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The arrival last fall of new Panthers’ head coach Dave Wannstedt, a Pitt and NFL champion, generated sky-high hopes. This year, sports media are touting the team’s player-recruits. What’s the outlook for the 2006 season?

Gridiron Man


Bill Modoono


 
  (Athletic Department photo)
 

Last fall, Dave Wannstedt (EDUC ’76G, ’74) returned to Pitt to coach at his alma mater. His hometown return generated plenty of enthusiasm and excitement among fans and supporters. Season-ticket purchases surged, and his arrival generated a flurry of local and national media interviews. When football season arrived, though, the Panthers struggled to get their footing. They lost three of their first four games in what proved to be a challenging 5-6 season for the new coach.

Wannstedt, though, didn’t flinch. Years of playing and coaching the game have given him a long-haul view, and he’s also a great believer in what’s to come at Pitt. “Dave is a glass-half-full kind of guy,” says Jeff Long, Pitt’s athletic director.
In fact, Wannstedt is the kind of guy who sees a half-empty glass and convinces everyone in the room, including himself, that it will soon be full. It’s a brand of enthusiasm that can make good things happen.

As he got ready last fall to continue the never-ending task of recruiting quality high school players, Wannstedt had a simple message for his assistants: When you walk the corridors of the schools you visit and talk to the coaches and players, don’t worry about the lackluster start. Go in with the confidence of a 5-0 record. “We’re Pitt,” he said.

And so you could say the “real” start of the Wannstedt era at Pitt began then. Maybe there were those among the Panther faithful who believed that Wannstedt’s experience as a National Football League (NFL) head coach, his connection to championship teams at both the pro and collegiate levels, and his dynamic personality would somehow combine to lift the Panthers to instant elite status in the world of college football. Maybe there were those who believed that Pitt’s road to the Fiesta Bowl the year before indicated the program had nearly arrived. Wannstedt knew better. “Enthusiasm was way out in front of where the football program was and is,” he says.

He knew there was work to do; he also knew it could be done. Of all the attributes that helped Wannstedt become Pitt’s 34th head football coach, having that knowledge may have been the most vital factor. His Pitt connections—especially to the 1976 national championship team—were important. So, too, were his roles as defensive coordinator for the University of Miami (1986-88) and as defensive coordinator then assistant head coach for the Dallas Cowboys (1989-92). His two stints as an NFL head coach in Chicago (1993-98) and Miami (2000-04) gave him the kind of coaching credibility many colleges crave. But first and foremost, Wannstedt was and is a true believer in Pitt—that’s the conviction that drives him.

“What people need to know,” says Wannstedt, “is we have a vision of being a Top-10 program. I believe it can happen here. I know it can be done, because I was part of it.” That was in 1976, when he was a graduate assistant on Johnny Majors’ national championship team.
Wannstedt is aware of how much time has passed since Pitt’s most recent glory days. He can see it just by sitting in his office at Pitt’s practice facility on the South Side, which the team shares with the reigning NFL Super Bowl champions, the Pittsburgh Steelers. He realizes that the place where he works now is located in roughly the same spot where he worked summers in a steel mill, back when he was growing up in nearby Baldwin, Pa.

The physical transformation of the South Side—from acres of gritty steel mill to today’s trendy residential neighborhood—would have been unimaginable in 1976. But was it any more unlikely than the transformation of Pitt from a football wannabe in the 1960s and early 1970s to the national powerhouse it became in the late ’70s and early ’80s? Wannstedt doesn’t think so.

“To have a great program,” he says, you need great facilities, great academics, a great student body, and a good recruiting system that includes strong relationships with the high school coaches of western Pennsylvania.” The University of Pittsburgh scores big in all of those categories.

Yes, Wannstedt believes it can be done again. Fortunately, too, Pitt’s athletic director isn’t prone to unrealistic expectations. At the end of the 2004 season, Pitt was coming off an 8-4 record and had its starting quarterback, wide receiver, and four starting defensive backs all returning, but Jeff Long knew what to expect. “We knew what we had,” says Long, who hired Wannstedt to replace Walt Harris. “We also know where we want to be.”

Where they want to be is in national Bowl Championship Series games—and be there consistently. “Sometimes if you have a good season, it doesn’t mean you have a good program,” says Long.

