Pitt's Berenato to visit U.S. troops overseas

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Agnus Berenato has been a goodwill ambassador for the University of Pittsburgh since the day she took over as the head women's basketball coach in 2003.

Berenato has turned the women's program into one of the best in the country. Beyond that, she has built relationships with numerous community groups and countless people in Western Pennsylvania and has become one of the most high-profile and popular employees at the university.

That's why she receives numerous requests from people within the university and outside it to do speaking engagements, be involved in charity and fund-raising activities and attend social events.

But her latest role goes way beyond anything she imagined. As a goodwill ambassador, she not only will represent Pitt, but she also will carry a message of hope and thanks from an entire country to the people who need to hear it most -- U.S. troops stationed across the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Berenato and four other coaches soon will embark on a tour of U.S. military bases overseas (exact dates and locations are undisclosed for security reasons) organized by a Pittsburgh-based marketing agency (Koeberle & Associates) and sponsored by the U.S. Army. The goal is to boost "the morale and quality of life for deployed military personnel by providing entertainment from the home front."

She said that being asked to be a part of this tour is about the highest honor she could receive.

"I was so humbled and so honored when I was first approached about this," Berenato said. "There are so many people who are so much more qualified than me to go and meet with our troops and to represent the University of Pittsburgh, Western Pennsylvania and, really, all of the citizens in the United States.

"It is a way to just say thanks and let them know how much we appreciate what they've done and the sacrifices they make every day to protect us and to ensure our way of life endures forever."

Berenato said she is excited to go to some of the countries because of things she has read or heard about them.

To learn more, she spoke extensively with former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who did a goodwill tour in Iraq with NFL coaches John Harbaugh (Ravens), Tom Coughlin (Giants) and Jeff Fisher (Titans) as well as former NFL coach and current Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden.

She was fascinated to learn a number of things about it and said her talks convinced her that this would be a valuable experience.

"I'll admit I was a little nervous at first, but I never considered saying no because it is just such an honor," Berenato said. "And the words coach Cowher used numerous times in our conversations was life changing. It will be a life-changing experience for me, I know that.

"One of the things that I think will be most interesting will be just interacting with the soldiers and talking to them about their experiences and listening to their stories, I can't even begin to imagine what they've been through."

Berenato will be joined on the trip by members of the U.S. Army as well as University of Louisiana-Monroe men's basketball coach Orlando Early, Virginia Military Institute men's basketball coach Duggar Baucom, Murray State men's basketball coach Billy Kennedy and Jacksonville State University assistant men's basketball coach Mike Smith.

She said the fact that she is the only woman and only women's basketball coach on the tour will make it extra special for her because there are plenty of other women who could have been chosen.

"There are a lot of female troops over there as well, and I think that it will be good that they'll have someone who they can relate to as well," she said. "I think it is really -- and I can't stress this enough -- a humbling moment and honor to be a part of this."

Berenato plans on blogging about her trip through an online diary at www.post-gazette.com's Pitt page during the coming month. She said it is yet another example of how small the world is really becoming thanks to modern technology.

"I think it is amazing that I'll be halfway across the world and yet be able to reach out to the people in Western Pennsylvania who have supported our program and our athletic department," Berenato said.

"I'm sure there will be plenty of great stories to tell each day, and that's a part of it as well -- the opportunity to share my experience with others."

Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson said that Berenato has the kind of magnetic and engaging personality that will make her a natural for such a tour. He stressed that it is a tremendous honor for her and the university.

"I think the thing that I look forward to most is listening to Agnus talk about the experiences and the stories she'll have when she comes back," Pederson said.

"I think when you have coaches involved in a tour like this, and even when Jamie [Dixon] gets selected to coach a Team USA basketball team in an international competition, it really is something we can all be proud of here at the university and even beyond that to our fans and to those who support us in so many ways."

Pitt women's basketball coach Agnus Berenato will have an online diary on post-gazette.com during her trip to the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Paul Zeise can be reached at pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720


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