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No Surprise

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The only surprising thing about Pitt’s ouster of Steve Pederson as athletic director is the fact that it’s seen as a surprise.

Actually, the fact that the university is willing to eat four years and $2 million of Pederson’s remaining contract is surprising. Paying someone not to work is not typically a sound financial decision.

Of course, Pitt had been paying Pederson not to work for some time now, considering that he had very little to do with the hiring of Paul Chryst three years ago. And when it was new Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher who met with Chryst and tried to persuade him to remain at Pitt over the weekend—and not the athletic director—the writing was on the wall.

Pitt is searching for their fifth head coach since 2011. In fairness to Pederson, the fact that Wisconsin had an opening for a football coach is not his fault. The path the Panthers took to get to this place, however, was forged solely by Steve Pederson.

After an unprecedented series of failed decisions as the head of Pitt’s athletic department, Pederson was pushed aside three years ago when then-coach Todd Graham bolted in the middle of the night for Arizona State. Pederson’s biggest supporter, former Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, allowed his athletic director to be circumvented during what should be the decision-making process that defines an athletic director – hiring a football coach.

But instead of Pitt’s athletic director hiring Pitt’s football coach, the AD of another university—with the help of a prominent Pitt booster—essentially placed Paul Chryst in the position of head football coach.

Wisconsin’s Barry Alvarez, along with longtime Pitt booster Armand Dellovade, convinced the Pitt administration that the Badgers’ offensive coordinator, Paul Chryst, was ready. It was mutually agreed upon that Chryst would take over for Graham at Pitt.

The move helped the Panthers, who were in a disastrous spiral after firing Dave Wannstedt and churning through two other coaches in the previous 12 months. And it helped Alvarez, who was able to get his friend Chryst a job while lining the Badgers up with a potential head coach down the line.

Alvarez essentially used Pitt as a bank. He deposited Paul Chryst as a Football Coach Savings Bond, and now that the bond has matured, he’s made a withdrawal.

The Panthers, desperate for a head coach, went along with it. They had to because of Pederson’s failures.

The bulk of the mismanagement that pushed the Pitt football program to that point occurred a year earlier.

It started in December of 2010. Wannstedt’s team had had stumbled to a 7-5 regular season record, deemed unacceptable by Pederson, who removed Wannstedt as head coach.

Just a year earlier, though, Pederson handed Wannstedt a contract extension on the heels of Pitt’s best two-year stretch (19-7) in 30 years. Firing the same coach 12 games later gave the impression the move was a knee-jerk reaction to a poor season.

That became even clearer when Pederson treated Wannstedt’s firing and the hiring of a new football coach as two separate, unconnected moves. They are not. The firing and hiring of a coach must be treated as one whole process. Programs must plan to replace a coach. Steve Pederson clearly did not have such a plan in place.

Pederson went on to use words like integrity when he talked about finding Wannstedt’s replacement. He considered several candidates, including Todd Graham, but ultimately decided not to spend the money for Graham. Mike Haywood of Miami-OH was chosen to replace Wannstedt. Two weeks later, Haywood was in a jail cell in South Bend, accused of domestic assault.

So much for integrity.

The bargain basement hire of Haywood, combined with the fact that Graham apparently cost too much for Pitt in mid-December, but suddenly fit the budget three weeks later—only after Haywood was arrested and summarily fired—made it clear that no replacement plan ever existed.

The newly-hired Graham then set about his job of bragging to Pitt alumni about his salary. He staged a scene in practice where he admonished the team—in full view of the media, making sure his scripted sermon could be heard by everyone with a pen or a microphone—for cursing on the football field. Graham took no blame after losses, instead throwing his players under the bus. And then he bolted for Arizona State.

And the integrity that Pederson wanted so badly to instill in his football program continued to slip further and further away.

By this time, the mismanagement in the Pitt athletic department had reached epic proportions.

Graham’s departure made him the third head coach to leave Pitt in 12 months. It caused a second consecutive recruiting class to fall completely apart, decimating the roster. Less than 55 players made the trip to the bowl game that winter.

It should have been clear three years ago, as a Wisconsin AD was orchestrating the hire of Pitt’s football coach, that Pederson’s days at Pitt were numbered.

Pederson alienated a dwindling fan base during his first tenure at Pitt, angering alumni and distancing the university from an already fading tradition. But he succeeded because he solved problems. He saved the football program from complete irrelevance, did the impossible with a dead-in-the-water basketball program, and put the Olympic sports on the right track.

But the failures in his second go-round were simply too big and too arrogantly delivered to ignore. In the end, the only surprise about Pederson’s departure was that it did not happen earlier.

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