The Times West Virginian

December 9, 2010

HERTZEL COLUMN: Brawl losses played role in Pitt firing

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — Now they’re even.

It took a while, but as West Virginia University football fans arose on Wednesday morning, they did so with a little livelier bounce in their step, with a bit more of a gleam in their eye.

The score had been fully settled for 2007 with their Backyard Brawl neighbors to the north.

Pitt was now heading to a bowl game with an interim or lame duck coach, just as West Virginia had done in 2007.

And the Panthers were doing so for exactly the same reason it had happened at WVU — losing to their rival.

Pitt’s football coach, Dave Wannstedt, was gone and in no small part it was because he lost his final game to West Virginia, a humiliation of one-sided domination by the Mountaineers.

First, let us go back to 2007. West Virginia stood on the precipice of not only a undisputed Big East championship but a national championship, needing only to beat the Panthers in the season’s final game to qualify.

They were favored by three touchdowns and a field goal, playing at home. This was going to be the greatest Backyard Brawl of them all … and it was, but only for the wrong team.

Pitt won, keeping coach Rich Rodriguez from being declared an official asset of his home state, West Virginia, to only part of that. Instead of being bronzed, he was tarred and feathered. Unable or unwilling to face the situation, he ran a bootleg to Michigan, leaving his Mountaineers without a coach for a bowl date with Oklahoma.

We all know what transpired, the Mountaineers upsetting the Sooners under Billy Stewart, landing Stewart the head coaching job, where he has been a winning coach, if not a popular one, while Rodriguez has been skewered in Michigan and seems on the verge of losing his job there.

As we return to the present, however, Wannstedt’s exit as Pitt’s coach is dripping in irony.

Wannstedt’s dismissal was announced as a resignation, a resignation Nixonian in its scope.

Like Rodriguez, Wannstedt had played at the school in which he coached. Like Rodriguez he had started slowly and built the program to the point that a year ago he had won 10 games.

And like Rodriguez, he couldn’t beat his big rival when he had to on his home field.

If he had, Pitt would have probably won the Big East and gone to the Fiesta Bowl.

Instead it was invited to something called the BBVA Compass Bowl, an interestingly named bowl because it seems Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson felt that Wannstedt had lost his way.

Wannstedt came into the season coaching the overwhelming Big East favorite, the ink not yet dried on a four-year contract extension. Even on the day of his resignation he didn’t know he was going to resign. According to the Post-Gazette, he had a recruiting visit planned for Tuesday night after having met with several of his staff members about assignments in the morning.

Wannstedt had won 41 and lost 32, which wasn’t exactly Urban Meyerish, but it was a winning record and he was one of the teams that shared the Big East title this year.

The problem was the 41 teams he beat weren’t the right ones,

especially West Virginia. The Mountaineers beat Pitt in 2009 on Tyler Bitancurt’s last-second field goal and then ran over and around them on the Panthers’ home field this season in a game that Wannstedt himself knew was crucial.

“Combine the fact that we’re trying to win a championship with the emotion of the Backyard Brawl and the history of this game ... it makes for a lot electricity, that’s for sure,” Wannstedt said before the game.

You might say after losing it Wannstedt was sentenced to the “electric chair.”

And strange, wasn’t it, that it came just a couple of weeks after rumors circulated that Bill Stewart would announce his “resignation” at West Virginia and move into the athletic department, just as Wannstedt did. Could it have been the right rumor, just the wrong coach, or was Stewart’s strong denial of the rumor totally meaningless because he, like Wannstedt, had been kept in the dark about his impending resignation?

And so it is that Pitt is in the market for a coach and there have already been “reports” circulating that Rodriguez could be considered for the job when — not if — Michigan and he part ways.

Reality, they say, is stranger than fiction, so you cannot totally discount such a “report,” but even the wildest imagination cannot grasp Rodriguez winding up running the program he once hated.

No one could deny, however, if that were the path the gods choose to send Rodriguez, football would be more fun than ever around these parts and the next Backyard Brawl would be as classic a football game as ever has been played.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.