Up Close With PSR
Wannstedt took over as the head football coach at the University
of Pittsburgh last December. Wannstedt, who played and coached
for the Panthers in the 1970s, spent the previous five seasons
coaching the Miami Dolphins, where he posted a 43-32 mark before
resigning after a 1-7 start to the 2004 season. Wannstedt was
also the head coach of the Chicago Bears, and served as defensive
coordinator to Jimmy Johnson's Dallas Cowboys teams of the early
1990s, winning a Super Bowl there. The Baldwin native has been
tearing up the recruiting trail since taking the reigns at his
alma mater, securing 12 early commitments for the Class of 2006.
PSR Editor Tony DeFazio sat down with Wannstedt in his office
on the South Side and discussed his return to college football,
the NFL, recruiting and several other issues.
PSR: Having been on the job about six months
- how do you view things now and what have you experienced that
is different from what you expected?
Wannstedt: I've really enjoyed it. The different
aspects of college football have been energizing to me. I've tried
to make an effort to spend time in all the different areas that
I think are important to having a top national program. By that
I mean the obvious area of recruiting. I think you have to make
sure you take care of your own backyard and your own house before
you start worrying about the neighbors. That's been my philosophy
and that's why the emphasis, number one, has been to circle the
wagons right here in the state of Pennsylvania.
I've spent time on campus and had opportunities to meet with
our administration and our academic and alumni circles, and reestablish
I've spent some time on the road attending different dinners
and golf outings throughout the state, meeting with boosters and
people that support our program. We had an on-campus student rally
in April at the Peterson Center to try to make a connection with
the students. We had a somewhat informal press gathering right
after spring practice here on the South Side to reconnect with
the local media.
It's really been a fast pace these last six months, and we've
tried to make an impact in all the different areas that are important
to having an outstanding program.
PSR: What will be going through your mind in
those moments before you lead your first Pitt team through the
tunnel to face Notre Dame next month?
DW: I don't know…it's kind of interesting -
I remember coaching in a national championship game down in Miami
when I was the defensive coordinator. I think I was just so focused
on the game.
After we won the national championship, I didn't go to sleep
all night. By the time we got back to the hotel, two or three
of us coaches ended up just sitting out on a couple chairs on
the beach and watching the sun come up. And that's when I really
had a chance to catch my breath and say, "Hey this was kinda neat."
It'll probably be the same way here. We'll have all the hype
and everything going on, but experience tells me that it's my
job to separate the emotional part of it from the job at hand.
The team is my responsibility. I have to be focused on the game
and the things that are going to be happening on the field.
They'll be plenty of time afterward to look back and reflect
and enjoy the moment.
PSR: Do you ever feel some of your accomplishments
as an NFL head coach went under-appreciated, specifically in Miami?
DW: Well, yeah. Miami is a town - probably
like every NFL town - where the Super Bowl is the only thing that
people want to talk about. After four years there, we had averaged
10.5 wins per year. Over that four year period, we were the third
winningest team in the NFL behind Philadelphia and Green Bay in
terms of number of wins (Note: the Dolphins won 42 games in those
four years). And it wasn't good enough. And I knew it wasn't good
enough - my goal was the Super Bowl. And I think that's the business,
But people don't want to hear the reasons why. The third year
in Miami was our best team. That was the team that was a Super
Bowl caliber team. And we beat Denver on a Sunday night game and
were 6-1. And we had two or three teams that were struggling coming
up on the schedule, and we really had the chance to jump out ahead
and close the home field, and do all those things. Within 10 minutes
after the game, the doctors told me (starting quarterback) Jay
Fiedler had shattered his thumb and was going to be out six to
eight weeks, and (leading receiver) Oronde Gadsden tore a ligament
in his hand and he was done for the year. And we lose four out
of our next six, and we're struggling at quarterback and our second-team
quarterback, Ray Lucas, ends up getting dinged and we're down
to our third-team quarterback who had never played. And that was
the window. That was the year that I thought we were going to
hit the homerun.
But the point is that nobody cared. Nobody said at the end of
the year, "It's a shame that Jay missed eight games," - all they
know is we didn't win the Super Bowl. It's the nature of the business.
PSR: Ricky Williams is trying to come back
with the Dolphins. What are your thoughts on that whole situation
now that you're a year removed and no longer intimately involved?
DW: I would never say that any one player or
one incident makes or breaks a season. It was more disappointing
than anything…the emotions were more hurt than anger. Ricky was
a guy that I had invested a lot in and he was one of my top guys
and I believed in him.
I think he can come back. If you play at a high level, your
teammates will accept you. I don't think they ever go back to
the way…well, I think there is a fine line between playing with
somebody on the field because they're going to help you win and
inviting that guy over to your house for dinner.
PSR: Is the NFL out of your blood?
DW: Oh yeah. I'm getting all the fix I need.
I'm loving this recruiting. And my motives now are to try to make
a difference here at the university and with these young kids.
It's exciting every day I wake up. I'm not doing this so that
I can do an interview for a radio show or a TV show or because
of my contract.
I'm doing this thing to try to win a championship but also to
try to make a difference here at the university. Here where I
was born and raised.
PSR: People talk about Tyler Palko as having
a chance to be one of the best ever to play here when all is said
and done. What are your thoughts on Tyler?
DW: Tyler has all the intangibles. By intangibles
I mean he's a smart guy, he's committed to being the best. He's
got talent to really take his game to the next level. His best
football, I believe, is in front of him. He's working with the
attitude that his best football is front of him. And I really
think that with two years in this system, with two years under
the tutelage of Matt Cavanaugh…well, it's exciting. It's exciting
to have a player with that potential to improve to that level.
He's so hungry to get better.
