I wrote something similar to this last year, so I figured why not do it again. With 2011 coming to a close, let's take a look back at the tumult and triumph (mostly tumult) of 2011 for our beloved Pitt Panthers. The 'Year of High Octane' was certainly one Panther faithful will remember, but probably one we'd all like to forget. Alas, let's recant the fun, shall we? Here are my top five moments of 2011 for Pitt athletics.
All of the football drama aside, the athletic department took many steps forward in 2011. The opening of the brand new Petersen Sports Complex was the biggest of them all. The $20 million facility hosted its first game on March 16 when the baseball team hosted Kent State. The complex, located behind Trees Hall, houses state-of-the-art fields for baseball, softball, and soccer, as well as concessions and an administrative building, all while offering striking views of downtown. While it may not seem memorable, the opening of the Petersen Sports Complex represented a huge step towards national relevance for Pitt's olympic sports.
4. Basketball wins Big East Title
Behind Ashton Gibbs' 18 points, Pitt defeated Villanova, 60-50, on March 5 to clinch the Big East Regular Season Crown, their first since 2004. The team finished the season with an overall mark of 27-4 and a #1 seed in both the Big East and NCAA tournaments. I was sitting in the Zoo for this game, and I'll admit, my eyes welled up when the Big East Championship banner was hoisted during the post-game celebration. The first Pitt championship I've witnessed in person is something I definitely won't forget.
3. Michael Haywood Fired
Steve Pederson's "man of integrity and character" was charged with domestic violence on New Year's Eve, forcing Pitt to welcome 2011 by firing Michael Haywood on January 1, just 16 days after introducing him as Dave Wannstedt's successor. My emotions during this two-day fiasco went from shocked to embarrassed to relieved. I was never thrilled with the Haywood hire, so I was almost thankful to get another chance at hiring a football coach. Little did I know three more coaches would follow within the year.
2. Todd Graham Bolts for Arizona State
Following the two-week stint of Mike Haywood, Pederson opened the checkbook and turned to Tulsa's Todd Graham. After being named head coach on January 10, Graham immediately imbued Pitt football with an unforgettable personality: High-Octane. Everything, he promised, would be high-octane, fast, and explosive, on and off the field. We would win championships every day, all while doing it the "Pitt Way" with honor, pride, and loyalty. I fed off of Graham's bravado -- a refreshing change from boring Wannstedt -- and bought into it with full gusto. Unfortunately the team didn't and a painful slog of a season resulted, ending with a 6-6 record and a repeat invite to the BBVA Compass Bowl. Then, in the early morning of December 14, a day that will live in infamy, Graham boarded a private jet bound for Arizona State and was gone. After just 11 months, high-octane football came to a smoldering, stunning end. Graham was rightfully castigated by the national and local media, fans, and players for days following his departure.
1. Paul Chryst Named Head Coach
Pitt conducted a focused and efficient search to replace the charlatan, which ended on December 22 when Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst was introduced as head coach. Regarded as one of college football's most innovate, adaptable offensive minds, Chryst helped the Badgers to their second consecutive Rose Bowl this year, while averaging 44.6 points per game. His modest personality is a striking contrast to Graham's, but one that seems to be welcomed. I like this hire a lot. Somehow, finally, I think we got it right.
Very Honorable Mention: Pitt Joins the ACC
Pitt played a role in changing the college landscape, when they announced on September 18 that they would be leaving the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference. Even though we might not be able to make the transition until 2014, Pitt fans have much to look forward to with this change, notably stronger competition in football, annually facing marquee basketball programs Duke and UNC, and better bowl games in football.
On behalf of Dave Wannstedt, Phil Bennett, Mike Haywood, Todd Graham, Keith Patterson, and Paul Chryst, Happy New Year. Here's to a happy, successful, and stable 2012. Hail to Pitt.