Friday, January 02, 2009

Will Pitt Football Ever Become a Power?

By Chris Dokish

Dave Wannstedt's fourth season as head coach at Pittsburgh has come to an end and there is no question that it was his most successful yet at his alma mater. But was it good enough, and just as importantly, is it the start of something bigger for the program? Let's dissect the situation closely to see if we can get some hint of where Pitt is, and where they can go.

The Fallacies of Being a National Power

Some observers of Pitt, especially locally, question whether Pitt could be a national power. The answer to this, of course, is yes they can. Most BCS conference programs are capable of being a national power, with the only few exceptions being those who are hampered by extremely high academic standards.

Every so-called requirement for elite status has been disproved by somebody. Recruiting area? Just how many great players from the state of West Virginia did Rich Rodriquez have when he was in the top 5 for a few years? Do you know how many in-state players Oregon had this season? Eleven- including walk-ons. That's about 10% of the roster. Ohio has good players, but the stars go to Ohio State, not Cincinnati. Yet in all three cases, because of great coaches who adapted by creating offensive powerhouses, they won big anyway.

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Conference affiliation? That didn't stop West Virginia under Rodriquez or Brian Kelly at Cincinnati this season, despite people continually downplaying the Big East. And it didn't stop Utah, Boise State, or TCU. In fact, playing in the Big East can actually be beneficial, especially if you start the season highly ranked.

Tradition? Does Cincinnati even have one? The only tradition Rutgers had was a losing one before Greg Schiano arrived. Kansas State before Bill Snyder had the tradition of being the worst program in the country. Missouri was never a big power, either, before Gary Pinkel arrived. And that's just some of the examples.

So even though other schools went against all odds to become a power, Pitt doesn't even have to do that. The Big East winner automatically goes to the BCS, they still are in a strong recruiting area, and they have a strong tradition that includes current college or NFL stars LeSean McCoy, Darrelle Revis, Jeff Otah, and Larry Fitzgerald.

So What Does Make a Program Great?

The answer, quite simply, is the head coach. It is, by far, the single biggest indicator of how good, how mediocre, or how bad your program will be. Not recruiting area, not tradition, and not conference affiliation.

Who are considered the long running elite programs in the country? USC? Of course. Tradition, great recruiting area, famous conference, etc. How can you not win there, right? Well, Paul Hackett didn't. Oklahoma? Tell that to John Blake. Nebraska? Ever hear of Bill Callahan? Florida gave us Ron Zook. For Miami it was Larry Coker. Georgia had Ray Goff, who managed only three winning seasons out of seven, and Alabama had Mike Shula. Don't even get me started on Notre Dame's coaches in recent history. The point is, bad coaching trumps any advantage a program has.

The reason that the top programs have more success is because they make sure they keep the excellent coaches when they have them, and in the rare cases when they lose them, they make sure the next coach is excellent, either by noticing a future star already on staff or by paying an outside star big money. USC's Pete Carroll, Florida's Urban Meyer, and Oklahoma's Bill Stoops are paid handsomely. As are Texas's Mack Brown, Ohio State's Jim Tressel, Georgia's Mark Richt, Alabama's Nick Saban, and LSU's Les Miles. These programs know that you have to pay for the best, and did so immediately. Then once they proved they were worth their initial high salary, they got even more money to stay. You get what you pay for. And these programs know that they can't just put any coach there and still be successful, no matter how big time their program is. They all had it proven to them firsthand before quickly remedying the situation.

Great coaching can also help the programs that are not traditional powerhouses. West Virginia was a power up until this season because of Rich Rodriguez. It wasn't because of tradition, fertile recruiting area, or even a superstar player in Pat White. If it were those things, the Mountaineers would have gone 12-1 again this season instead of 9-4. No, they arrived at that record because Bill Stewart is not Rodriguez. Cincinnati was not a power before Brian Kelly arrived. And the same can be said of Mike Leach at Texas Tech, Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech, Gray Pinkel at Missouri, and Jeff Tedford at California. In past years, you can even go further and say Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin, Jim Grobe at Wake Forest, Bill McCartney at Colorado, Bill Snyder at Kansas State, Dan McCarney at Iowa State, Greg Schiano at Rutgers, Bobby Petrino at Louisville, Hayden Frye at Iowa, Urban Meyer at Utah, Gary Patterson at TCU, Rich Brooks at Oregon, Mike Price at Washington State, and Don James at Washington.

