I received this letter in an email the other day and wanted to share it with you all as soon as possible. This was written by a friend of mine who is a long-time Pitt supporter and a graduate so as an alumni he has a large spot in his heart for the University. I think he makes some excellent points and I think this is something we all should read…
I just read your latest POV article, and several thoughts occurred to me based on over 60 years of following Pitt athletics; graduating from Pitt in undergrad, and personally knowing a great many of the most illustrious of Pitt’s athletes. Yes, I go back to even EJ’s Dad and Freddie Cox being classmates.
During my days in Pittsburgh, Pitt was highly respected as a private university with far higher entrance requirements than other known major colleges such as Penn State and WVU, etc. Those playing sports at Pitt in those days were genuine scholar-athletes who had to play both sides in football.
Look at the wonderful guys from the 1963 football team and you would see a great many academic and career successes from lawyers, dentists, doctors, engineers, etc. You also would see that quite a few players were drafted by the NFL and AFL but chose to pursue their careers rather than professional sports. I went to law school with some of them and used to be with them in the Tuck Shop and more.
Unfortunately, time has not been kind to Pitt after the 1983 season. Yes, there was the misery from 1966 until Johnny Majors arrived through the help of great guys I knew such as John Konomikes. Pitt’s constant internal feuding between the academic wunderkind brought in by Chancellor Litchfield who bankrupted Pitt to build extensively both in buildings and highly regarded academics to mirror an Ivy League school and the weak leadership of the athletic department resulted in a civil war.
Pitt would resemble a golf cart with a bad battery jerking from one second to the next, never sure that you would arrive anywhere. That appears to have been changing since Nordenberg retired.
Chancellor Gallagher has a more modernistic business model of recognizing the value of marketing via athletics to establish a stronger brand for the university. This would not be necessary if Pitt were emulating an Ivy League university as the academics would be the major focus and reputation of the school. But, in a world where you are competing outside of a pure academic profile, such as a Stanford or UCLA or Notre Dame, you need to utilize every tool at hand to make your brand (The University of Pittsburgh) stand out to solicit alumni and corporate support for your programs and growth.
Remember, any business not interested in growth is a business bound to be vulnerable to changing demands. So, the foundation at Pitt has changed, at last. Gallagher recognizes that athletics really is the “front porch” or blinking neon sign that draws casual bystanders to recognize the brand and want more information. So, what I am saying is that Pitt Athletics is a way to enhance the image, the student body, the marketplace, and the corporate participation.
Having said all this, we have seen two recent Athletic Directors brought to Pitt. It is too early to say the true effectiveness of either, aside from those who continually carp about this and that. What is significant is that both have recognized the need for a greater overall plan and long-range planning for Pitt Athletics. Perhaps, it is too much to hope but a little patience and allowance for the current Athletic Director to make the necessary moves that will foretell her (edit: Heather Lyke) strengths or weaknesses rather than pile on immediately should be the approach.
As for the coaching of Pitt football and Pitt basketball, there have been quite a few changes. Allow me more digression on these changes.
Walt Harris frankly wore out his welcome with Pitt as he was not a good interactor with the local high school coaches and others in the media. He had no prior head coaching experience of any consequence as he was a quarterback coach at Ohio State. Yes, he recognized some good offensive skill players, but was woeful in recruiting OL, and the entire defense.
It seemed that Pitt appreciated his offenses (despite the disaster of toying with a spread offense that no one seemed to understand). But there was from fans and administration alike a feeling that Pitt was treading water at not the top levels they hoped to achieve. We know Walt wasn’t being renewed, despite his agent’s faux pas.
Dave Wannstedt was popular with us old timers, not because of his NFL days, but he played at Pitt, coached at Pitt with Jimmy Johnson, and gave freely of his time and money to raise more money for Pitt. Nordenberg was very grateful for such alumni support and willingness to help at every request. How did Dave do?
Well, not so hot at first and the cries went up from his being so likable that kids wanted to sign up and play for him, but he was a terrible game day coach who was his reputation in the NFL. Would DW have stayed forever, perhaps?
Of course, not many of those writing about Pitt football (I mean both the media and the fans who cry crocodile tears to have DW back) remember the insults hurled at Wannstedt, his wife and family even in the elevators at Heinz Field accusing him of being a terrible coach who should be fired. Dave Wannstedt is a Pittsburgh guy through and through who loved his school and the football program.
But, he was undone by the actions of some of those players he recruited. People seem to forget the articles about Pitt football being so high in the number of arrests? It wasn’t a pretty time.
Heyward. Enough of that subject which was a huge embarrassment for Pitt.
Todd Graham, he was a highly rumored to be a great football coach. He was on almost all top ten recruiting lists for a new head coach. Pitt upped their pay scale to get him and made promises. Maybe he knew, or maybe he thought, he could reshape the team into the type of players needed to play his spread offense. Well, you can’t get lumbering OL who were recruited to be road graders into being stallions able to pull and sweep but really quick to pass block.
He quickly seemed to realize that he was in a terrible situation which would require many years to recruit the types of players he needed. At what risk to him? His coaching reputation would take a huge hit, and he decided to quit and get out-of-town asap.
Yes, he took a hit for his classless manner of handling things, but he preserved his coaching reputation by the move he made. I don’t respect him for what he did, but I understand why he did it.
Now we come to Pat Narduzzi, who was acclaimed as perhaps the top assistant coach in the nation. Again, Pitt went into uncharted territory in coaching pay and incentives. What has been the result? It hasn’t been a powerful, fierce, and fast defense. It has been a Big Ten program approach with the pro set offense while the defense is being recruited to play what the type of defense that Narduzzi believes works best. It takes time.
If there is any justification for whining, perhaps it is with the defensive coaching. Is Josh Conklin really able to be a strong DC? Is the DB coach getting through to the kids? We don’t know the real answer yet but we haven’t seen immediate hopeful change. Maybe in a couple more games, something will give up defensive hope?
In conclusion, The University of Pittsburgh has invested more than it ever has in the athletic program, the coaches, enticements, and publicity. Maybe Pitt football and basketball fans should realize that efforts are being made to strengthen all Pitt athletic programs.
Will Pitt ever match the publicity of Penn State? NO! It is impossible due to: (1) the great contracts of the Big 10 for bowls and payouts; (2) the comparative sizes of Pitt being so much smaller in students than PSU; (3) a local media that is not dominated by Pitt graduates; (4) a marketplace largely devoted to the Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins.
Pittsburgh has been a city dominated for decades by blue-collar workers in the heavy industries who found their “university” in the Steelers and other professional sports. It is similar to living in Florida wherein the older communities that lack a heavy preponderance of college graduates instead have “Retired US Army etc.” signage, stickers, license plate holders, and mugs.
Please note that if this grand experiment by the University of Pittsburgh to increase spending, promotion, merchandising and building football and basketball into a highly respected annual contender fails then you may well see Pitt duplicating the old Carnegie Tech model of downgrading athletics and focusing purely on its academic side which has not hurt Carnegie Mellon one iota.
Carnegie Mellon today is nationally recognized as one of the premiere top twenty-five universities in the country. Pitt can do the same and more as it has outstanding graduate and professional programs.
Remember, there comes a day for all people, businesses, and enterprises to re-evaluate their long-range plans, finances, and aspirations.