PSR: What parts of this team excite you the
DW: Our offensive line is going to be critical
and I was really pleased with them coming out of the spring. I
thought that they were better than what anybody gave them credit
for. And we only have one guy from opening day a year ago lining
up in the same spot.
I was very encouraged by our tight ends. I think we have a good
group of tight ends. And our secondary - I think if we stay healthy
we have a chance to have as good a secondary as anybody in the
PSR: What parts of the team keep you awake
DW: Our front seven. Right now, if we were
to play a game tonight, we don't have one defensive lineman or
one linebacker who is lining up at the same spot that he did opening
day a year ago. That's a concern.
That is really going to be the focus in training camp. We need
to make sure that, number one, we get the players lined up in
the right spots where they can play at the highest level possible
and give us the best chance to win. And we've got to get this
thing back together quick.
PSR: Auburn goes undefeated in the SEC last
season and doesn't sniff a national championship. With the current
state of the conference, can an undefeated Big East team win a
DW: Without a doubt, sure. Louisville is the
team in the Big East that we're all chasing…so whether it be West
Virginia, Louisville - any team in our conference would be a contender
if they get into that situation.
PSR: Is it a better path to the BCS for Pitt,
now that Miami and Virginia Tech are out of the conference?
DW: Ah, Miami and Virginia Tech have always
been national teams, but Louisville was sixth in the country last
year. We know how good West Virginia is. Miami won nine games
last year, so who knows how good they'll be this year. Every year
is a new year.
PSR: You added a lot of high-caliber teams
to the out of conference schedule. How does that help Pitt?
DW: Jeff Long and I have had a lot of conversation
about future schedules and I think that we always want to have
two national teams…Notre Dame and Nebraska this year. Iowa, Miami
of Florida, Virginia - two strong BCS teams. When you are talking
about scheduling four or five games, that's a lot, and that fifth
game is tough.
PSR: How has Penn State's move to the Big 10
changed recruiting in Pennsylvania?
DW: I don't know. I just know that we've got
to do a better job, particularly in the eastern part of the state.
We had an outstanding year last year, we win the Big East, and
we don't sign one player from the entire eastern part of the state.
We've already got one or two guys committed, and that's been an
area of focus.
To answer your question, I don't really know how it's changed.
When I was here, we were winning at least 10 games a year and
winning and playing for national championships. I know the emphasis
was put on the entire state of Pennsylvania. We didn't talk much
about Penn State then and we're not going to talk much about them
PSR: You mentioned doing a better job in eastern
PA. With Temple out of the conference and off the schedule, how
does Pitt make inroads in recruiting in southeastern PA?
DW: Get in there, roll up your sleeves and
go recruit. (Offensive line coach) Paul Dunn's from Philadelphia
so he'll go recruit that area. (Running backs coach) David Walker
who played at Syracuse is going to recruit the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton
area. (Linebackers coach) Curtis Bray is going to recruit the
Harrisburg area. We've got to spend the time and make the effort.
All you've got to do is get one kid, and we got a commitment
out of a big defensive end from that area for next year. All of
a sudden you get another kid from that area, and that's how it
During the month of May, we hit Philadelphia and visited schools
during the day and then put on a clinic for high school coaches
that night. We went over to Hershey, PA and hit schools during
the day, then put on a clinic for high school coaches. So I think
walking the walk as compared to just talking the talk has made
PSR: How hard and how important is it to generate
fan interest in that part of the state?
DW: It's real important. There are Pitt fans
all over the state, we all know that. There are your diehard fans
who are going to come no matter who the coach, what your record
or who you're playing. Then most fans, I think, like that personalized
feeling. They want to be able to connect with the school, with
the coaching staff…I'm hoping by getting out there and getting
around physically, combined with being a Pittsburgh guy and being
from Pittsburgh, people will say, "You know what? Let's get down
there and support the team."
I enjoy the recruiting part because it's Pitt and it's Pittsburgh.
It's my school and it's easy for me. When you believe in something
PSR: You have 12 early commitments so far.
Is there a danger with early commitments in that, 1) a kid might
de-commit if a better offer comes along; and 2) it's critical
that your talent evaluation be correct?
DW: We haven't had one kid come in here and
get a scholarship who we haven't obviously evaluated in camp,
broken down his film and researched his academics. We have spent
a lot of time with every kid that we've offered a scholarship
to. I don't care to hear about rumors, I don't read Rivals or
any recruiting stories; all I care about is what happens on the
All these early commitments - if we don't get a commitment from
him, Michigan's going to. Penn State's going to. Pete Carroll
at USC is going to. So that's the competition that we're dealing
GET TO KNOW DAVE WANNSTEDT
PSR: Where would you feel more comfortable:
Chicago's North Side, having a beer at Wrigley; South Beach in
Miami looking at all the beautiful girls; or the South Side of
Pittsburgh having a Primantis' sandwich?
DW: Oh boy, that's a tough one. I've enjoyed
all three of those. I've had about as much fun at all three of
those as is legally possible to do…I would take the atmosphere
at South Beach, the food and beverage of Pittsburgh and the nostalgia
and tradition at Wrigley.
PSR: CDs or iPod?
DW: iPod. Big.
PSR: What's on your i-Pod now?
DW: Michael McDonald. He's got a release where
he does the Temps and Marvin Gaye and that type of stuff.
PSR: Favorite athlete growing up?
DW: Probably in my younger days, it was baseball.
I was a big baseball player and it would have been some combination
of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris…I always seemed to end up on
the Yankees even though I was a Pirate fan. Those two and probably
PSR: Greatest player you ever played with?
DW: Tony Dorsett.
PSR: Played or coached against?
DW: Maybe Reggie White.
PSR: Who spends more time on their hair - Jimmy
Johnson or Ricky Williams?
DW: (Laughs) I'm not going to touch that one
for a bunch of reasons.