Ron Cook: Mark Nordenberg left fine legacy when it comes to Pitt sports

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The demolition of Pitt Stadium? That was an easy call, outgoing Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg was saying last week.

The construction of Petersen Events Center? Nothing has had a greater positive impact on Pitt's image, Nordenberg said.

The demise of the Big East Conference? It was painful but necessary.

Pitt's move to the Atlantic Coast Conference? It's a wonderful landing spot.

The hiring, rehiring and retaining of athletic director Steve Pederson? Each made perfect sense.

The greatest disappointment of the past two decades? The football program's lack of big-time success, no question.

And, finally, the greatest achievement? "What I'm most proud of is playing some role in changing the overall culture of the University of Pittsburgh," Nordenberg said. "I've always believed my main mission was to make the university worthy of support. People today are more proud of Pitt than they were in the mid-1990s. ... I think within the athletic department we've seen that same kind of change of culture. There's no comparison to what we had 20 years ago."

Nordenberg ended his 19-year run as Pitt chancellor Thursday. He is proud that he was known as an athletic department-friendly administrator. "Athletics can be a unifying force within the campus community and one of the most effective forms of community outreach," Nordenberg said. "The first impressions of a lot of people of any university are how it presents itself on the football field or the basketball court."

In a long interview in his Cathedral of Learning office, Nordenberg, who is staying at Pitt to chair its Institute of Politics, reflected on his work with the athletic department. There was much more good than bad. Securing Pitt's long-term future in the ACC will be remembered as his most significant achievement. "The whole package made such sense for us," he said. The inability of the football program to become a national player is Nordenberg's biggest regret. "There are some people who would say it's my single biggest failure in athletics or in anything else. Things simply have not clicked in the right way."

Pitt is far from a football power, but the program is far ahead of where it was when Nordenberg took over. In 1996, Pitt lost to West Virginia (34-0), Ohio State (72-0), Miami (45-0), Syracuse (55-7) and Notre Dame (60-6). Walt Harris was hired before the 1997 season and led Pitt to six bowl games in eight seasons. "Walt did a remarkable job elevating the program," Nordenberg said.

Baldwin native and Pitt graduate Dave Wannstedt was named coach in 2005 and won nine games in 2008 and 10 games in 2009 but wasn't retained after his 2010 team lost home games to Miami (31-3) and West Virginia (35-10) and finished the regular season 7-5. "Obviously, that was a difficult decision," Nordenberg said. "Dave is a Pitt guy through and through."

The Wannstedt dismissal was the start of what Nordenberg called "an unbelievably bad time" for Pitt football. Wannstedt's successor, Michael Haywood, was fired after just two weeks because of a domestic abuse incident. Todd Graham was hired to replace Haywood but lasted only one season before leaving for Arizona State. "That was a shocker," Nordenberg said. "He never told me he was leaving. I have never had any form of contact with Todd Graham since he left."

Nordenberg believes Pitt finally got it right with Paul Chryst, who is starting his third season. "He comes from a winning tradition [at Wisconsin] and knows what it takes to put together a winning program."

Many Pitt fans are convinced the move from Pitt Stadium to Heinz Field doomed the program. But Pitt Stadium had become a dump. Pitt was smart to move into the new North Side stadium in 2001 and also become neighbors with the Steelers at UPMC's South Side training headquarters. "People would say to me, 'This [move from Pitt Stadium] has got to be the hardest decision you've ever made,' " Nordenberg said. "I would say, 'It actually was one of the easiest decisions I ever made and one of the hardest to sell.' " As for those who say Pitt won't win without a campus stadium, Nordenberg argued, "Far more students attend games at Heinz Field than we had at Pitt Stadium. Now, it is an event for our students."

Tearing down Pitt Stadium enabled Pitt to build Petersen Events Center, which has been huge for the men's basketball program and has enhanced student life on the upper campus. "It also became a symbol in the minds of a lot of people that this was a university that could get big things done," Nordenberg said.

Nordenberg gives much credit to coach Jamie Dixon for the "amazing" success of Pitt's men's basketball. Dixon's promotion from assistant coach to Ben Howland's replacement after the 2002-03 season was not greeted with universal applause. Nordenberg acknowledged it was "a move with real risk" because Dixon hadn't been a head coach. "Jamie reminded me that I was the same age he was when another chancellor gave me the opportunity to be Pitt's dean of the law school," Nordenberg said. "He said, 'I will never embarrass the University of Pittsburgh.' The players really wanted him. ...

"He came in flying. He's still flying."

Pitt went to the NCAA tournament in 10 of Dixon's 11 seasons as head coach. Nordenberg talked about the painful losses to Villanova in the Round of Eight in 2009 and to Butler as a No. 1 seed in 2011. "One of these days, we're going to get the magic combination and break through."

Nordenberg predicted Suzie McConnell-Serio, who will start her second season as the women's basketball coach, will have similar success. "She's been a champion at everything she's done."

Pitt's move to the ACC will benefit all of its athletic programs, Nordenberg predicted.

Many were surprised when Pitt announced it was leaving the Big East in 2011 because Nordenberg had been such a power broker in the conference. He fought hard to keep it together after Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College left for the ACC in the mid-2000s. "I said for years that it was the single, most time-consuming challenge of my time as chancellor," Nordenberg said. "Maybe I shouldn't say this publicly, but I did feel rebuilding the Big East once is enough for any person's lifetime."

It became clear to Nordenberg later in the decade that the Big East's future was in jeopardy because the other, stronger conferences were going to raid it to add to their membership. He knew he had to find Pitt a secure home and jumped when the ACC issued its invitation. "The whole thing happened in about a week." Nordenberg liked Pitt's geographical fit in the ACC. He also likes Pitt's fit academically with such highly regarded universities as Duke, Virginia and North Carolina. But in the end, he said, Pitt had no choice but to go. "Think about being [Connecticut]," which didn't land in a power conference, Nordenberg said.

Nordenberg said the marriage to the ACC would not have happened without Pederson's influence. "Steve is so well-connected in intercollegiate athletics."

Pederson was an associate athletic director at Nebraska when Nordenberg gave him Pitt's athletic director job in 1996. "We knew our program had been stagnating," Nordenberg said. "Steve was young, energetic and ambitious and seemed to have a new idea that he wanted to share every five minutes. He really was a change agent."

Pederson did a terrific job early on at Pitt, hiring Harris to coach football and Howland as men's basketball coach. He also gets credit for helping to design the Petersen Events Center.

But Pederson made enemies among Pitt's alumni and boosters because he often excluded them from major decisions. Nordenberg blamed that on new NCAA rules that limited their contact with the athletic department. "If you step back, you have to say, 'Look at what Steve's done for us. He's been such a good leader,' " Nordenberg said.

Pederson left Pitt to return to Nebraska -- his alma mater and home state -- in 2002 but was fired in 2007. Nordenberg quickly brought him back -- "It would have been short-sighted to hold [going home] against him" -- and said he never had a second thought about sticking with him even after the football coaching fiascos.

"Too often we're looking for someone to blame," Nordenberg said. "It's often true in life that there are some things you can't control. You also have to ask, 'Exactly how are you going to better yourself if you don't stick with someone who has been a proven plus for your program?' Steve has proven his worth in many ways since then."

Nordenberg said Pederson has Pitt well-positioned to compete in the ACC.

"My only sadness is I won't be in this position when Jamie, Paul and Suzie win national championships," Nordenberg said. "I truly believe that can happen."

First Published August 3, 2014 12:00 AM

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