Pitt was a dry run for Graham

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When I got to the part of coach Todd Graham's departure e-mail that purported to explain why he wasn't telling the Pitt players he was abandoning face-to-face -- "The timing of circumstances have (sic) prohibited me from telling you this directly. I am now on my way to Tempe ... " -- an old joke suddenly resurfaced in my memory.

An airline pilot comes on the cabin intercom to reassure passengers that the turbulence the plane has encountered is no cause for alarm, but he's a little too forthcoming.

"Bit of a bumpy ride folks, nothing to worry about," the pilot says. "If you look out the windows on the left side of the plane, you will see a small dinghy floating in the water below. I am speaking to you from that dinghy."

That's about how it went down Wednesday, metaphorically.

"I'm outta here," Graham said effectively, as he high-octaned it into the sunset. "Good luck to ya."

Or as Graham said pointedly, "God Bless."

So there we were again at another wintry happy hour news conference at Pitt's football practice facility, with athletic director Steve Pederson again trying to explain the inexplicable, obviously because Dave Wannstedt wasn't available.

Steve loved having Dave take a public pie in the face in these situations.

"Today I talked with 110 as fine a young men as you will find in college football," said a drawn-looking Pederson of Pitt's orphaned roster, his voice seemingly at half volume. "They're dealing with it like champions."

That sounded a lot like the ironic finality of the Todd Graham Error because Graham always talked about championships, multiple championships. So that's it? He turned these kids into the champions of understanding real commitment when the guy they entrusted with their mission, Captain Commitment himself, was on a plane to the desert?

Even on a college football landscape where Penn State has lowered the accountability bar into the swamp, it's repugnant.

You could almost hear Wannstedt laughing Wednesday all the way from Buffalo, N.Y., barely a week after he had gone public with the opinion that Graham, his ill-chosen successor's ill-chosen successor, was unfit to lead young men such as Tino Sunseri, who, in the course of just trying to play quarterback in a foreign offense, had become Graham's rhetorical voodoo doll.

And here I thought that Pitt finally might get to defend its BBVVXYZ Rumpus in the Compass Bowl championship under a coach who didn't have the sideline piled up with carry-on luggage.

Maybe next year.

This time, Keith Patterson will be in Birmingham, Ala., his bags in all likelihood tagged for Arizona State and a position on the defensive staff of the Arizona State Sun Devils.

But to recap, this whole Groundhog Day cycle for Pitt football started when Pederson first extended Wannstedt's contract, then decided he couldn't bear to watch him complete it. He replaced Wanny with Michael Haywood, whom Pederson vetted thoroughly but without asking the musical question, "What are you doing New Year's, New Year's Eve?"

Turned out what Haywood was doing Dec. 31, 2010 was termed felony domestic battery in the presence of a minor in the eventual paperwork, for which Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg fired Haywood immediately, triggering the Pitt Coaching Search II exactly 21/2 weeks after Pitt Coaching Search I ended.

Welcome then to the post-Wanny PCSIII: Revenge of the Fallen.

It will be interesting, albeit in that tedious way, to see how many more cracks Nordenberg will give Pederson to say, "You're hired!" to a football candidate, as the athletic director's record in that area is fraught with frauds: Bill Callahan at Nebraska, Haywood and Graham at Pitt.

Nordenberg might just take Pederson out of that process rather than can him because the biggest victory of the just-completed football season was not Graham's but Pederson's. He maneuvered Pitt into the Atlantic Coast Conference and out of the mutating Big East, which only highlighted the portion of the athletic director's curriculum vitae where it says he's the man who saved Pitt athletics.

"Can you imagine if we were still at Pitt Stadium and at the Fitzgerald Field House?" squawked unofficial Pitt historian Beano Cook. "Within five years, we'd be playing Slippery Rock. And we'd be the underdog."

Barely 11 months ago, Pitt's administration seemed equally as enamored by the way Graham wanted to play strategically as with the man himself, which is why I asked Pederson Wednesday how a 6-6 autumn of chaotic offense informs the process for the next try.

"We never hire a coach because they play a certain style," he said. "We hire them on whether they can be successful and we want somebody who can adapt to the situation, a coach that can put a program together."

Good candidates should include Iowa State's Paul Rhoads and Teryl Austin, a former Pitt standout who is coaching the secondary for the Baltimore Ravens. I doubt it would include Tom Bradley, the Penn State defensive coordinator Pitt had its shot at in PCSI and PCSII, both well before Penn State's program became radioactive.

That Pitt's choice likely should be made at Nordenberg's pay level obviously doesn't guarantee the best outcome. That's what Arizona State did after its first two candidates didn't land for a variety of reasons. They reportedly left it to the university president, and he hired Graham.

I'm sure they are ecstatic.

Check back with us when you've been through the desert on a horse with no game.

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com . First Published December 14, 2011 5:00 AM


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