Cook: Pitt's Pederson now has 2 strikes
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Firing Michael Haywood late Saturday afternoon was an easy decision for Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg. There was no way Haywood could coach football another day at Pitt after his arrest Friday on a domestic battery charge. If Haywood choked the woman, as she alleges, that is one of the worst crimes imaginable. How could the Pitt players respect him? How could he demand discipline from them when he apparently has very little himself? How could he go on the road recruiting and have players and their families not laugh at him?
Haywood had to go, no question.
But Steve Pederson? Keeping him or firing him is a much tougher call for Nordenberg. Pederson is the man who hired Haywood just 15 days earlier, raving about his "character and integrity." Pederson has done tremendous things in his two turns as Pitt's athletic director, but he looked like a fool the second news broke of Haywood's arrest in South Bend, Ind., and again Saturday night when Nordenberg announced Haywood's firing. Beyond that, Pederson's error in judgment with Haywood could set the Pitt football program back years.
Nordenberg still has much to consider.
It is amazing how one telephone call with troubling news can change everything. This was the second time in little more than three months that it happened to Pederson and the Pitt football program. Both calls involved word of alleged abuse of women, maybe the most despicable of acts.
Sept. 23 was supposed to be a grand day in Pitt sports history. Nearly 450 football alumni, including Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett and the great coach John Majors, were coming back to celebrate 121 years of Pitt football and watch the Panthers play Miami that night at Heinz Field. But the day was ruined for Pederson -- not to mention Nordenberg -- early in the morning when word came that freshman defensive back Jeff Knox had been arrested the night before and charged with simple assault, reckless endangerment and disorderly conduct after allegedly beating up his girlfriend. It was the fourth incident involving a Pitt player and the police in two months. It also was the beginning of the end for coach Dave Wannstedt, who took another big blow when Pitt was humiliated by Miami, 31-3, in front of all those alumni. Pederson fired Wannstedt three days after the Panthers completed a disappointing 7-5 regular season. It was the right call because a coaching change was needed.
Clearly, Pederson wanted a tougher man to run the football program. When he hired Haywood from Miami University of Ohio, he gushed about Haywood's high moral standards. He promised that Haywood would bring structure and discipline.
Did I mention that Pederson looks mighty foolish this morning?
It makes you wonder just how much due diligence he did during what he called a nationwide coaching search for Wannstedt's replacement.
Haywood was arrested after allegedly roughing up the mother of his 21-month-old child, assuring that no one connected with the Pitt program would have a happy start to the New Year.
Least of all Pederson, who must have felt like curling up and hiding when he took the call with that news.
I'm guessing Pederson will keep his job. I think he should keep it. Nordenberg knows better than anyone the fine work he has done as his athletic director.
When Pederson first came to Pitt late in 1996, he resurrected the football program from the dead, one that had endured 34-0, 72-0, 45-0, 55-7 and 60-6 losses that season. He did it by hiring Walt Harris as coach and moving the team into Heinz Field and the same South Side training facility as the Steelers. A lot of Pitt fans still don't forgive him for moving the games out of Pitt Stadium and off campus, but it absolutely was the right call. Pitt Stadium was a dump and needed to be torn down.
Pederson also laid the building blocks for Pitt to become a national power in men's basketball. He did it by hiring Ben Howland as coach in 1999 and by moving mountains to help get the spectacular Petersen Events Center built. There is no better on-campus arena in the country.
All of that is why Nordenberg gladly hired Pederson back late in 2007. Pederson had left Pitt after the '02 football season to take the athletic director's job at his alma mater, Nebraska, but was fired after almost five years, coincidentally enough, for hiring the wrong football coach, Bill Callahan.
Haywood makes it two bad hires in a row for Pederson.
You know what they say about three strikes and you're out.
The Haywood arrest and firing leave the Pitt program in a mess. The Panthers are coming off an underachieving season and will play in something called the BBVA Compass Bowl Saturday against Kentucky, a meaningless game that seems more like punishment for the players than a reward. It is getting late in the recruiting process and Pitt doesn't have a coach. Who knows how long it will take Pederson to find the next man?
Good luck to Pitt overcoming that.
Good luck to Pederson finding the right man this time.
This much is certain: Pederson won't get another chance.
First Published January 2, 2011 12:00 am