had no idea who else they might be talking to or thinking about. In fact, until the night before we kind of had the formal invitation, that was the first time I knew Syracuse was the other school they were talking to. At that point, you were really keeping it pretty close to the vest as far as what might or might not happen because you didn't know what anybody else was doing or thinking. We were trying to do as much as we could in the Big East, we certainly weren't having very much luck getting people on board who were trying to go along to stabilize the league. At that point it became pretty clear to us that we had to evaluate any options that came along, so we really did look at lots of different options. This, from the beginning to me, was the best option. I always felt like, for our league and this institution, being on the eastern seaboard from Boston to Miami, where we recruit, where we get students, where our alums live, it's just a good fit for us. That's kind of already where we live to a large extent. Now, more so in the Northeast than in the Southeast, yet there's a growing number of people from here who live in the Carolinas, they live in Georgia and Florida. It's almost shocking to me how many people come up to me and say, 'Oh we're living down in the Carolinas now, we can't wait until you guys are coming down here for things.'
"We thought they [the ACC] were a little more typical of this institution in a lot of ways. We're not a huge landgrant university with 75,000 students. That's just not what we are. ... We tend to fit more along the lines of Duke, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Virginia."
- Pederson did say that he and Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg did try earnestly to save the Big East, but didn't get enough commitment from other members (some of whom are probably now stuck in the American).
"We tried to keep everybody together and make some longer term commitments, because at that point nobody could guarantee what was going to happen or where you might go," Pederson said. "We were the ones saying, 'Hey, let's lock arms here and sort this out.' But we could never get a full commitment from the people that had to be committed to this to make it happen. We did try, we made a concerted effort to try, but a lot of them just decided that if the options came along, they were going to take them, so they were unwilling to make any long-term commitment to us. Some of those ended up in great places and some of them didn't."
- It's no secret, but Pederson said his top short-term priority is getting Heinz Field sold out for the 2013 season on a season ticket basis. He said the school has just under 11,000 season tickets left to sell, but that they're experiencing their best sales since Pederson has been at the university.
"Of course, selling out Heinz Field does a lot of things for us," he said. "The revenue from that is significant, when you sell out the stadium your donations rise accordingly, your merchandise sales rise, your concessions sales rise, your profile in the community continues to rise to a higher and higher level. There are all these great benefits."
- Pederson spoke on the topic of a potential $2,000 stipend for student-athletes, which the NCAA approved two years ago but then put on hold after several smaller schools voiced concern about the financial burden it could put on them.
"The NCAA said they wanted to move forward with this idea of the $2,000 stipend," Pederson said. "Then they were going to refer it to a group to come up with a way to do it. It seems like no one's been able to come up with a way to do it. We haven't gotten the OK to do that. We've said, from the beginning as an institution, that we support it conceptually. Now, you have to find a way to distribute the money and then there's more issues that tend to come out of this every time they get to a point. Now they're down to where they said the NCAA did make a commitment that they do want to try and do this and they've got a group working on it trying to figure out how they can solve it. It's not there yet and I don't know when it's going to get there. We're going on a couple of years now."
- Pederson also expounded on Pitt's philosophy in terms of blocking player transfers. The Panthers have been on both sides of the issue. They blocked former running back Rushel Shell from transferring to either Arizona or Arizona State because of former Pitt coaches at both schools, but Vanderbilt also reportedly blocked basketball player Sheldon Jeter from transferring to Pitt. Pederson said the school's general policy is not to release a student-athlete to any in-conference school or a school that's on the Panthers' future schedules.
"There ought to be some rationale for leaving," Pederson said. "That's where we've gotten a little bit tighter in terms of talking about departures. This shouldn't just be free agency and when you want to leave you just leave. We've made a commitment to recruit them and to educate them and to do the right things here, so there's just sometimes we feel like that we ought to encourage them to stick it out and get through this. In a lot of cases, then that ends up coming back around and they're fine. They go through periods of time when they're frustrated and they come back and they're fine. I think that's kind of part of life and a little bit of growing up is having to fight through some of the tougher times.
"What my concern overall is if every year a third of everybody's team transfers to a different school because they think they can play there, you kind of begin to wonder what we're trying to do here. Is that good for college athletics? It doesn't seem like it. And you don't know what would happen to them if they stayed longer. A lot of times, students want to transfer and you say, 'What if they had stayed here longer? How would it have turned out?' It could very well have turned out better than where they ended up transferring to. I think it's going to be an issue that we're going to be talking a lot about, both as a conference and nationally. What's fair and what's reasonable in terms of the transfer issues?"
- Pitt script update! Pederson was asked about the present and future of Pitt's uniforms, and didn't really say anything definite. From what it sounds like, we won't see Pitt's primary uniforms changing any time soon, but Pederson didn't sound like he would be totally opposed to something like a throwback game once in a blue moon.
"We've got a good look," he said. "I think our uniforms have a good look, I think Nike's done a tremendous job for us in putting our kids in a good look. I know the issue really becomes the script, more so than anything. You never say never. I think we're going to evaluate everything. We're looking at everything and so at this juncture, I wouldn't say we'll never look at anything, but I wouldn't say we're on the verge of anything either. We're just trying to be thoughtful in how we do this because what we've really tried to focus on is getting our teams better. Getting our teams better, getting our program better. Some of that [uniform] stuff is fun, which I understand, but doesn't have a lot to do with how you perform on the field. That's really what we've tried to put our energy into is how we're going to perform on the field."
- Finally, Pederson spoke a little bit about future scheduling. The biggest wrinkle he's dealing with now is how Notre Dame and its ACC rotation fits over the next 10-12 years. Once that's set (which should be soon) he can go about setting other non-conference games. West Virginia came up, and Pederson said he still has discussions with WVU AD Oliver Luck about renewing the Backyard Brawl in some form, but West Virginia's nine-game Big 12 schedule and Pitt's future commitments to Penn State make it somewhat difficult. If I had to predict, I wouldn't be surprised to see a Pitt/West Virginia game at some point in the future, but it probably won't be for at least 10 years and would definitely not be an annual fixture, but probably something like a two-game home-and-home.
On the contrary, all signs are pointing towards the Pitt/Penn State series extending beyond the four games (2016-19) the schools currently have scheduled. The Big Ten going to nine conference games could make it somewhat difficult to play every year, but it certainly seems like a long-term series is in the works. On the Penn State side, Nittany Lions coach Bill O'Brien has been very adamant that he would like Pitt to be an annual fixture on the schedule.
"It seems like everybody would like it to happen, and when everybody would like it to happen, you've got a pretty good chance of putting something together," Pederson said. "Will it be straight every year after those four? I can't tell you that right now. I think they're looking at their schedules going out into the future and what they've got in terms of conference games and all that as well.
"That would certainly be a fun game every year. That's just kind of in a different league that any other non-conference game you could play."