Wannstedt era at Pitt off to rocky start

PITTSBURGH -- A few hours before Pitt's season opener Sept. 3 against Notre Dame, a famous and forever-fired-up ex-Panther weighed in on whether new coach Dave Wannstedt was the right guy to take the program to the proverbial "next level."

The Panthers had been to five straight bowl games under Walt Harris but hadn't finished in anybody's top 15 since 1982. Despite leading Pitt to the Fiesta Bowl last season, the increasingly unpopular Harris was pushed out the door -- a door that was immediately festooned with a "Welcome Back" sign for Wannstedt, who captained Pitt's Fiesta Bowl team in 1973 and was a grad assistant with Johnny Majors' national championship team in 1976.

"I think it's a wise pick," Mike Ditka said. "Dave is a Pitt guy. Dave has a commitment to this university. The excitement created since Dave came probably hasn't happened in, what, 20 years?"

Neither has a start this awful.

The Panthers, who came into the season ranked 23rd, are 0-3 for the first time since 1984 and just the third time in 33 years. The 42-21 loss to Notre Dame in front of a national television audience was bad enough. Then came a humiliating 16-10 loss at MAC middleweight Ohio and a hard-to-watch, 7-6 defeat at Nebraska this past Saturday.

Which means that in a span of 15 days, Pitt's season went from "Return to Glory" to "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

OK, maybe to "Crush Your Enthusiasm."

But even if the year many had hoped for is ruined, Pitt can still salvage a respectable, Harris-like campaign. The Big East schedule hasn't begun, and the Panthers are looking at a highly favorable slate with a nonconference game Saturday against Division I-AA Youngstown State followed by Big East games at Rutgers and at home against Cincinnati, South Florida and Syracuse.

Not that Wannstedt is making any assumptions. He learned last year in Miami that assuming anything -- even that your star running back will show up for training camp instead of embarking on a quest for self -- is senseless.

He is preparing for Youngstown State as if it were USC.

"We can't look past anybody," he said. "We'd be foolish to think we could."

Asked if a victory Saturday would answer any questions about his team, given that it is facing a Division I-AA opponent, Wannstedt paused and said, "To be honest with you, we just need to win a game."

Wannstedt, 53, hasn't won a game of any sort in nearly a year. It was Oct. 24, 2004, when his Dolphins beat the St. Louis Rams, 31-14. After two more defeats dropped the Dolphins to 1-8, Wannstedt resigned with his NFL record stuck at 82-86 in 11 years in Chicago and Miami.

In coping with this year's struggles, Wannstedt has taken to quoting some of his favorite coaches, from Bill Parcells ("When you don't have success, there's a lot of exit doors") to Chuck Noll.

A few days after the Ohio game, somebody asked Wannstedt if he was feeling the pressure. His response: "Coach Noll said it best: 'Pressure's something you feel when you don't know what the heck you're doing.'"

Some have accused Wannstedt and offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh of exactly that in their handling of redshirt junior quarterback Tyler Palko, who was coming off a spectacular debut season under Harris but who has been blitzed regularly and has completed just 51 percent of his passes with one touchdown and four interceptions.

Pitt's offense hasn't scored a touchdown in two-plus games and is ranked 94th out of 117 Division I-A teams. The offensive line is wracked with inexperience and ill health, but Palko isn't making excuses.

"Like coach said, we're not playing well right now, but we're getting better and we're going to keep fighting," Palko said. "Football's a rough game. It's a tough game. Things don't always go your way. It's a test of manhood to see what kind of guys we have on this football team."

Cavanaugh quarterbacked the 1976 Pitt national title team and worked as Wannstedt's offensive coordinator with a couple of low-scoring, 4-12 Chicago Bears teams in 1997 and '98 before spending the past six seasons as the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator. He made a surprising admission after the Ohio game, saying one of the three interceptions was his fault for calling a route that was more tailored to the NFL than college because of the difference in the spacing of the hash marks.

"I learned the hard way that the college hash [marks] make it a much tougher throw," Cavanaugh said. "There's a lot that I'm still learning, and that was a prime example."

Cavanaugh was a serious candidate for the Pitt coaching job last winter. Wannstedt initially refused athletic director Jeff Long's offer but quickly changed his mind and signed a five-year deal in December. He promised a punishing rushing attack and, eventually, a return to national championship contention.

He did not foresee a start like this. Nobody did.

"I'm disappointed," Wannstedt said. "But I'm not discouraged."

If Wannstedt can handle giving the ball to a running back wearing No. 34 (that was Ricky's number), he might just have a go-to guy in freshman LaRod Stephens, who rushed for 98 yards at Nebraska. Unfavorable comparisons to Harris' offense are likely to fade in the wake of Stanford's failure to score an offensive touchdown at home Saturday in a stunning 20-17 loss to UC-Davis -- a program in the midst of upgrading from Division II to I-AA.

Harris' inability to recruit enough quality linemen on both sides of the ball has hampered Wannstedt in a big way. Harris had only two offensive linemen and two defensive linemen drafted during his eight-year tenure, none higher than the fifth round. Wannstedt was well aware of that problem and has cobbled together a recruiting class the likes of which Pitt fans haven't seen in decades.

Whether that class reaches its potential, who knows? To assume as much would be folly.

Joe Starkey covers college football for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.