Pitt's Wannstedt maintains discipline on and off the field

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Two days after Pitt beat Notre Dame at Heinz Field, coach Dave Wannstedt was walking through campus and randomly checking the classes of his players to see if they were attending.

One freshman player was a few minutes late -- "his eyes lit up like Christmas lights when he walked in and saw me standing there," Wannstedt said -- to his 10 a.m. class. Wannstedt lectured him about his responsibility as a student-athlete and had him apologize to the professor for being late.

Wannstedt does these checks throughout the season and has since he was hired in December 2004. He does so mostly because he doesn't see his job as just that of a football coach.

Wannstedt has built a program that is about far more than just fielding a good football team. Some have been critical at the pace he has built the program, but he would argue that patience and due diligence are the keys to what he believes is a solid foundation.

"I am not and never was interested in one good year here or there," Wannstedt said.

"It has always been my goal to build this thing to a place where young men can come, grow and achieve all of their goals in life and, if they choose, in football.

"If you are going to play football here, you are going to go to class, you are going to work toward your degree and you are going to do the right things on and off the football field and it is our job as coaches -- and really, teachers and counselors as well -- to make sure you have a chance to be your best.

"We want this program to be the best. I believe this university is the best, we have a great administration, a great faculty and in a great city. I think we should be the best in the Big East at everything we do and we can because we all have the same goals."

Wannstedt changed a number of things about the program when he arrived. Perhaps the two biggest developments were that he added three full-time academic advisors to work with the players and he brought in Buddy Morris in 2007 to be the strength and conditioning coach.

He gave his academic advisors the freedom and tools necessary to do their jobs and he did the same thing with Morris, who has a strict, no-nonsense approach to conditioning.

Morris made an immediate impact by instituting a very simple policy for the conditioning program -- the weight room and conditioning drills are about "we" and not "I" and as such, everyone must wear the same clothes to work out, there is no jewelry allowed in the weight room, no flip flops, keep your shirt on no matter how hot you are and nobody is allowed to sit down, yawn or bend over.

"If we run 50 yards, we run 50 yards, you don't slow down at 47 yards, you run 50," Morris said. "It is all about finishing strong in whatever we do. Dave is big on accountability and that is the basis of everything we're doing in the conditioning program.

"This is a disciplined sport and Dave demands a disciplined approach to it."

Morris puts them through a rigourous workout regimen in the offseason and when there is a need for discipline to be meted out, Morris is the one who applies it.

Despite that fact, the players admire and respect Morris because they've seen the results of working in his program.

"I don't care what anyone says, working with Buddy Morris has made every one of us more prepared for life," linebacker Adam Gunn said. "You don't always like him when he's pushing so hard, but in the fourth quarter, you love him. There are some games when we walk off the field and believe we could play another quarter or two."

Pitt had four players who could bench press 400 pounds or more when Morris arrived. Today, they have 15. Pitt also had five offensive linemen who had more than 30 percent body fat, today they have none.

"The impressive thing isn't the fact that we have so many more guys who can bench 400 now than when we arrived," Morris said. "The impressive thing is we have that many guys who have the courage to even try to lift it. Back then these guys looked at all that weight on the bar and their eyes jumped out of their heads.

"We had too many survivors around here and not enough conquerors, but we have changed that around completely."

While discipline, developing mental toughness and accountability certainly are a big part of the Panthers' success, Wannstedt can't stress enough how important the academic strength is a part of it as well.

"Only a handful of these guys will play in the NFL," Wannstedt said, "That's just statistically speaking. God willing, I hope they all make it but the bottom line is, these guys need to understand they are here to earn a degree and to take steps toward achieving their goals and dreams beyond football.

"And we've found that the guys who are doing it right in the classroom are also doing it right on the football field. It such an important thing and my top priority -- my degrees from this university put me on the road to achieve the things I've been able to and I want to give that back to all of these guys and make it possible for them as well."

Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson said Wannstedt's slow and steady approach has provided the Panthers with a program in which the university can be proud.

He said the approach and commitment to discipline and academics can not be overlooked when measuring the growth and strength of the Panthers -- who, by the way, are ranked in the top 10 and have won 19 of their past 24 games.

"Too often we tend to measure the progress of a program is what happens on the field," Pederson said. "But every day, behind the scenes, you see the program getting better and stronger in so many ways."

The game

• Matchup: No. 8 Pitt (9-1, 5-0 Big East) at West Virginia (7-3, 3-2).

• When: 7 p.m. tomorrow.

• Where: Mountaineer Field, Morgantown, W.Va.

• TV: ESPN2.

• Line: Pick.

• Tomorrow: West Virginia coach Bill Stewart is still in search of a signature win.

Paul Zeise can be reached at pzeise@post-gazette.com .


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