There was a time when Mike Shanahan's athletic dreams revolved around basketball. His father and three uncles all played college basketball and Mike was a Division I prospect who had a handful of scholarship offers when he was at Norwin High School.
Even though Shanahan enjoyed watching the NCAA championship game Monday night, he has not developed the itch to return to his basketball roots. There is a good reason for that: He is in line to earn a starting position at wide receiver in the fall for the Pitt football team.
Shanahan, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound sophomore, was the leading receiver in Pitt's first scrimmage of the spring Saturday with four receptions for 52 yards and a touchdown.
"I like watching basketball still, but I don't miss playing it that much," he said. "I just love playing football."
His father, Mike, played college basketball at IUP; uncle Brian Shanahan played at Duquesne; and two others uncles, Robert and Jerry Shanahan, played at Pitt-Johnstown and IUP, respectively.
The younger Mike Shanahan visited Vermont, Bucknell and Akron and seemed destined to continue the family tradition until his senior football season at Norwin went so well that he reconsidered. Now his family is all about football.
"They might actually have more fun with it than me sometimes," Shanahan said. "They like to travel to the away games. They're all going out to Utah [for the season opener.] They're just excited to be a part of it."
Chances are that when the Sept. 2 season opener at Utah rolls around Shanahan will be the starter opposite Jon Baldwin. After being slowed early last season with a broken hand, Shanahan came on late and earned two starts against South Florida and North Carolina.
For the season, he had 15 receptions for 211 yards. He set careers highs for receptions (five) and yards (83) in the bowl game victory against North Carolina.
"He gained a lot of experience last year," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "He started off with a real good camp, but then he broke a bone in his hand, which really put him behind. But he battled back into contention. That speaks volumes about the type of competitor he is. It would have been easy for him to say, 'I'm a redshirt freshman, there goes this year.' He was on the scout team and worked his way through. And when his number was called, he took advantage of it."
Shanahan developed into a reliable target. His 13-yard reception on third-and-7 against North Carolina helped to set up Pitt's winning field goal in the final minute.
Shanahan's role in the offense might be labeled as a "possession" receiver because, as Wannstedt notes, Shanahan has the ability to hurt teams that underestimate his athleticism.
"He's a big guy who, because of his basketball skills, can position you," Wannstedt said. "If they're going to double-team Baldwin and leave Shanahan one-on-one, the guy covering him is going to have to go up and be able to make a play on the ball, or [Shanahan] is going to beat you."
Even though he excelled in the role of short-yardage receiver last season, Shanahan does not like being labeled a possession receiver. He said offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti has a plan to use all of his skilled receivers.
"It turned out last year that I was making third-down conversions. The big plays were going to Jon," Shanahan said. "I think that's just how it worked out. Coach Cignetti knows our strengths and weaknesses. He will utilize us the best he can. If it works out like that again, it will. If not, I'll be making big plays, too."
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1230.