Pitt had a good season in 2004, but it lacked overall depth, especially in its offensive and defensive lines. There was a deficiency in team speed. Long also wanted to ensure that the Panthers would continue to attract premier athletic talent, which was another reason he wanted Wannstedt. “I know he can recruit at the highest level,” says Long.

That sentiment is echoed by others. An Associated Press report in June said that Pitt’s recruiting class may be among the best in the University’s history, and Sports Illustrated’s SI.com ranks Pitt’s 2006 recruiting class near the top 10 in the nation.

Among Wannstedt’s targets were some of the best players from Ohio, New York, New Jersey, and western Pennsylvania. Longtime Pitt observers say it could be the foremost group of recruits since 1987, when Mike Gottfried brought in a class that included Marc Spindler, Steve Israel, Darnell Dickerson, and Louis Riddick.

Wannstedt believes the class he is bringing in as freshmen this fall will be “the foundation of what we become.” He has a clear idea of where he wants Pitt to go, and the strength of his personality seems capable of carrying him through to his goal. He has the avid support of the fans, the alumni, and the players. They believe he can get it done, and that is half the battle.

“He knows what to do to get a team motivated,” says Charles Sallet, a senior defensive lineman from Tampa, Fla. Of course, when it comes to getting his players’ attention, it does not hurt that he spent nearly 19 years in the NFL. “To me, that’s the best,” says Sallet. “That’s the top. He’s been around everything. He knows what to look for.” Scott McKillop, a sophomore linebacker from Export, Pa., also sees the allure of Wannstedt’s coaching experience, which includes an NFL Super Bowl title (with the Dallas Cowboys in 1992) and two collegiate championships (with the Pitt Panthers in 1976 and the Miami Hurricanes in 1987): “He knows what you need to do to get better, to get to the next level,” says McKillop. “That’s definitely a big factor in recruiting.”

In molding the Pitt team he wants to have, Wannstedt’s vision is shaped by his long association with Jimmy Johnson—a Fox Sports broadcaster and former coach—at Pitt, Oklahoma State, the University of Miami, the Dallas Cowboys, and the Miami Dolphins. It’s a simple outlook on the game: Speed wins.

“I always go for speed over size,” Wannstedt says. He proved the point this spring when he switched Tommie Campbell, a sophomore from Aliquippa, Pa., from defensive back to linebacker. At 6-feet-3, 210 pounds, Campbell isn’t particularly large for an outside linebacker in Division I college football. But his speed and not his size is what will make him stand out at his new position. He is the fastest player on the Pitt team.

This spring, in the annual Blue-Gold Game, Campbell gave a hint of what could be coming. He impressed his head coach by running the width of the field to catch a running back from behind on a reverse. “You can’t coach that,” said an admiring Wannstedt. “We’re going to be faster this year, straight across the board.”

Wannstedt is confident he can get the players he needs to transform Pitt with recruits who live “within five hours of the Cathedral of Learning” and supplementing that base with a few players from southern Florida. Wannstedt’s connection with Miami teams during the past two decades helps his recruiting efforts in that state.

But if Wannstedt was only interested in coaching great athletes, he would have stayed in the NFL. He came to Pitt for something more.
“I knew I wanted him to be our coach from the first sentence he said to me when I interviewed him,” says Long. “He told me, ‘I want to have an impact on young people’s lives.’ He wants to use the sport of football to do all of the good things sports can do for young people. He missed interacting with football players at a time when their lives could be molded and changed and influenced positively.”

Wannstedt delivers that message to every player he recruits. “I’ve been in every kid’s home that I recruit. I’ve sat at their dinner tables, and their mothers have cooked for me. I am bringing into the program kids who are driven to be great football players and kids who are driven to get their degrees and be successful away from the arena of sports. The one thing ties into the other. If you don’t get those kind of kids, sooner or later it catches up with you.”

The most important aspect of recruiting, he says, is to have a product you believe in. He believes in the city, he believes in Pitt both academically and athletically, and he’s eager to share that message with anyone, anytime. As he puts it, he can talk as easily with mayors and college presidents as he can with Pittsburgh mill workers.

He will use that confidence in the 2006 season to build for the future. “I expect us to be better,” he says. “But we haven’t scratched the surface of what we need to be.”

It seems clear that Wannstedt’s vision of Bowl-level football and Top-10 status will not be altered. With a glass already half-full, the top is not so far away, after all.

 


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