The preceding list of coaches had some things in common, namely that they were extremely successful despite not having a great recruiting area or a great tradition. They were successful for one reason and one reason only- the man in charge made them successful. Kansas State, Iowa State, Louisville, Washington State, and Washington have all gone downhill since their elite coach left and the jury is still out on Bret Bielema at Wisconsin. The only programs who didn't go downhill after their elite coach left was because they followed the elite coach with another elite coach- Kirk Ferentz at Iowa, Kyle Whittingham at Utah, and Mike Bellotti at Oregon.

Is Wannstedt an Elite Coach?

This, of course, is the million dollar question, but the answer seems obvious when you look at the facts. And the answer is no. Before the Wannstedt fans jump off the bridge, I'm not calling him a bad head coach. Just not an elite one.

Why? Well, elite coaches aren't 25-22 in their first four years, especially when they took over a program where the previous coach had a record of 32-18 in his last four years. Wannstedt did not take over a team whose cupboard was bare, and he did not install a drastically different system. In fact, both his offensive and defensive systems were simpler than those of his predecessor, Walt Harris, and he even employed the same defensive coordinator.

In addition, included in that 25-22 record is a 17-20 record against BCS teams, which was an even worse 10-17 before this season. Also included in that were losses to Ohio and Bowling Green, an 0-3 start with a preseason Top 25 team at the start of his regime, 451 rushing yards by West Virginia in 2005, and five straight losses to end the 2006 season when only one more win would have given the team a bowl bid. Included in that losing streak was an embarrassing 46-45 loss to UConn, who started eleven unheralded freshmen in the game, and another loss to West Virginia, who this time ran for 437 yards. The 2007 season was Wannstedt's worst yet as far as his record is concerned, and it came complete with a four game losing streak, which included giving up 126 total points to Virginia, UConn, and Navy, three teams that will never be called juggernauts. The final result was a 5-7 record. Only a shocking season finale win at West Virginia softened a highly suspect first three years.

This year, Wannstedt led the Panthers to a 9-4 record, which was much improved from his three previous teams, but it's questionable just how good this team was. Better than average, yes, but not excellent. Excellent teams don't lose often, and when they do, they rarely do it an embarrassing fashion. But three of Pitt's four losses this season were just that. Pitt entered the season with their highest hopes yet, but failed immediately by losing at home to a Bowling Green team that ended up 6-6, including 4-4 in the MAC. A loss at home against Rutgers was also embarrassing, this time because a quality defense gave up six touchdown passes to Mike Teel. The final embarrassment came in the Sun Bowl, the first bowl in Wannstedt's four years, when they did their best to set football back fifty years in a pathetic 3-0 loss to Oregon State, who was missing their best player by far in running back Jacquizz Rogers.

Simply put, elite coaches don't let multiple embarrassing losses happen year after year. And, despite the most optimistic Wannstedt supporters claiming that it takes many years to build a team into an elite program, the facts show otherwise.

Bob Stoops and Urban Meyer won the National Championship in their second seasons at Oklahoma and Florida, respectively. Nick Saban turned around Alabama in his first season. In took Jeff Tedford three years to go 10-2 in the Pac 10. It took Bill Snyder just three years to have a winning record at Kansas State, until then perhaps the worst major conference program in the country. Miami was horrible when Howard Shnellenberger arrived and it took him two years to win nine names and five to win a National Championship. And these are just some of the many examples over the years.

In just the Big East, Brian Kelly is 21-6 in his two seasons at Cincinnati and Rodriquez was a combined 25-13 in years two through four, then led the Mountaineers to a Top 5 ranking in his fifth. Sure, there have been coaches who took longer than four years to turn around a program, but coaches like Schiano at Rutgers, McCarney at Iowa State, McCartney at Colorado, and Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech, were at programs that were nothing when they took over. They had never won big and they were not only nobodies nationally, they were even nobodies in their own conference. That was not the case at Pittsburgh, where Wannstedt took over the team that won the conference in the previous season and was ranked in the preseason Top 25 to start his initial season.

So Where is the Program Now?

Despite the obvious limitations of Wannstedt's head coaching ability, a 9-4 record will give hope to many who will assume that Pitt has arrived under Wannstedt. But have they?

