Dave Wannstedt has built the Pitt program on the principles of trust, integrity and accountability, and he believes his top priority as the head coach, even above winning football games, is molding young men into good citizens and encouraging on- and off-field success.
Police have arrested three Pitt players in separate incidents in the past two months, and Wannstedt, feeling compelled to defend the integrity of his program, players and disciplinary decisions, takes it personally.
The coach made it clear Monday that he and his staff are committed more than ever to molding Pitt's players into successful citizens. While Wannstedt is sometimes in a position to discipline them, he said he believes kicking players off the team and denying second chances are not the best approaches.
Instead, he wants to help players understand the consequences of their decisions and find their way through the problems.
"I am not doing this just to do a job. I've won championships, I've made money, I've been very fortunate in my career," Wannstedt said. "I am doing this job because I want to make a difference in these kids' lives. And that goes for on the field, off the field -- when things like this happen it just tears me up.
"But I've made a commitment to their parents to try to do everything I can to make a wrong right somehow and hope that a situation is not so bad that a kid can't learn from it and become a better person by it. I look at it this way -- if my son were here, how would I want him treated? That's the approach I take."
At his news conference Monday, Wannstedt was grilled about his disciplinary approach and plans to curtail these types of incidents.
He pointed to the Panthers' existing life skills program, community service projects, mentoring from former players and increased number of academic advisors.
Three incidents among more than 100 players doesn't quite make for an epidemic, Wannstedt said, but he stressed his ability to judge the severity of a situation and hand out punishment if needed.
"I treat each one on an individual basis because I know these kids," Wannstedt said. "Every single player who has played for me, I've sat in their homes with their families and I know what their family situation is. And the bottom line, in a lot of the cases, if it doesn't work for them here, the next step is disaster.
"If I can avoid that, I try to. If I am wrong for doing that, then I am wrong, but I care about these kids and I have given their parents my word that I will be fair and treat them like they are one of mine."
All of the recent incidents involved alcohol and were handled the same way: the player was suspended indefinitely pending a legal process. Jabaal Sheard and Keith Coleman were involved in separate fights; Jason Douglas was charged with hitting a pedestrian while driving drunk.
That is the same way Wannstedt has handled every player who has run afoul of the law, and players say they appreciate it.
"We have a whole bunch of guys on this team who know how to do the right things but we've had a couple make bad decisions but we all make mistakes," receiver Cam Saddler said. "The reason we came to Pitt was to have a chance to play for coach Wannstedt and we don't want to put him in a bad predicament so it comes down to we all just need to start making better decisions.
"You understand, coach is a players' coach, he legitimately cares about us."
Receiver Mike Shanahan added: "He is just a very caring guy and us as players need to make his job a little easier by just being more responsible. Nobody wants to be the guy who lets him down and right now we've let him and the university down."
Ed Gunn, whose son, Adam, was arrested in an incident on the South Side last spring while a linebacker at Pitt, said Wannstedt and his staff were open, honest and fair throughout the process.
Charges against Adam Gunn were ultimately dropped, and he was reinstated to the team.
"As a parent you want to know two things -- is a guy a good role model and does he really care about your son," Ed Gunn said. "When kids screw up, they need to be disciplined, and coach Wannstedt made that clear, and any parent who doesn't understand that is not being realistic. And I also understand as the coach, he also has to consider what it means to the reputation of his university.
"But he had [members of his staff] at every hearing and every step of the way, making sure we knew they were behind us and also making sure the people making the decisions understood what Adam stood for and what kind of kid he really was.
"It would be easy for a coach to throw kids off the team every time they get in trouble, but that doesn't necessarily help the kids and a lot of times, it is good kids making bad decisions and they deserve a second chance. I trusted Dave Wannstedt would do the right thing before this incident with Adam and I trust him even more now."
NOTES -- Wannstedt made it clear Monday that the demotion for middle linebacker Dan Mason from first team to second team is a legitimate punishment. "I don't know if we will [use Mason against Miami]," he said. "Right now he is not on the depth chart as a starter at linebacker and he is not on any special teams." ... The three injured players -- safety Dom DeCicco (hamstring), safety Andrew Taglianetti (groin) and guard Chris Jacobson (ankle) all returned to practice and should be available Thursday against Miami. ... Wannstedt said starting right guard Greg Gaskins is going to have to play better to hold on to his job. "The competition there is active," he said, "and Greg knows that." ... Kickoff for the Pitt-Florida International game is at 3:30 p.m. Oct. 2 at Heinz Field. It will not be televised.
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1720.