Pitt's Nordenberg wins Dapper Dan leadership honor

For younger fans of Pitt's athletic programs, a trip back in time to 1995 might render the Panthers unrecognizable.

The two flagship teams -- football and basketball -- were playing in historic but outdated facilities and had combined for just three winning seasons since the decade started. The football team had not made a bowl game since 1989.

Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, hired in 1995, played a major role in transforming the entire university the past 18 years, and his impact on the athletics department has been undeniable.

In his tenure, Pitt has rebuilt or renovated facilities for 14 of its 16 varsity sports, including most notably the football team's move to Heinz Field and the construction of Petersen Events Center.

"That's a pretty amazing transition in a short period of time," Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson said.

For his guidance and leadership of Pitt's athletic programs in his tenure as chancellor, Nordenberg will receive the Dr. Freddie Fu Sports Leadership Award at the 78th annual Dapper Dan Dinner & Sports Auction in February.

Nordenberg, who announced he will retire next August, also oversaw Pitt's move from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference, which was announced in 2011 and formally took place this past summer. With the Big East crumbling, Nordenberg spearheaded what he described as "the most expeditious, compressed decision-making process that [he has] ever been a part of."

"From Pitt's perspective, looking into the future, the ACC really is a perfect conference home," Nordenberg said at the time.

Pederson and Nordenberg discussed potential conference realignment as early as 1996, with the main emphasis on upgrading Pitt's athletic programs to make the university appealing to other conferences.

"Honestly, in 1996, we weren't really positioned to take advantage of any opportunities that would come up," Pederson said. "We just wouldn't have been seen as one of the players to take advantage of that."

The facilities and increased success allowed Pitt to do just that, and now the university stands to reap a windfall from the ACC's television contract, which dwarfs the one they had in the Big East.

Most importantly, though, Pederson said Nordenberg's best quality was his ability to put a human face and a human touch on a big university. He cited Pitt winning the Eastern Wrestling League championship in March with Nordenberg seated beside him.

"I think a high percentage of our student-athletes would say they know him or have met him and like him," Pederson said. "They see him around. He's not a guy that you only see on TV. He's kind of around and engaged constantly."

The respect Nordenberg commands can perhaps best be exemplified by the fact that Pederson chose to return to Pitt after working at Nebraska for six years.

"He was the guy," Pederson said.

"If you get to work for him once, you're a lucky guy. If you get to work for him twice, then you might be the luckiest guy in college athletics. I never take that for granted."

Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG.

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