There are three words when you think of Pitt football. It is a common phrase used by just about anyone who supports the team, or anyone that laughs at the team. The three words come up when they are doing well, and the three words come up when they do something bad. What three words am I talking about? SAME. OLD. PITT. These three words have been uttered by Pitt fans for far too long, and way too many times. Pitt can look to turn a corner, and right when they do, those words appear, but why?
I am in the business to know why they are there, and what you can do to get around them every once in a while. Before you figure out how to get around these words as a program, you have to know why they came from. Pitt is on their ninth head coach since Jackie Sherill left town after three consecutive 11-1 seasons and top 10 finishes. Pitt tried to keep the same magic through the 80's with Foge Fazio, but he fizzled after Sherill's recruits left town after 1983. So the rest of the 80's and the better part of the 90's were some very dark times.
Enter Steve Pederson and Walt Harris. Harris brought them from awful to mediocrity, and by most accounts a starving fan base ate that mediocrity right up. Pederson took away Pitt and the script and gave us Pittsburgh and Dino-cat. He promised Pittsburgh fans a multi-million dollar shiny new stadium away from Oakland, and so they went. Pitt reveled in mediocrity throughout most of the Walt Harris era. Larry Fitzgerald and the 2003 team and Tyler Palko and the champions of the worst Big East conference in history actually gave us some exciting years, but "same old Pitt(sburgh)" was apparent and really the birth of that phrase started there. Losing to Toledo on the road (Why play MAC teams on the road, Steve?) as a Top 10 team may have started this decade long (and counting) woe as me mentality the Pitt fan base has.
So what does Pittsburgh do? They bring a "Pitt man" to run the show. They brought loyal son Dave Wannstedt to return "Pitt" to glory under Jeff Long's watch. Yes, Pittsburgh decided to go back to being Pitt, but with a block logo and the same colors and not a script logo with light blue and mustard yellow scheme. Close enough, I guess. Wannstedt personified the term "Same old Pitt" with some classic Pitt losses in his first three seasons like the one to Ohio (on the road to a MAC team again), Navy in Triple OT, and my favorite, finishing the year 0-5 after a 6-1 start in 2006. All the sudden the 13-9 happens and things look on the up and up, recruits are flying in, LeSean McCoy is a superstar, but of course 2008 opens with a loss to Bowling Green. He cleaned them up to being competitive following that loss. In Wannstedt's final three seasons Pitt averaged nine wins, but with some poor off field antics, Wanny got the boot. Still a questionable move in my opinion.
So how do you fix it from there? Pederson hires tough guy Mike Haywood. In a very Same Old Pitt moment, he went against what he preached and involved himself in a domestic violence incident that got him fired soon thereafter. So now what? The fan base is already livid, how about an off the radar hire with a fast-talking Texan with a plan for a major change? Todd Graham comes in and swiftly drops a huge lead to Iowa the day Pitt announces they are going to the ACC. A 6-6 season later, the guy bolts. Maybe a good decision on his part looking back on it now.
So Pederson has tried a new look, a new brand, a new stadium, and now a new conference. He's tried Pitt men and he's tried outsiders at the Head Coach spot. Anyway you look at it, Steve Pederson has conducted far too many coaching searches. Pitt has never done anything beyond one ten win season in 2010, and that's the best this program has done since 1982 and the best year on Pederson's resume. So now he goes and gets his first coach in his brand new conference and hires Wisconsin Offensive Coordinator, Paul Chryst. Before he even got here the damage of the past three coaches has been done. This place was a mess, and Chryst is in the midst of piecing it back together to this very day. He had a Same old Pitt moment with a loss to Youngstown State in his debut, followed that up with a nice loss to Navy on the road last year, and he must have gotten it out of the way this year early with Akron yesterday.
So that's where Pitt is, but where do they go from here? Everyone has a popular opinion, but if you are new Chancellor Patrick Gallagher, how do you fix the Pitt football problem? There are many routes in which this thing can go, but what is the correct path?
First route you can go is to fire Steve Pederson. I think Pederson has done some great things like the Petersen Events Center and the ACC, but the whiffs on other things, like hiring football coaches most notably. He was the kind of a guy that had vision when he took the job, but his vision has never caught on with a lot of people. College football lives off of tradition, and he took Pitt's tradition right away from them. He took Pitt's identity when he made them become Pittsburgh and changed the colors. The Heinz Field thing is met with resistance to this day as well. He took Pitt so far, but maybe it's time for someone to take them further, a guy that can blend the past with the future without sacrificing the present.
Another way to correct things is to start spending big. Pitt has money and they could do more with it. Pitt has used the new ACC money to upgrade all the facilities, and the state of Pitt athletics is way better than it was a few decades ago on that front. The UPMC Complex got a big face lift recently, the Petersen Center locker rooms got an upgrade, but how about spending that money on personnel? Paul Chryst wasn't able to go land a respectable defensive coordinator last off-season, and Jamie Dixon couldn't fend off Kentucky to keep his top assistant. Why not allow the teams to compete with other schools for coaches? You have money, you play in the top tier of college athletics, spend a little more of it.
Of course, you can close your eyes and hope this Paul Chryst thing works. I'm not ready to write off the guy or the program he is building. Pitt is super young and they have some talent, the recruiting has been lackluster in certain areas, but strong in others. Maybe we can trust the Pitt will have things fixed next week and compete for the division title like they are supposed to this season. Maybe this young team grows up over the next two years and the stadium starts filling up more and the team starts to win. Maybe the student section sticks around for four quarters. Maybe the local recruits pick Pitt over Penn State. Or, maybe it doesn't and we are back to SAME OLD PITT. We are back to Steve Pederson hiring jokes of coaching candidates, playing in front of 30,000 people in a rented stadium, losing to Akron, listening to Neil Diamond pretending everything is alright.
I'm sick of it, I hope the new chancellor gets sick of it soon.