There is little doubt that Pitt had some excellent players in LeSean McCoy and Scott McKillop, and Greg Romeus led a defensive line that would make some elite programs envious. But there wasn't much after that, at least when comparing them to the top programs. The quarterback play was often awful, and has been for most of the last two seasons. But this is not is a surprise since Wannstedt is not doing a good job of targeting top prospects at the position. The offensive line was improved, but they were still mediocre, at best. And if wasn't bad enough that the starters weren't excellent, the drop off after them is severe, except for possibly Lucas Nix and Chris Jacobson, two youngsters. But after seeing the lack of progress of many of the other linemen, it's even questionable if they will change things around. The receivers, thought to be a strength, showed very little. There is some speed, but other than freshman Jonathan Baldwin, none of the fast and athletic receivers see the field. And Baldwin was only used to run straight down the field and wait for the ball to inevitably sail out of bounds. There is talent at tight end, but it's only considered a strength if they are used, which they rarely are. The only spot on offense that was consistently good was the running back position with McCoy, Larod Stephens-Howling, and Conredge Collins all producing. But at least two of them will be gone next season, if not all three.

On defense, McKillop and Romeus starred, and Jabaal Sheard is on the verge of stardom, too. However, the secondary was exposed when the line couldn't get pressure on the quarterback, and outside of maybe Greg Williams, the linebacking corps is paying for substandard recruiting. The recruiting was so bad at the position that Williams started the season as a running back and the other starter, Austin Ransom, was a former walk on wide receiver. Of the seven linebackers on the roster who were recruited as linebackers, and will be linebackers again next season, they have accumulated, outside of Pitt, eight major offers- total. Four of the seven received no major offers outside of the Panthers.

Bottom line, the success of this year's team was basically three things- McCoy, McKillop, and the defensive line. McKillop, however, will not be back next year and McCoy may not be either. It's true that he said he would return, but every player says that at the time he said it. It's only after they get twenty people telling them that they will be a millionaire and will not have to go to class anymore that they change their mind. Even Wannstedt has expressed some doubt that McCoy will stay with his decision.

Also benefitting Pitt this season was the good fortune of having Notre Dame, Louisville, West Virginia, Rutgers, Navy, UConn and South Florida all have down years. That's a lot of down years.

So despite playing in the worst BCS conference this season, having the best offensive and the best defensive player in the conference, and playing seven teams who were having down years, at the end of the year the Panthers still were no better than the third best team in the conference, behind Cincinnati and Rutgers, and will probably not make the Top 25. What happens when McKillop leaves, and worse yet, if McCoy joins him? Chris Burns is a talented back, but if Pitt can't get into the Top 25 with McCoy and McKillop, they aren't going to get in there with Burns and whoever replaces McKillop.

Of course, McCoy could come back and the offensive line returns four starters, plus tight end Nate Byham and Baldwin at receiver. Plus, most of the defensive line returns, and the secondary returns three starters so they could improve. Quarterback, however, will still be a problem, and a major one. Stull has been made a scapegoat, but that's too bad because it was the fans, not him, who thought he was something he wasn't. No, he is not the ideal starting quarterback for a team with any aspirations, but he's the best they have. It's not that he isn't trying. It's that he isn't very good. But he's still better than Bostick and Kevan Smith, which just shows you how bad the situation he is. Like Stull was this year, Tino Sunseri will be looked at as the savior next season, but as a redshirt freshman he will have to be significantly better than Stull to get the nod. Plus, he has always been considered a good, not great, prospect, and expecting him to take Pitt to the next level without any college experience whatsoever may be a pipe dream.

Offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh is another scapegoat, and while he is clearly suspect at his job, there's only so much you can do with a mediocre quarterback and equally mediocre receivers and offensive linemen. There is a belief that things will be different if Stull and Cavanaugh were gone, but the fact remains that Wannstedt will still be there. It is he who hired Cavanaugh and gave him the reigns of the offense, and it is he who is responsible for not having a decent quarterback on the roster. The buck stops with him. The embarrassing losses and the underachievement are Wannstedt's doing. He is the captain of the ship and he is the sole reason when they spring a leak.

