BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson broke his silence and spoke with selected members of the media via teleconference from his office in the Petersen Events Center today, addressing a number of issues surrounding the athletic department and its coaching search.
He also talked about his own job security and his focus moving forward as he tries to find a new football coach for the university.
The university's search process this time is different than the way they conducted the first search, which led the university to hire former Miami (Ohio) coach Michael Haywood -- who was fired on Jan. 1, a day after being arrested on charges of domestic battery.
"We have created a small team who will assist in the initial interview process," Mr. Pederson said. "We are meeting potential candidates in a first round, then we will identify a smaller number of candidates from that pool who will brought to campus to participate in further interviews with a group that includes the chancellor [Mark Nordenberg].
"We want to move swiftly, but we have no timeline for completion of the process and we want to make sure we find the right person to lead this program but do so in a timely manner."
The small group conducting the initial interviews includes Mr. Pederson, Executive Associate Athletic Director Donna Sanft and Executive Vice Chancellor Jerry Cochran.
Mr. Pederson said the fact that there will be a second round of interviews means that no candidate will be hired -- or even offered the job -- until the group of finalists are identified and have all had a chance to meet with and interview with Mr. Nordenberg.
Mr. Pederson said the firing of Mr. Haywood was an unfortunate situation, but he said the university did do a proper background search on him.
In addition to the exhaustive background checks done by Parker Executive Search -- the firm hired by the university to assist in the search -- the university has every candidate's criminal history investigated by Kroll Background Screening.
"We also made numerous phone calls and contacts with people covering his time at LSU, Miami (Ohio), Notre Dame, Texas and everything came back clean," Mr. Pederson said. "There were no red flags at all in his background from anyone at these institutions."
Mr. Pederson said the school continues to use Parker Executive Search as a part of the process. He said the university did not pay Mr. Haywood anything because his contract was terminated for cause.
When asked if it was fair to say that the Dave Wannstedt, the man Mr. Haywood replaced, was fired because he didn't win enough games, Pederson responded that "expectations are and should be for this program to compete at a championship level."
It is the first time he has acknowledged publicly that the administration did indeed force Mr. Wannstedt to resign and that Mr. Wannstedt's lack of winning Big East championships was a part of that decision.
Mr. Pederson said all of the candidates he has met with over the past month have been extremely receptive to the idea of having high expectations and all believe that Pitt can play at a much higher level than they've achieved in recent years.
Mr. Pederson also addressed the intense criticism he has received from alumni, fans, key former players like Mike Ditka and Bill Fralic and other people around the university for the way he's handled the firing of Mr. Wannstedt, the hiring of Mr. Haywood and everything in between.
Many, like Mr. Fralic, have publicly called for him to be fired. Mr. Pederson said that while he has heard that, he hasn't let it affect how he works and he isn't focused on his job security. He said he is committed to hiring the right coach and continuing to move the athletic department forward.
But he does understand the criticism.
"We've made a lot of hard decisions over the course of time," Mr. Pederson said. "Those hard decisions were key to moving this program forward. I've tried to make every decision I've been involved with in the best interest of the University of Pittsburgh and when you do that, sometimes they become very hot topics.
"But I don't think we've ever taken the easy way out or lowered our expectations because that is what it takes to move a program forward."
Mr. Pederson declined to discuss specific candidates involved in the job search.
Paul Zeise: email@example.com or 412-263-1720