BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson broke his silence yesterday and spoke with selected members of the media via teleconference from his office in the Petersen Events Center and addressed a number of issues surrounding the athletic department and its coaching search.
He also talked about his own job security and his focus as he tries to find a new football coach for the university.
One thing he clarified was the process with which the university is conducting this search, and it is clearly different than the first one, which led to the hiring of Michael Haywood who was fired Jan. 1, a day after being arrested on domestic-battery charges.
"We have created a small team who will assist in the initial interview process," Pederson said. "We are meeting potential candidates in a first round, then we will identify a smaller number of candidates from that pool who will be brought to campus to participate in further interviews with a group that includes the chancellor [Mark Nordenberg].
"We want to move swiftly, but we have no timeline for completion of the process and we want to make sure we find the right person to lead this program but do so in a timely manner."
The small group conducting the initial interviews will be Pederson, Executive Associate Athletic Director Donna Sanft and Executive Vice Chancellor Jerry Cochran.
Pederson said the second round of interviews means no candidate will be hired -- or offered the job -- until the group of finalists are identified and have had met with Nordenberg.
Pederson, however, stressed that it does not mean that the search is going to drag into next week as the school could conduct the second round of interviews today and pick a candidate by tomorrow.
Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley remains the leading candidate to land the position. He also remains a candidate for the head-coaching position at Connecticut, sources said.
Three more candidates emerged yesterday. when sources confirmed that Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst has been interviewed and former Pitt player Teryl Austin will be interviewed this weekend and Stanford associate head coach Greg Roman will be interviewed Sunday.
That brings the number of known candidates to interview to five with four of them being Bradley, former Pitt linebacker and current Alabama assistant head coach Sal Sunseri, Austin, Chryst and an unknown candidate who is believed to be, according to several sources, Florida International coach Mario Cristobal.
And that group, along with Tulsa coach Todd Graham, who was one of five coaches interviewed during the first round of interviews after Dave Wannstedt was fired represent the known candidates in the mix.
A source close to the situation said, however, that Graham is unlikely to be a finalist and that his candidacy was much more serious the first time.
Clearly the university attempting to avoid a repeat of the Haywood situation, but, as Pederson explained, that was an unfortunate because the university did a proper background search on him.
Pederson said in addition to the exhaustive background checks done by Parker Executive Search, the university has every candidate's criminal history investigated by Kroll Background Screening.
"We also made numerous phone calls and contacts with people covering his time at LSU, Miami [Ohio]), Notre Dame, Texas, and everything came back clean," Pederson said.
"There were no red flags at all in his background from anyone at these institutions."
Pederson said the school continues to use Parker Executive Search as a part of the process and that it did not have to pay Haywood anything because his contract was terminated for cause.
When asked if it was fair to say that Dave Wannstedt was fired because he did not win enough games, Pederson said "expectations are and should be for this program to compete at a championship level."
It is the first time he has acknowledged publicly that the administration forced Wannstedt to resign and that Wannstedt's lack of winning Big East championships was part of that decision.
Pederson said all candidates he has met have been extremely receptive to such high expectations and all believe Pitt can play at a much higher level than the Panthers have in recent seasons.
"This is a program that has won nine national championships," Pederson said. "Some of the greatest players in college football history have played here. We should expect excellence in this program, we should expect a progam that is competing for and winning championships.
"We don't shy away from that and we hope people interested in this job don't, either. And I'll say this, the people that we talked to, they believe this is a program that can achieve greatness, [and] it has been a consistent theme among everyone we've talked to."
Pederson also addressed is the intense criticism he has received from alumni, fans, key former players like Mike Ditka and Bill Fralic and others for the way he's handled Wannstedt's firing, Haywood's hiring and everything in between.
Many, like Fralic, publicly called for him to be fired and Pederson said he has not let that affect how he goes about his business. He said he is committed to hiring the right coach and continuing to move the athletic department forward and is not focused on his job security. But he understands the criticism and said that happens when you make tough choices.
Pederson said he is "absolutely not" worried about people calling Pitt's athletic department a laughingstock and said the university is bigger than one decision or person.
"People within a university can make mistakes, but the university itself stands strong, stand vibrant and is built on character and integrity."
NOTES -- Sophomore tailback Dion Lewis filed papers with the NFL earlier this season to see his draft status and was told last week he would be a third-round pick if he entered.. Now, he faces a decision and, according to several sources, is leaning towards skipping his final two seasons at Pitt to enter the draft. That would mean Pitt would lose two underclassmen to the draft as junior receiver Jon Baldwin has made it clear he will leave. One other player, according to sources, who is considering his future is fullback Henry Hynoski and that mostly stems from the uncertainty of the coaching situation. Hynoski fit Wannstedt's pro-style offense but would not fit in a spread or one-back offense.
Paul Zeise: email@example.com or 412-263-1720