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Sunday February 5 2023
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Gut Check Time

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Just two months ago, on these very pages, I wrote that Dave Wannstedt was the perfect coach for Pitt’s football program.

Today, in the wake of a difficult start to what was supposed to have been a special season--with mounting problems on and off the field--that idea is being severely tested.

The team opened the season ranked in the top 15, but quickly fell out of the polls after a season-opening loss to Utah. Just as quickly, the Panthers become a non-factor after a 31-3 home thrashing at the hands of the Miami Hurricanes. They entered October still in search of a win over a division-1 team.

But it’s not the losses that are the problem. Sure, their 1-2 start is disappointing, but the Panthers had to replace three interior offensive lineman, two NFL-caliber tight ends and a veteran quarterback. When you combine an inexperienced offensive line with a raw quarterback, it’s always a struggle. Throw in a demanding early schedule and we probably should have seen the 1-2 start coming.

The problem is that as September came to an end, the Panthers had more players arrested (4) than they had touchdowns against division-1 competition (3).

Yes, football teams inevitably go through off-field behavioral issues – locally, we’ve similar off-field problems at Penn State for a relatively lengthy period of time; West Virginia has also had their share of players running afoul of the law.

And you can’t argue with how Wannstedt has handled the individual issues. Some will find fault with his methods, of course, but those arguments are misguided. Four players were arrested since late July, two for fighting and two for much more serious incidents. The two players who committed the more serious altercations—Jason Douglas for drunken hit and run and Jeff Knox for an alleged assault on a female—are no longer with the team. His handling of these situations has been consistent throughout his tenure.

What does cause some amount of worry, however, is a slight feeling of deja-vu. Not the whiny, whoa-is-me Pitt fan who’s thinking, “Typical Pitt – here we go again,” but the feeling that Wannstedt himself has been here before.

His two previous head coaching jobs, with the Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins, followed somewhat similar patterns. He took over non-playoff teams, got both clubs into the postseason and appeared to be on the verge of truly turning the corner… and then the bottom fell out.

Losses piled up, problems erupted in the locker room, media and fan criticism reached epic proportions, players complained and one even quit playing football altogether, concentrating instead on smoking weed in the mountains of Europe. It got ugly.

Do two losses in three games and four arrests in three months signify a similar pattern at Pitt?

Not yet. Right now, it’s simply a rough stretch.

But it is gut-check time at Pitt – for the 2010 Panthers and for Wannstedt as the program’s coach. How he is able to navigate his team through October and November will provide perhaps the greatest test Wannstedt has faced as the Pitt coach. It also will provide a true answer as to whether he is indeed the perfect man for the job.

It says here he still is.

Listen to Tony DeFazio on "The Locker Room with Tunch and Wolf" on Fox Sports Radio 970 every Friday at 12:30.

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