Pitt will play host to Navy tomorrow night in what has suddenly become one of the Panthers' most important games in recent history.
There were plenty of questions surrounding the direction of Pitt's program under coach Dave Wannstedt before the season started. They have turned into legitimate concerns in the wake of the way the Panthers have performed.
With a three-game losing streak, Pitt (2-3) seems to be rapidly descending to the bottom of the Big East. The Panthers appear headed for a third consecutive season without a bowl game. A home loss to the Midshipmen (3-2) on national television would further damage Pitt and Wannstedt's reputations.
Wannstedt was asked last week if he thought the university's administration still had full confidence in him. He answered, "yes, oh yes, I am not even going to respond to that."
- Game: Navy (3-2) vs. Pitt (2-3), 8 p.m.
- Where: Heinz Field.
- TV: ESPN.
Yesterday, he was asked again if he thought this is a critical time for his program.
"Sure it is," Wannstedt said. "We need to get back on track and we need to find a way to win this game to get to .500 and we'll go from there. Is it more important today than it was yesterday? No. Is it more important today than it was the opening game? I would say no. I don't think you look at leadership that way. You are either a leader or you're not."
He is no stranger to dealing with adversity. He has been under intense scrutiny during his tenure as the head coach of the Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins before arriving at Pitt.
In Wannstedt's defense, the Panthers weren't expected to be much more than a .500 team this season because of youth and inexperience at a number of key positions, including quarterback. And that was before Pitt lost four of its best players -- including starting quarterback Bill Stull -- to injuries. The team's struggles aren't completely surprising.
While the injuries have hindered the Panthers, the fact they haven't been competitive in their past two games -- against Connecticut and Virginia, two teams who have no impressive wins between them -- has been alarming. Wannstedt understands all that and said he's sticking to the plan because he knows it will work for Pitt in the long run.
"I've been through [criticism] on a lot of different levels for a lot of different things," he said. "You just have to focus on what you're doing. You know the reasons why you are struggling and you try to look at it very objectively. You say, "Is there anything else we can do to improve the situation? What do we have control over? What don't we have control over?" And then you act accordingly, that's all."
Wannstedt said despite the losing streak, the Panthers have remained confident and upbeat and have continued to practice hard. He said the seniors have taken the losing harder because they know they don't have many more chances to help the program get back on the winning track.
"Chris McKillop and Joe Clermond have played lights out," Wannstedt said. "You look at our leaders and see what they are about and that's usually a reflection of how our guys are going to respond."
One other important reason -- one that shouldn't be overlooked -- the Navy game is so critical to the future of the program is it is likely the last time, until the season finale against West Virginia, the Panthers will be on national television this season.
The Panthers, who will appear on several regional telecasts, have lost their past three games and all were televised nationally, so this could be their last chance to make a positive statement nationally about the program.
Wannstedt knows nationally televised games can be his best friend -- or his worst enemy -- depending on how Pitt performs.
"[Putting on a good show for TV] is part of it," he said. "I talked to the kids this week and that's why they all came here, to be on TV and get out there and show what they can do. We've got that chance this week and we just have to go out and do it. That's all a part of the 'college experience' that the kids talk about and look forward to and that's something along with our tradition that we sell.
"Now we've got an opportunity, what are we going to do with it?"
Paul Zeise can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1720 First Published October 9, 2007 4:00 AM