As Pittsburgh sat in the driver's seat for the Big East title in early November, one stat always jumped out at me: the Panthers were shooting for their first-ever outright Big East title.
I realize that Miami and Virginia Tech dominated much of the late 1990s and early 2000s, but it's crazy that Pitt, with all of its tradition and advantages, has never won a league title in the clear. In fact, the Panthers own only two co-championships, and they both came in multi-way ties during arguably the worst two years the league has ever seen (2004 and 2010).
Pittsburgh is an excellent school located in a talent-rich area. Though the Panthers will always play second fiddle to the Steelers in their own city (and probably the Penguins, too), there are some advantages to being in a pro town. Pitt piggybacks off the Steelers' facilities and shares training space with the NFL team. Imagine the treat it must be for college players to walk by guys like Troy Polamalu on a daily basis.
There's absolutely no reason that Cincinnati should have two more outright Big East titles than Pitt, or that Connecticut has earned as many BCS bids as the Panthers. Now that the program has pulled the plug on the Dave Wannstedt era, it needs to find the right coach who can take this team to the next level.
It figures to be a wide open search, with no obvious heir apparent. We are going to hear a lot of names in this one, including NFL guys like Russ Grimm the former Pitt player and current Arizona Cardinals assistant, and Marvin Lewis, a Pennsylvania native and former Pitt assistant who may be on his last legs with the Cincinnati Bengals. Dreamers will probably even toss Bill Cowher's name into the mix.
But the Panthers -- and especially athletic director Steve Pederson -- should have learned a vital lesson by now. They need to hire a college guy.
Pederson's last big hire, of course, was at Nebraska when he brought Bill Callahan in from the Oakland Raiders. Both of them were fired a couple of years later. While Wannstedt had some success in six seasons, it took him a while to adjust to the college game early in his tenure.
This is a job best suited for an up-and-coming assistant at a major college program or someone who has established themselves as a head coach. Louisville and South Florida both hit home runs by going that route -- the Cardinals with a talented coordinator (Charlie Strong) and USF with a head coach (Skip Holtz).
The next coach's most immediate task will be trying to hold together a recruiting class that ESPN.com currently ranks 21st in the nation. Wannstedt had already secured 18 commitments. But there is always going to be talent in the Pennsylvania/Ohio region, and Pitt should be well stocked for 2011. Though the Panthers lose Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard at defensive end, offensive tackle Jason Pinkston, starting linebacker/safety Dom DeCicco and most likely junior receiver Jon Baldwin to the NFL draft, they have a lot of talent coming back. The new coach can work with Dion Lewis and Ray Graham at tailback, Mike Shanahan and Devin Street at receiver, Brandon Lindsey at defensive end and plenty of young players ready to emerge. Tino Sunseri has a full year of starting at quarterback under his belt, and redshirting freshman Mark Myers has a world of potential.
What do Pitt fans want? A guy who's not as conservative as Wannstedt in his offensive game plans would rank high on that list. Wannstedt's pro-style, running-based power offense matched the blue-collar ethic of the Steel City, but it often seemed as if he still had the 1990s NFL coaching approach of simply avoiding mistakes and hoping to win on field position. That's the opposite of where the college game is heading; just look at the two incredibly wide-open offenses that are playing for the BCS title this year.
Pitt claims nine national titles, but it has been nearly 30 years since the Panthers were in that discussion. This program needs to focus on winning an undisputed Big East title, something that should not be that difficult. Pittsburgh is one of the better jobs in the conference, and the right coach who understands the college game can do some great things.