Friday, January 7, 2011
As Pittsburgh was coming off its first BCS appearance six years ago, Dave Wannstedt inherited the program with the expectation he'd routinely lead it back to the big stage.
He couldn't even get there once.
Guiding the Panthers to a share of their first Big East title on his watch wasn't enough for Wannstedt to keep his job, and the team will be playing under its third coach in two months when it faces Kentucky on Saturday in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala.
Pitt (7-5) went to five consecutive bowl games under Walt Harris from 2000-2004, but didn't go to great lengths to retain Harris, who left for Stanford after leading the Panthers to the 2005 Fiesta Bowl.
Wannstedt, a Pittsburgh native and former offensive tackle with the Panthers, was a logical choice to take over after spending parts of 11 seasons as an NFL head coach.
He wasn't particularly successful with either the Chicago Bears or Miami Dolphins, though, and that same level of mediocrity seemed to follow him to Pitt. Despite a reputation as an excellent recruiter, the Panthers didn't make a bowl game in his first three seasons.
They've played in postseason games the past three seasons, but couldn't make it to a big one -- even in the often subpar Big East. A 3-0 conference start in 2010 put heavily favored Pitt in the driver's seat for the conference's BCS berth, but losses to Connecticut and West Virginia -- the latter a 35-10 embarrassment -- were enough to convince athletic director Steve Pederson to go in a different direction.
"This was a hard season, a tough year all the way around, on and off the field," Pederson said. "That wears on everyone. ... As you go through tough years, you begin to evaluate."
Wannstedt decided against coaching the team in this bowl, leaving that job to defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, the former SMU head coach.
Pitt named Miami of Ohio's Michael Haywood coach Dec. 16 after he went 1-11 and 9-4 in two seasons at Miami, leading the RedHawks to the GoDaddy.com bowl this season.
Two weeks after being hired at Pitt, Haywood was jailed on a domestic violence charge after a struggle at his South Bend, Ind., home following a custody issue with a woman with whom he has a child. He was released from jail Saturday, but fired hours after the charge was upgraded from a misdemeanor to felony domestic battery in the presence of a minor.
Kentucky (6-6) is making its fifth consecutive postseason appearance to conclude Joker Phillips' first season as head coach after the former Wildcat receiver spent the past seven years as an assistant.
Though Kentucky went 2-6 in the SEC, it was consistently competitive. The Wildcats were tied with both top-ranked Auburn and No. 21 Mississippi State in the fourth quarter before losing, and beat SEC East champ South Carolina 31-28 -- rallying from a 28-10 halftime deficit -- behind four touchdown passes from Mike Hartline.
Hartline, though, won't be around for one last sendoff. Phillips suspended his quarterback for the bowl game following the senior's arrest Dec. 10 on second-degree disorderly conduct and public intoxication charges.
"Mike has had a good record here conduct-wise and I regret that this has happened but it did," Phillips said. "... We have clear expectations of how we want our players to act, how we want them to behave.
"It is tough on me because of how I feel about Mike and what he has done for this program, but that is something that you have to do as a head coach. You have to make a decision and our expectations are clear-cut. We have to stick with them."
Sophomore Morgan Newton will replace Hartline, and although he's only thrown seven passes this season, he has experience under center. Newton started the last eight games of the 2009 season when Hartline was hurt.
He didn't throw the ball often, averaging just 17.0 attempts and 88.3 yards while tossing six TDs and three interceptions.
The Wildcats stuck to handing the ball to Derrick Locke during Hartline's absence, something they'll want to do again against Pitt. Locke missed four games with a shoulder injury, but averaged 112.0 yards in the seven games he completed.
End Jabaal Sheard -- the Big East defensive player of the year -- helped Pitt finish 11th nationally in total defense, but he and his teammates will get a big test trying to contain Kentucky's Randall Cobb. The junior slot receiver was named a first-team AP All-American after finishing with a school-record 2,191 all-purpose yards.
He accounted for 15 touchdowns -- including three passing.
Pitt has its own star receiver in Jonathan Baldwin, who struggled to click with first-year starting QB Tino Sunseri. Baldwin had 810 yards -- 301 fewer than he had as a sophomore -- and reportedly wasn't happy with Wannstedt's ouster, a move that likely will sway him toward entering the NFL draft.
The Panthers' biggest concern against the Wildcats, though, will likely be establishing Dion Lewis and a running game that struggled at times after an excellent 2009.
Pitt, which has never faced Kentucky, was 5-0 when rushing for at least 150 yards.