Wannstedt deserves another year or two to get Pitt's program going
October 16, 2007 4:00 AM
Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt
By Ron Cook Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Forget about any vote of confidence for Dave Wannstedt from Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg. Those things are usually worthless, anyway and, in this case, one is unnecessary. Pitt is having a lousy season, and Wannstedt's first 21/2 years on the job have been enormously disappointing, but there's just no way he deserves to be fired today, tomorrow, next week or any time before the end of next season. He deserves a fourth year to show he can get the program going.
This is going to sound insane, but this is the time Nordenberg should be thinking about an extension for Wannstedt. Not a five- or 10-year deal, but one year. If Nordenberg believes Wannstedt still is his man, he has to do it. That would carry more weight than a vote of confidence. That wouldn't just help Pitt's recruiting. It would let Pittsburgh know the Pitt administration is prepared to ride out the storm with Wannstedt.
That's not easy to do -- public sentiment has turned dramatically against Wannstedt since the horrible home losses to Connecticut and Navy the past three weeks -- but that kind of strength has been known to pay off. I'm thinking of Greg Schiano at Rutgers. His first four teams went 2-9, 1-11, 5-7 and 4-7, but Rutgers stuck with him. I'm also thinking of Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech. His first six teams went 2-9, 3-8, 6-4-1, 6-5, 5-6 and 2-8-1.
It's nice to think Wannstedt also will reward that same kind of patience.
That doesn't mean Nordenberg shouldn't demand Wannstedt make changes. The coaching staff is the easy place to start. I'm always hesitant to put too much blame on coordinators because the head coach is the boss and has responsibility for the product. There's no excuse for Pitt's defense to play so poorly when Wannstedt has such a strong defensive background. But defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads always has said he should be blamed if his defense doesn't respond to him. Well, it's not responding and hasn't for a few years.
Wannstedt wouldn't comment about Rhoads or any of his coaches yesterday, including offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh, who took big-time heat for his play calling at the end of the Navy game, or offensive line coach Paul Dunn, who has his critics. But, after saying he has "all the confidence in the world" in his staff, Wannstedt acknowledged, "I'll sit down after the season and make the decisions that are in the best interests of the Pitt program, not in the best interests of Dave Wannstedt. I'm not 35 years old trying to make a name for myself. I'm going to do what's right for Pitt."
Wannstedt was surprisingly upbeat.
"I know we're doing it the right way," he said. "Our players and coaches are working too hard for good things not to happen."
Wannstedt would make things easier for Nordenberg as far as that extension goes if Pitt shows some progress in the second half of the season. It might not be reflected in wins. Pitt will be a decided underdog at home Saturday against Cincinnati and should be favored just once -- at home against Syracuse Nov. 3 -- in its final six games. But it can't be as unprepared to play again as it was against Connecticut. Its defense can't get demolished again the way it was by Navy.
Those lame losses figure to hurt Wannstedt's ability to recruit. Star players want to play for a winner (can you say West Virginia?) and play in an electric atmosphere (can you say Penn State?). Pitt offers neither at the moment.
Wannstedt said that doesn't have to be paralyzing.
"We've had two great recruiting classes and we're going to have another great one this year. The sense I'm getting from high school coaches, the kids and their parents is that they still believe we're going to win. Trust me, if we win six games or win none [that remain], we're going to have another great class."
Call me a fool, but I still believe Wannstedt. I endorsed his hiring because I thought his enthusiasm for Pitt and his NFL ties would get the program over the top. I never felt that with Walt Harris before him. That's why I endorsed replacing Harris even though Pitt went to the Fiesta Bowl in his final season. I'll always maintain Pitt was a Bowl Championship team then, not a BCS program. People forget that team lost four games, including a 35-7 whipping by Utah in the Fiesta Bowl. It never would have made the Fiesta Bowl if a superior West Virginia team hadn't self-destructed late in the season at Heinz Field.
Pitt would love to have such a mediocre team now.
"I understand that," Wannstedt said. "I'm disappointed our progress hasn't been faster. But nothing that's happened has made me waver from what we're doing here. This isn't a job to me. It's a passion. I have an awful lot of confidence in what this university stands for. I have an awful lot of confidence in what I stand for."
Much of Pittsburgh has lost that faith in Wannstedt.
As long as Nordenberg is on his side, it doesn't matter.
This wouldn't be a bad time for the chancellor to show that support.