Cook: Gray's departure would be bigger blow than Rohrssen's

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That talk about Pitt's pipeline to the wondrous New York City basketball talent drying up? Don't believe it.

The speculation the Pitt program will suffer irreparable damage now that chief recruiter Barry Rohrssen is gone? It's not true.

The worry that Pitt coach Jamie Dixon won't be able to maintain the team's success after losing Rohrssen and assistant Joe Lombardi in the past week? Get over it.

You want to worry about something?

Worry about the possibility of Aaron Gray leaving early for the NBA.

Now that would be a tough loss to overcome.

The Pitt program is strong and will continue to thrive, in large part, because of the great work done by Rohrssen, who took the head coaching job at Manhattan College yesterday, and Lombardi, who was named head coach at IUP last week. Rohrssen's recruiting connections in New York have been well-documented. By helping Pitt to lure such players as Carl Krauser, Chris Taft, Ronald Ramon and Levance Fields, he was huge in Pitt becoming a top-tier Big East Conference team.

But it was only a matter of time until Pitt lost Rohrssen. He wasn't going to be an assistant forever. He wanted the Seton Hall job, but it's almost unheard of for a Big East school to turn to a man with no head coaching experience, especially someone from outside the program. The Manhattan job is perfect for Rohrssen because of his New York ties. He's going to be highly successful and should be able to get the Seton Hall job -- or one like it -- the next time.

Here's why Pitt will be able to get top players without Rohrssen and Lombardi, who also is a strong recruiter:

It still plays in the best basketball conference in America and is on national television seemingly every other night.

It still plays in the Petersen Events Center, a spectacular facility for college basketball.

And it still has Dixon, who Pitt wisely kept with a big pay raise after Arizona State and Missouri started to court him after last season.

Pitt promoted Dixon in 2003 to replace Ben Howland, even though he had no head coaching experience. That was an enormous gamble. A big reason Pitt administrators look so smart today is that they realized Dixon needed Rohrssen, who also was on Howland's staff and was ready to follow Howland to UCLA. Pitt vice chancellor Jerry Cochran literally stopped Rohrssen on his way to Los Angeles and made him an offer to stay that Rohrssen couldn't refuse.

That was some of the best money Pitt has spent on its basketball program.

Pitt went 76-22 the past three seasons, including 38-18 in Big East games.

Dixon has grown as a coach during that time and, obviously, proved he can win. He'll do just fine without Rohrssen and Lombardi. It's not as if Dixon hasn't figured prominently in Pitt's recruiting. He can come across as milquetoast in his postgame television interviews, but he holds his own with a recruit and his parents in the family living room.

Replacing two assistants at once isn't the best situation, but that's the hand Dixon has been dealt. He is expected to promote Orlando Antigua, who has been his director of basketball operations. That would be a smart move. Like Rohrssen, Antigua is wired into New York. His brother, Oliver, is a prominent high school coach at St. Raymond's in the Bronx.

Finding another top assistant won't be hard for Dixon. He has been in the business for 15 years and has built up a long list of contacts. He also can lean on his good friend, Howland, who, by taking UCLA to the Final Four last season, showed what we've known around here for a long time -- that's he one of the great coaches in college basketball. There are plenty of young, aggressive coaches out there. All would be willing to work 23 hours a day to have a chance to hook up with a Big East program.

The Pitt program will proceed smoothly.

The Panthers will be on the short list of contenders for the Big East championship next season.

Assuming Gray stays, of course.


Sports columnist Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.


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