Cook: Stewart, Wannstedt in must-win situation


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Somebody needs to take a picture of the postgame handshake between Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt and West Virginia's Bill Stewart today. It should be the last of its kind. Chances are the losing coach will be fired after the season.

That seems especially true with Stewart, who never should have been named the West Virginia coach, at least not the way his hiring went down. But it's also true with Wannstedt, whose time at Pitt, so far, has been a disappointment despite a 10-win season last season and a nine-win season the year before. He was hired to replace Walt Harris after the 2004 season to get Pitt to the "next level," wherever that is. But, nearly six seasons later, he hasn't even been able to match Harris, who took Pitt to five bowls in his final five seasons, including the Fiesta Bowl after the '04 season. Pitt is 6-4 this season, a long, hard fall for a team that started the season ranked No. 15 in The Associated Press poll.

Wannstedt simply can't lose another big game at home, especially the one today, which almost certainly would cost Pitt an opportunity to win the Big East Conference and get a trip to a Bowl Championship Series game. The December loss to Cincinnati last season at Heinz Field, when Pitt blew a 21-point lead and gave away a chance to win the conference, was brutal, but there have been others under Wannstedt. The shameful 31-3 loss to Miami Sept. 23 on a night when Pitt brought back 450 football alumni, including former coach John Majors and Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett, comes to mind. Wannstedt's reputation as a terrific recruiter took a big hit that night when his players lined up against Miami's players. There also was the 27-17 loss to Bowling Green in the 2008 opener when Pitt should have been building momentum after stunning No. 2 West Virginia in Morgantown as a 28 1/2-point underdog in the final game of the '07 season.

All of that maddening inconsistency has made it hard for Pitt to sell tickets, a tough task under even the best of circumstances in a pro sports town. Throw in the series of embarrassing off-the-field incidents that Wannstedt's players were involved in during the summer and early this season and ...

Pitt had better win today if it wants to keep its coach.

And it had better go on to beat Cincinnati on the road Dec. 4 and win the Big East, just be sure.

Pitt was the overwhelming preseason choice to win the league, wasn't it?

Anything less than a conference championship will be a monumental failure, right?

Really, if Wannstedt and Pitt can't win the Big East this season -- when the league is so horrendous and doesn't have a team in the Top 25 -- when are they ever going to win it?

Of course, that same question can be asked of Stewart and West Virginia.

Consecutive conference losses to Syracuse at home and Connecticut on the road in October all but assured that West Virginia had to win out to save Stewart's job. The Mountaineers regrouped to beat Cincinnati and Louisville. Now, Pitt stands in the way.

West Virginia has a new athletic director, former Mountaineers quarterback Oliver Luck. He didn't hire Stewart. It won't be hard for him to make a coaching change if the team doesn't win the Big East.

Stewart did a nice job picking up the pieces after West Virginia lost that devastating home game to Pitt in '07, 13-9, and blew the chance to play in the national championship game. He took over on an interim basis after coach Rich Rodriguez left for Michigan and led the Mountaineers to a shocking, convincing win against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. He was named coach the next day. It was as if West Virginia officials lifted their champagne glasses in the postgame celebration and screamed, "Let's give the job to Bill!"

Emotional decisions are the worst kind.

It would have been a lot easier to feel good about Stewart's hiring if the university had waited a week.

Stewart has been under intense scrutiny from day one and, according to many West Virginia fans, is no Rodriguez, who won or shared four Big East titles in his final five seasons in Morgantown.

West Virginia won nine games under Stewart in each of the past two seasons and is 7-3 this season. But, like Pitt, anything less than a Big East title -- especially this year -- will be considered a big-time failure.

All of it makes for a surreal backdrop to the game today. Actually, surreal doesn't even begin to describe it. There is a lot of disgust among the fans with the two coaches. It's fair to think at least some are hoping their team loses so they can get a new coach. When has that ever happened in a West Virginia-Pitt game?

Those Mountaineers fans will get their wish.

Pitt 20, West Virginia 16.

Wannstedt earns a little peace.

At least until the Cincinnati game next week.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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