Dapper Dan: Nordenberg rebuilt Pitt athletics

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When Steve Pederson, then athletic director at Nebraska, was presented in 2007 with an opportunity to return to the same position at Pitt, it ultimately came down to one factor: Another chance to work with Chancellor Mark Nordenberg.

"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."

For Nordenberg's guidance and leadership of Pitt's athletic programs in his 19-year tenure as chancellor, Nordenberg has been named the Dr. Freddie Fu Sports Leadership Award recipient.

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

The two flagship teams -- football and basketball -- played in historic but outdated facilities and had combined for just three winning seasons since the decade started.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.

Nordenberg played a major role in transforming the entire university, and his impact on the athletic department has been undeniable.

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

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

Nordenberg, who announced he will retire in August, also oversaw Pitt's move from the Big East to the ACC, 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."

Pitt executive associate athletic director Donna Sanft, who has worked in the school's athletic department in various capacities since 1974, said it was also Nordenberg's long-term planning that made the move possible.

"There were a lot of incredibly important decisions made at this institution over the course of the chancellor's time here to put us in that position," Sanft said.

"You don't get ready for something like that overnight."

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 important, 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."

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

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