Dave Wannstedt keeps saying he's getting better players to come to Pitt. It's easy to believe him when you look around and see a LeSean McCoy, a Nate Byham, a Jabaal Sheard, a Dorin Dickerson. Wannstedt says he'll be able to recruit even better players in the days ahead because the top kids know he knows how to get them to the NFL. He has gone so far as to say his program can get players to the next level better than any program with the possible exceptions of Southern California and Notre Dame. That's the height of arrogance and probably unwarranted, but let's assume, just for fun, it's true.
All of that begs one question:
Is Wannstedt and his staff capable of coaching up all those great players and making Pitt a big winner?
I'm starting to have my doubts.
The embarrassing home loss Saturday night to Connecticut did the trick for me. Wannstedt gets a pass on a lot of things this season because Pitt lost its best wide receiver, Derek Kinder, in training camp and its quarterback, Bill Stull, in the first game. But there is no excusing that miserable performance in a 34-14 loss. This is Wannstedt's third season. The Pitt program should be further along than that. And that wasn't West Virginia that thumped Pitt. That was Connecticut, which has won just seven Big East Conference games in three-plus seasons, three coming against Pitt, including two against Wannstedt. That's the same Connecticut team that was fortunate to beat Temple a week earlier.
This might have been Pitt's worst loss since the Johnny Majors II era when the Panthers were beaten by scores of 72-0, 45-0, 55-7 and 60-6. Wannstedt had a terrible defeat at Ohio in 2005, but at least that can be explained, in large part, by two interceptions veteran quarterback Tyler Palko threw that were returned for touchdowns. Before Wannstedt, Walt Harris also had some bad losses, most notably a 35-26 licking by South Florida in '01 in the second game at Heinz Field.
But this loss to Connecticut was awful.
Imagine how much we would be screaming at Harris if he still were the coach and Pitt played such a dreadful game.
Well, Wannstedt no longer can be allowed to skate.
Pitt clearly wasn't ready to play, falling behind 10-0 in the first 12 minutes. It was careless with the ball, committing six turnovers. And it was shockingly undisciplined, taking eight penalties.
Maybe you can blame many of those six turnovers, or the three Pitt had in a loss at Michigan State the week before, on the fact that Wannstedt had to play freshmen quarterbacks Kevan Smith and Pat Bostick. But what's the excuse for the eight penalties or the 10 Pitt took against Michigan State? That's a frightening lack of focus. Where's the accountability on this team?
That's a poor reflection on Wannstedt and his coaches.
So is this:
Pitt has not come from behind in the second half to win a game in Wannstedt's 2 1/3 seasons. It is 0-11 when it trailed at halftime even though the deficit in seven of those games was eight points or less. It also lost two games when it led at the half.
There doesn't appear to be a lot of shrewd coaching adjustments being made.
Pitt certainly didn't have any answers for Connecticut after it jumped to that early lead. At times, the coaches even appeared to have problems getting the right personnel on the field. Regrettably, they often forgot about McCoy.
I'm not as upset about Wannstedt's handling of McCoy as a lot of people. It's unfair and unrealistic to ask McCoy to carry the ball 44 times to protect his freshman quarterback the way Michigan's Mike Hart did against Penn State Saturday to protect his. Hart is a senior and a Heisman Trophy candidate. McCoy is 19 -- a freshman himself -- with four games under his belt. And it's not as if Pitt's other tailback, LaRod Stephens-Howling, has been a stiff. But McCoy has to get more than the 11 carries he had against Connecticut. He's the team's best offensive threat.
Wannstedt acknowledged as much yesterday when he announced McCoy and Bostick would start against Virginia.
"We'll take a look at that combination of Bostick and McCoy and see if it gives us a spark."
That's as it should be.
Bostick and McCoy are the Panthers' future.
It's nice to think that, one day, they'll make Pitt that big winner that everyone wants as long as they and their teammates get the proper coaching.
Right now, though, that coaching part seems like a very big if.
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .