What's next for Pitt football?
By Chris Dokish
Let me first say that I've always rooted for Dave Wannstedt as the Pitt football coach. He is a great guy, a Pittsburgher through and through, and he clearly loves the university and the city. However, for the past few years I have written that he will not get the job done at Pitt, and unfortunately the time has come to admit that Wannstedt is not getting it done. Let's look at why Wannstedt failed and what will happen in the near future for the football program.
Why Wannstedt Failed
1. Coaching ability: Quite frankly, Wannstedt is just a mediocre strategist. In an era of spread offenses and highly athletic and fast defenses, Wannstedt is stuck in the 70s. On offense he runs a pro-style offense that requires his talent to go head to head with the opponent. Unfortunately he doesn't have enough talent to win a lot of those battles. Yes, there are some very talented players on offense. Jonathan Baldwin, Dion Lewis, Ray Graham, and Jason Pinkston come to mind. Quarterback Tino Sunseri is not as bad as many fans make him out to be, and he will continue to get better, but he's probably never going to be good enough to take over a game. The offensive line is nothing special and hasn't been since Wannstedt has been there. This despite starting three elite western PA prospects in Pinkston, Lucas Nix, and Chris Jacobson. The depth on the line is atrocious.
On defense Wannstedt has gotten great play from his defensive line, especially in the pass rush, but the back seven are small, unathletic, and not very talented. The linebacking unit, something you would think would be a Wannstedt specialty, has had one high impact player during Wannstedt's tenure (Scott McKillop). Despite the lack of talent at the position, Wannstedt was enamored with playing one possible linebacker, Dom DeCicco, out of position at safety where he was a huge liability in pass coverage.
Game day decisions have also been something that Wannstedt was never very good at, and this was established before he even arrived at Pitt. His conservatism drives Panther fans crazy, who would like to see him go for the jugular rather than continually play to keep the game close. Wannstedt's method makes even less sense when you realize that eight of the last ten losses have been within seven points, showing that shows that Pitt is not adept at winning close games.
2. Failure to win the big game: The two losses in the past ten games that were more than seven points were even more devastating, and even more telling. In the third game of the season, in front of national television audience, important alumni, and hundreds of potential recruits, the Panthers failed to show up and lost 31-3 to Miami, a team that ended the regular season at 7-5, bad enough to get their coach fired. Worse yet, and on national television again, Pitt got trounced by rival West Virginia 35-10.
If only those two games were an aberration. They are not. In 2005, Wannstedt's first season, the Panthers were ranked in the preseason and returned a veteran quarterback in Tyler Palko. Wannstedt took the opportunity to start the season 0-3, including an embarrassing nationally televised 42-21 home loss to Notre Dame and a loss on ESPN to MAC school Ohio. A 42-20 loss to Louisville and 45-13 to West Virginia came later in the season. In 2006, Pitt lost their last five games, including to a UConn team that started ten freshman and ended the season 1-6 in the conference. In 2007, Wannstedt moved his career mark at Pitt to 16-19 after a 5-7 season, his third without a winning record. In 2008, Wannstedt finally achieved a respectable 9-4 record, but even then the losses were disturbing. An opening 27-17 loss to Bowling Green was bad, but just as awful was a 54-34 home loss to Rutgers in which pedestrian quarterback Mike Teel threw for six touchdowns on just 14 completions. The worst, however, may have been a 3-0 loss to Oregon State in the Sun Bowl. In that one, with the Panthers on their next of many opportunities to take the next major step as a program, proceeded to set the game of football back decades with just ten first downs and 2.7 yards per play. In 2009, Wannstedt managed a 10-3 record and a bowl victory, but still managed to end to season on a down note with losses to West Virginia and Cincinnati to end the season, and with the BCS bid right in front of them. In 2010, with the BCS bid once again in front of them, the Panthers again failed to show up, losing to UConn before getting demolished at home by West Virginia.
3. Lack of recruiting: This one will surprise many, but take it from somebody who is paid to follow recruiting; Pitt does not recruit nearly as well as they get credit for. Yes, there are some stars, among them Jonathan Baldwin, LeSean McCoy, Dion Lewis, Jason Pinkston, Lucas Nix, Greg Romeus, and Jabaal Sheard. The problem, however, is that most of the best prospects are at the same positions. Wannstedt has had little trouble recruiting running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, and defensive linemen. However, at quarterback, offensive line, linebacker, and defensive backs his track record has been very poor. The rankings of national recruiting websites don't tell the whole story in that they have a mathematical formula to show how many top prospects you get. What they don't tell you is how these players actually fit into your program. For instance, in a single class Pitt may get a lot of wide receivers or defensive linemen with high rankings, and that will get them a high team ranking. But what it doesn't take into account is that Pitt also is lacking in many positions. For instance, on the offensive line, Pitt gets kudos for landing Pinkston, Nix, Jacobson, Jeff Otah, John Malecki, and Joe Thomas. Six quality linemen may sound impressive until you realize that number is over six recruiting classes. The vast majority of the linemen recruited by Wannstedt were reaches. In fact, two on the second unit- Greg Gaskins and Jordan Gibbs- did not finish in my top 40 prospects in the state the year they came out. Neither did other reserves Ryan Turnley and John Fieger. Couple that with the fact that the top two centers are a walk-on and a converted linebacker and you can see that the future offensive line may be a real sore spot.
The quarterback recruiting has especially been hurtful since it's hard to win at any level without an excellent quarterback. The closest Wannstedt ever came to such a quarterback was when he was left Palko for his first season. Since then, he has gone to battle with Bill Stull, Pat Bostick, Kevan Smith, and Tino Sunseri.
On defense, the linebacking unit and the secondary has also had a dearth of talent. Other than Scott McKillop, the Panthers have started linebackers such as Mike Jamison, Adam Gunn, Max Gruder, Steve Dell, and Shane Murray, none of whom are linebackers you will find on an elite team. The secondary has seen the likes of Ricky Gary, Antwuan Reed, Aaron Berry, Jovani Chappel, and Jason Hendricks. Again, not a world beater among them.
4. It was all an illusion: Maybe the most amazing thing about Wannstedt's tenure is how he fooled so many for so long. As if the game decisions, the lack of recruiting at several positions, and big game blowout defeats weren't bad enough, his record should be. As of this writing, Wannstedt has an overall record of 41-31 at Pitt. That's an average of 7-5 a season. His supporters would say that over the last three seasons he is 25-12, an average of 8-4 a season. One more win this season and that average goes to 9-4. While that may not sound bad, consider this. Wannstedt's Big East record, and don't forget that this is arguably the worst major conference in the history of modern college football, is 23-18. Also, in six years, despite having what should be the best program in the Big East, he has yet to win the conference. He's also lost twice to MAC schools, once at home, is 14-18 away from Heinz Field (including bowl games), and is an incredibly inept 5-10 against non-Big East BCS schools. All of this tells me one thing. And that's that a lot of Pitt's problems were masked by playing in the pathetic Big East.
What's Next for Wannstedt?
The big question is, will Pitt fire Wannstedt after this season? It's impossible to say what's going on behind closed doors. Wannstedt flat out quit on the Miami Dolphins years ago so he does have that in him. While it's unlikely he would ever do the same with Pitt, maybe the administration, if they wanted, could put enough pressure on him to step down. That's a big "if", though. The administration loves Wannstedt as a person and as a representative of the university, this is obvious. He says "yinz", and talks about steel mills, and all of the other things that supposedly makes Pittsburghers squeel with delight. But Pittsburghers also knows when a coach is no longer going to take them to where they want to be, and anybody with sense can see that in Wannstedt now. The fact that Wannstedt was so embarrassingly giddy in the closing moments of Pitt's win over South Florida, despite another painfully mediocre performance by his team, appears to show that Wannstedt still wants to prove he's a winner, and he knows this will be his last chance. It appears that he will not go willingly.
Can Pitt Win Big?
In an word, yes. A common cry among Pittsburgh media is that Pitt only had about a decade of greatness in the 70s and early 80s, and that people are fooling themselves if they think that Pitt can reach those levels again. I say hogwash to that. Yes, there has only been one great decade, but the university had to practically go out of their way to make Pitt an also ran on the national scene. They did so with poor coaching hires and a lack of a desire to be a national power. And those two things go hand in hand.
Great programs are great for one reason- they strive to be great. They do that by staying focused, primarily by getting a great coach and keeping him. Even the so-called great programs, the programs that so many say Pitt can never be, were not so great with bad coaches. How good was Oklahoma with John Blake? USC with Paul Hackett? Georgia with Ray Goff? Nebraska will Bill Callahan? Florida with Ron Zook? You get the picture. Without a great head coach even the great programs can't win. Likewise, look at Chris Pederson at Boise State, Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia, Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech, Gary Patterson at TCU, Mike Leach at Texas Tech, Brian Kelly at Cincinnati, and Jim Harbaugh at Stanford. All turned programs that had less going for them then Pitt does into national powers. Does anybody seriously think that Pitt wouldn't be at least a top 10 team in the Big East with one of those coaches? Of course the cry here is usually, "but Pitt can't get any of those coaches!!!". To that I will answer, "can't, or won't?".
The Next Coach?
Of course even if Pitt wanted one of the coaches mentioned in the previous paragraph, they still would have a tough time. Even Notre Dame and Michigan had a tough time getting somebody to take their offers recently. It's not easy finding a coach who is already established as a winner to come to your school. To do that, you must write some very big numbers in your checkbook. Pitt has never shown such aggressiveness before so it may be a pipe dream to think they will now. But for the sake of argument let's look at that as one of the options.
1. Pay top dollar for an established winner- To me, this is the least likely option but there's always hope that Pitt suddenly stops being so cheap. You have to spend money to make money in college football, and Pitt fans can always hope that day will come now. Fans have mentioned Pederson, Leach, and Rodriguez, but all are a 0% chance of coming to Pitt. Pederson already is at a much better program and makes more money so dream on with him. Unlike most of college football, the university is all about moral and ethics, so forget about Leach and Rodriguez. If Harbaugh leaves, he will be able to choose wherever he wants to go and common sense says that won't be Pitt. Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald and Mississippi State's Dan Mullen are two other head coaches that I've had people email me and both are also impossible. Northwestern is Fitzgerald's alma mater so it's unlikely he would go unless you make the offer impossible to pass up. Mullen is already in the SEC and he's not about to leave there for the Big East. Sure, both could be had for 2-3 million a year, but Pitt won't be doing that in our lifetime.
Two coaches who had down years this season would be intriguing possibilities, however. Kevin Sumlin at Houston is 5-7 this season, his third, but was 18-9 in his first two seasons. Sumlin, 46, is from Indianapolis and played at Purdue. He was the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma for two seasons before going to Houston. His last season there the Sooners averaged 43.2 ppg. At Houston, he turned quarterback Case Keenum into a Heisman Trophy candidate while leading the most explosive offense in the country. Last season Houston led the nation in passing yards, total yards, and points per game. This season, Houston lost both Keenum and his backup for the season in their third game of the year. He would be the Panthers first ever African American head football coach.
The other interesting candidate is Bronco Mendenhall of Brigham Young. BYU ended the regular season at 6-6 but in the four seasons prior Mendenhall led the Cougars to a combined 43-9 record. He has never had a losing season and is 55-21 overall. Mendenhall, 44, is a Utah native and played at Oregon State.
A candidate from a non-major school that would have to be a possibility is Temple's Al Golden. At 41, the New Jersey native and Penn State alum, has done the seemingly impossible and turned Temple into a winner. Of course a lot of that may be because Temple moved down to the MAC, but Golden is still somebody who will get mentioned a lot this offseason, as he has the last three offseasons. UCLA, Cincinnati, East Carolina, and Tennessee are just four schools who have considered Golden in the past. The catch here is that Golden continually pulls himself out of the running for jobs and many speculate that he has his eyes on the Penn State job. He may or may not get that job, but you have to wonder if Pitt would take the chance of losing their head coach to Penn State.
2. An NFL coach: It's no secret that AD Steve Pederson loves to have his coach have NFL experience. He inexplicably hired Bill Callahan at Nebraska, and it was reported that he considered Wannstedt, too. But what NFL head coach would come to Pitt? The only one that I can possibly think of, though it's a huge long shot, would be John Fox. Fox coached at both the Pitt and the Steelers so he's familiar with the city, and should he be let go at Carolina (a distinct possibility) he won't have many other options at age 55. Of course he could always get on with his life's work, too.
3. NFL assistant coach: It's been a growing trend for NFL assistants to take head coaching jobs, but Pederson is not the type to take somebody who has never been a head coach. That would leave out Russ Grimm, and that's probably a good thing since his name doesn't have the cache that will bring in top talent.