The main problems with the offense is that Wannstedt is forcing Cavanaugh to play a straight up pro style offense with players who don't have elite physical talent. The only kind of team that can get away with it these days is USC, and that's because they have an endless supply of superior athletes. Programs of Pitt's stature need to get an explosive offense another way, usually by using highly athletic players spread out all over the field. West Virginia did it and became a power, as has the likes of Oregon and Utah.

Of course this is where people wonder why if Pitt has so many problems, then how did they go 9-4? Well, looks can be deceiving. There was not one elite team on the schedule, and most hovered around the .500 mark. A team led by McCoy, McKillop, and the defensive line can beat other mediocre teams. But that just makes Pitt better than mediocre. It doesn't make them excellent. And at the end of the day, they lost to Cincinnati, Rutgers, and Oregon State, the three best teams they played, though to be fair I will throw Iowa in, too, even though they peaked later in the season winning six of their last seven. It still doesn't change the fact that Pitt peaked this year- right between mediocre and excellent. They can beat average teams, or slightly better than average teams, but their weaknesses are exposed when they play good teams.

What to do About Wannstedt?

Well, we have established, at least in my mind, that Pitt will not become an elite program under Wannstedt. In fact, if McCoy leaves I can even see the team regress next season since they can't expect seven down teams again.

Bottom line, Wannstedt is what he is. An awesome guy, a Pitt guy through and through, and somebody who you wish would achieve success because it would make it so much sweeter if it was he who made Pitt a power again. But, he is also a mediocre coach. The proof is in the pudding. An overall record of 25-22 and 17-20 against BCS teams says it all, not to mention a 14-14 record in the Big East. You can't get much more mediocre than that. Pitt should be a power in the conference but instead they had to watch West Virginia, and then Cincinnati, do much more with what should be much less. Wannstedt had a lot going for him this year and it still was not enough to turn Pitt into a power. The buzz he had when he came to Pitt is wearing off for him and his recruiting is getting less each season. You only have so much time to convince prospects that you are about to turn a team into a power and the clock is ticking loudly.

The best prospects over the last two years, Terrelle Pryor and Dorian Bell, went to Ohio State. The best prospects for the next class are Corey Brown, Paul Jones, Seth Betancourt, Mike Hull, Kyle Baublitz, and Dakota Royer. It's unlikely that any will end up at Pitt, though there is an outside chance for Jones, a QB that unfortunately would not be ready to star for a few years, even if Wannstedt does pull off the coup. That means in the future, Pitt will sink or swim with Sunseri, a player they didn't even offer until the very end of the recruiting season last year despite being a local with an ex-Pitt legend as his dad.

This isn't to suggest that Wannstedt will, or should be fired, because we all know he won't be. Harris was fired because, while he was successful, he was not successful enough. By all accounts, Wannstedt has been even less successful. So why won't he get fired? Well, he's a nice guy that no doubt has charmed the right people, he recruits just enough big names to make it look like he will eventually turn the program into something special, he runs a clean program, and probably most of all, he's a Pitt, and a Pittsburgh guy, who even says yunz when he talks.

He's a good enough coach, in a weak enough conference, that he will probably never let the program nosedive. Five to nine wins yearly looks like the norm. The only question remaining is, how long can he do that before it's finally decided that, like Harris, it's not enough?

Truthfully, probably as long as Wannstedt wants, unless his win totals return to equaling his loss total. He's considered "one of us" by the university and there will be no rush to can him. At best, they may ask him to get on with his life's work, and make it look like it was his decision, but that won't be after a nine win season. He no doubt has the administration believing, because that's what he's good at, after all. But most of all, they are in no rush to get rid of him, because in contrast to the top programs in the country, Pitt has never shown that they are willing to pay a top coach, and there are no other Pitt guys on the horizon who will take the home town discount. As was already proven, only excellent head coaches produce excellent programs and only big bucks brings excellent head coaches.

In conclusion, my advice to Pitt fans, even though they never asked, is to get used to what you had this season- a few more wins than losses most years, a handful of top local recruits every year, and a clean program. But do yourself a favor and stop expecting a Top 10 finish. Yes, it could happen in a year when the stars align, but more than likely this current level will continue until it's eventually decided that Wannstedt has had enough. But, when you think the never ending 7 or 8 win seasons (complete with three frustrating losses), the lopsided recruiting, the puzzling decisions, and the frustrated sideline looks will never end, you can always think of this- at least the head coach has a Pittsburgh accent. And after all, wasn't that the main objective when he was hired?



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