Dave Wannstedt received the inevitable question Monday about his job security, and the Pittsburgh coach gave the expected response, saying he was just worried about the Panthers' final game against Cincinnati.
But with the season looking like a lost cause, Wannstedt's status is just about all any Pitt fans want to discuss. My inbox is full of e-mails on the subject, most of which are a variation of the question, "How much longer must we put up with this?"
To be fair, it's not like Wannstedt has pulled a Greg Robinson and imploded a program. Pitt won 19 games the previous two seasons and still has a chance at an eight-win campaign in 2010, not to mention a share of the Big East title with a victory Saturday (and the Panthers could still back into a BCS bid if West Virginia and Connecticut collapse). Pittsburgh fans have an inflated view of their program's value, colored by the Jackie Sherrill glory years of the late 1970s and early '80s. Consider that the Panthers won 10 games last year for the first time since 1981; the team had reached that plateau once between 1917 and 1975.
Yet there's no doubt that Wannstedt's teams have underachieved. Since the shocking 13-9 upset at West Virginia to end the 2007 season, how many times have the Panthers won a game they shouldn't have? Iowa in 2008 is the only possible candidate. On the flip side, they've lost several games they had no business losing, from Bowling Green in 2008 to NC State last year and Connecticut this season.
The worst part for Pitt is, the window for claiming the program's first-ever outright Big East title has never been more wide open than the past two years. Yet after reaching the top 10 last season, the Panthers closed the year with a listless loss at West Virginia, then blew a 31-10 lead at home to Cincinnati with the BCS bid on the line. This year, with no dominant teams in the league and nemesis Brian Kelly gone, Pitt was supposed to finally break through. Instead, the team is just 6-5, with humiliating home losses to Miami (which just fired its coach) and last week to archrival West Virginia.
UConn coach Randy Edsall and South Florida's Skip Holtz each called the Panthers the most talented team in the Big East the week before playing them. And think of the talent that has gone through the Steel City the past few years without a championship to show for it yet: LeSean McCoy, Jon Baldwin, Scott McKillop, Greg Romeus, Jason Pinkston, Jabaal Sheard, Nate Byham, Dorin Dickerson, Dion Lewis and on and on and on. There's no reason Connecticut might have more Big East titles and one more BCS bid than Pittsburgh during Wannstedt's six years if the Huskies win this weekend.
Perhaps we all overrated this year's team, distracted by the star power of Lewis, Romeus and Baldwin and ignoring the missing starters at other key positions. Injuries to Romeus and middle linebacker Dan Mason hurt, too. That's Wannstedt's story.
“The whole thing with the development of a new quarterback, the three new linemen and the new tight end and a new wide receiver, I knew it would be difficult," Wannstedt said Monday. "I knew that we had the least amount of starters returning in the conference out of anybody. I knew we were a young team and that it would be a work in progress."
But youth doesn't explain why the Panthers were still making the same mistakes in Game 11 as they were in Game 1. Or why a fifth-year senior center (Alex Karabin) would snap the ball over quarterback Tino Sunseri's head in a key situation against West Virginia. Or why Pitt even had to play Karabin, a walk-on before this summer, at that crucial spot when the coaching staff had already used a junior-college stop-gap at center the two years prior.
Does all of this mean that Wannstedt should or will be fired? Fans have clearly turned on him, and season tickets for 2011 will be a tough sell with his face on them. But Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg has always been a big Wannstedt supporter and personally awarded him a contract extension before the 2007 West Virginia game. Athletic director Steve Pederson didn't hire Wannstedt, but his relationship with the coach was so good that the two agreed to an extension to 2014 this offseason with almost no negotiation involved.
There's so much to like about Wannstedt. He's a terrific ambassador for his alma mater, he cherishes the school and what it means, and despite a string of embarrassing off-the-field incidents this year, he runs a clean program where players graduate. He's also a tremendous recruiter and currently has the No. 21 class of 2011, according to ESPN.com.
Even with Baldwin, Pinkston, Romeus and Sheard leaving, Pitt had only 12 seniors this year and should be well-stocked moving forward, with Sunseri having a year of starting under his belt. There are no obvious, ready-made successors roaming the sideline of college football. (Boise State's Chris Peterson was once a Panthers quarterbacks coach, but only the most delusional fans think he'd consider coming back).
The window might be closing fast for Pittsburgh with Louisville and Syracuse improving and TCU coming on board in 2012. I think Wannstedt should be given another year, considering all the positives he brings to the program, the talent still on hand and his recent record relative to the Panthers' history.
But things have to change at Pitt, and I understand why fans are ready for that change to start at the top.