Cook: Wannstedt's departure for the best


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Firing Dave Wannstedt was the easy part for Pitt.

Wait a minute, that sounds horrible. Let me rephrase:

It's never easy to fire anyone, let alone a good man. Wannstedt cared deeply about his Pitt football program. He cared about the kids who played for him. He wasn't looking for another job. He loved coaching here. He wanted to win big here. He wanted to win for Pitt. He's a Pitt man. He'll be a Pitt man in the days ahead in his newly created role as a special assistant to the athletic director. He'll always be a Pitt man.

But none of that means Wannstedt deserved to keep his coaching job. Not after six seasons. Not after Pitt failed to win an outright Big East Conference title and play in a Bowl Championship Series game during a time when the league never has been worse. Not after Pitt lost one big home game after another, this season to West Virginia and Miami in embarrassing blowouts. Not after Pitt is having such a difficult time putting fannies in the Heinz Field seats because many in its fan base are disgusted.

Clearly, it was time for a change.

Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and athletic director Steve Pederson should be applauded for making it.

Pitt and Pitt fans deserve better from their football program. It should be a top 15 program every year and, occasionally, a top 10 program. If the Pitt basketball program can achieve consistent greatness, why can't the football program? It has incredibly strong leadership and support from Nordenberg. It has the best facilities in the Big East. Its players practice on a field next to Ben Roethlisberger, James Harrison and the rest of the Steelers. It is situated in the middle of an area that's still highly regarded for recruiting despite a decline in the quality of high school football.

Pitt and Pitt fans deserve better.

Now comes the hard part.

Finding the right man to replace Wannstedt.

The pressure is on Pederson. The most recent time he hired a coach, he failed badly. After a highly successful run as Pitt athletic director from 1996-2002 -- a time when he hired Walt Harris to coach the football team, and Ben Howland to coach the basketball team -- he left to go home to his alma mater, Nebraska. After just one season there, Pederson fired coach Frank Solich, who had won 58 games in six seasons, because he didn't want to let Nebraska "gravitate into mediocrity." That was the right call. He then hired former Oakland Raiders coach Bill Callahan after a cumbersome 40-day search. That was a terrible call. Pederson and Callahan were fired during the 2007 season after four years of less-than-mediocre football.

Pederson needs to do better for Pitt.

Nordenberg made a great decision to rehire Pederson seven weeks after he was fired by Nebraska.

It's time for Pederson to make Nordenberg look smart by finding the right coach.

I believe Pederson will.

Pitt does have a lot to sell, especially now that the Big East has been stabilized because of two significant announcements in the past nine days. One, Texas Christian University, which nearly made it to the national championship game this season and will play Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl Jan. 1, will join the conference in 2012. And two, the Big Ten Conference has said it is not planning additional expansion, which could have destroyed the Big East.

The next Pitt coach will step into a pretty good situation. Yes, this season was a failure; Pitt went 7-5 and will play in something called the BBVA Compass Bowl, which seems more like punishment for the players instead of a reward. But Pitt has some quality players coming back next season, starting with running back Dion Lewis. Wannstedt was a better recruiter than a coach. It's not as if the new man will have to rebuild a 1-11 disaster.

I've heard people say they are afraid the next Pitt coach will use the job to get a better job elsewhere. I don't believe that has to be the case. Pitt basketball coach Jamie Dixon has stayed for eight years despite numerous opportunities to leave. Sure, a big reason is that the Big East is the best basketball conference in the country, certainly light years ahead of the Big East as a football league. But I believe Dixon has stayed for a couple of other reasons, as well: He and his family like it here, he knows he can win big here and Pitt is paying him well.

There is no reason Pederson can't find a Jamie Dixon to coach Pitt's football team.


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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