Angry Pitt fans began the exodus from Heinz Field late in the third quarter Friday, not long after West Virginia scored a touchdown to take a 28-10 lead and turn what should have been a great rivalry game into a joke. You almost could hear the muttering.
"Why did we waste our precious time during the holiday weekend to watch this team?"
The Pitt players weren't intentionally trying to get coach Dave Wannstedt fired. It just looked that way. They couldn't have played a worse game. On a day when they had a chance to honor their 11 seniors in their final home game, keep control of the Big East Conference, lame as it is, and beat their hated rival, they didn't bother showing up.
Shame on them.
But the 35-10 licking Pitt took from West Virginia won't be remembered for the many mistakes the seemingly unprepared Panthers made. It should be remembered as the day the Wannstedt era at Pitt ended even if there's one more game at Cincinnati next Saturday and some ridiculous, meaningless bowl game to follow. This performance -- this 6-5 season, actually -- is unacceptable for a coach in his sixth year on the job. In just three weeks, Pitt has wasted a two-game lead in the Big East crawl and handed over the title to Connecticut or West Virginia for the taking.
Shame on Wannstedt.
Sure, it's hard to look at the Pitt mistakes against West Virginia individually and blame any on Wannstedt. This wasn't like the 23-17 loss to Notre Dame in October when he inexcusably called a timeout late in the game only to punt. Do you blame Wannstedt for the poor throws by quarterback Tino Sunseri, including a killer interception early? The dropped passes? The three lost fumbles? The snap over Sunseri's head in the shotgun? Sunseri's failure to fall on the ball? The inability to field a kickoff cleanly? The penalty for calling for a fair catch and then blocking? The missed tackles? The total collapse of the defense in the second half against an offense that has been mostly putrid all season?
But here's the big problem:
The mistakes keep happening to Wannstedt's teams. It has been that way for six years. It seems like the same story every week, even in games that Pitt wins.
That's especially true in big games at home. You know the sad, sad rundown: The 31-3 loss to Miami in September when 450 football alumni turned out to see a pathetic performance that rivaled Friday's. The 45-44 loss to Cincinnati late last season when Pitt had a 21-point lead and was on its way to the Big East title and a Bowl Championship Series game. The 27-17 loss to Bowling Green in the 2008 opener, the first chance excited fans had to see Pitt after its shocking win against No. 2 West Virginia in Morgantown the previous December.
Somebody called it "The Twilight Zone" Friday.
That line is so good and so appropriate, I'm going to steal it.
Wannstedt's Pitt program is lost in The Twilight Zone.
Good luck to athletic director Steve Pederson and his frustrated staff trying to sell season-ticket packages for the 2011 season.
"I really thought we'd play better," Wannstedt said after emerging from what surely was the agony of the Pitt locker room. "We didn't."
Did I mention that's a recurring theme
There's a chance Wannstedt will keep his job even if Pitt loses to Cincinnati and loses in their bowl game to finish 6-7. Chancellor Mark Nordenberg will make that call and he isn't one to go public with his thinking. But, at this point, the best reasons for Wannstedt to stay on are that he's a Pitt man, he loves the program and he'll never leave for another job. There seems to be a fear by some around Pitt that the next coach will use the job as steppingstone and leave for a better position after just a few seasons. I don't buy that. The Pitt job can be a great job if the university is willing to pay a head coach. It needs to step up and pay that coach.
Regardless, one final question needs asked: Are those fears about what might happen with the next coach so great that Pitt should continue to live with the mediocrity of the program under Wannstedt?
I don't think so.
Ron Cook: email@example.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.