4. College coordinator: Should the Panthers not land an established college head coach, this may be the way to go. The college game is loaded with top assistants just looking to the be "the next guy" who hits the ground running and becomes a star immediately. Pederson must not forget that every great coach was at one time just an assistant. Here are some that Pitt needs to consider:
Dana Holgorsen- The Oklahoma State offensive coordinator is, at 39, one of the best offensive minds in college football. The Iowa native and Iowa Wesleyan graduate is in his first season in Stillwater and he is already breaking records, just like he did the previous two seasons at Houston with Case Keenum, and under Kevin Sumlin. If you want Mike Leach (his mentor and friend) without the trouble, this is your man.
Tyrone Nix- At 38, Nix is considered one of the best young defensive coordinators in the country. An Alabama native and former star linebacker at Southern Mississippi, he made his bones at his alma mater before turning in great coaching performances for Steve Spurrier at South Carolina and Houston Nutt at Ole Miss, where he is also the assistant head coach.
Manny Diaz- It may be too early for the 36-year old Florida State grad since he's only spent one year as the Mississippi State defensive coordinator after four years at the same position at Middle Tennessee State, but he is a star in the making. His last Middle Tennessee State team was sixth in the nation in sacks and second in tackles for loss. This season the Bulldogs are third in the SEC in rushing defense and fourth in scoring defense. In just one season, he has become the biggest new coaching name in the SEC.
Bryan Harsin- Boise State offensive coordinator is only 34 and is a Boise State alum who appears to be next in line when and if Pederson leaves. For both those reasons, he is a long shot.
Jim McElwain- Alabama Offensive Coordinator for the past three seasons. Hiring the 48-year old coordinator of a National Championship team is the obvious selling point.
Paul Chryst- Wisconsin offensive coordinator has led an offense this season that has put up staggering numbers in the rugged Big 10. He has been the Badgers OC for five seasons and prior to this season he was the OC at Oregon State for two years.
Pat Narduzzi- Michigan State defensive coordinator for the past four years. Followed Mark Dantonio from Cincinnati where he was also the defensive coordinator. He was up for the Cincinnati job but didn't get it. The 44-years old is a native of Youngstown, OH.
Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss:
You'll know that Pitt will continue to go down the same path if they hire any of the following- Russ Grimm, Teryl Austin, or Tom Bradley.
If it were up to me I would hire Mike Leach. I know he has baggage but it's not like he killed somebody. He is rough around the edges like when he sends concussed kids into games or puts Craig James' son in a tool shed, but the truth is, Leach is well liked in the coaching community and he had a good graduation rate at Texas Tech. Bottom line, he would make Pitt a power, he would sell out Heinz Field, and he would graduate his players. We'll deal with him putting Andrew Taglianetti in a tool shed when and if it happens.
That won't happen of course. The top programs flat out cheat and people don't really care. But Pitt wouldn't hire a quality coach who didn't cheat simply because he is uncouth. That's just the way they are and you can't really complain much about somebody being too moral.
So that would lead me to my second choice. And that would be the next Mike Leach, Dana Holgorsen. Can be an elite head coach? Who knows? But he's worth the gamble. Recruiting would be a snap with that offensive system and who wouldn't want come to Heinz Field to see a Pitt offense average 40+ points a game?
I am going back to something I said before and that's that Pitt CAN win big again. If Rodriguez and Brian Kelly can do it in the same conference, with less going for them then Pitt has (recruiting base, history, world class university, world class city), then it's absurd to say that it can't be done at Pitt. If Boise State, Virginia Tech, Texas Tech, Wisconsin, Stanford, Utah, and TCU can be turned into powers because of a groundbreaking coach, then you must find a groundbreaking coach, come high or hell water. The hirings of Johnny Majors a second time, Walt Harris, and Wannstedt were either the hirings of the incompetent or the unoriginal. It's time for Pitt to fire Wannstedt and for once show the aggressiveness and foresight to find the head coach that will return Pitt to national prominence for the first time in nearly thirty years. But right now this is one of the most underachieving programs in the country. In the last thirty years the program has produced current or future Hall of Famers Dan Marino, Curtis Martin, Larry Fitzgerald, Chris Doleman, Ricky Jackson, Russ Grimm, and Darrelle Revis. You can get great players to Pitt. It has happened long after the Panthers stopped being a power. The difference is that the head coaching has ranged from awful to mediocre. The time has come to change that trend.