By the time this BBVA Compass bowl game kicks off on Saturday, Pitt could have as many as four individuals who have held the title of head coach in one month‘s time; Dave Wannstedt, Michael Haywood, a possible successor to Haywood and a possible interim coach for the bowl game. The bowl coach could be known as early as today, as Pitt will hold a media session with Dave Wannstedt at noon. An assistant such as a Phil Bennett has as good a chance of coaching the game as Wannstedt. We should know officially today.
On to Monday's version of the Big Board. In hindsight, those nine days that it took us to cover Pitt's coaching search last month doesn't look like all that long of a search. From everything that's been spinning around since Michael Haywood's dismissal on Saturday, Pitt could have its next coach in place very soon.
With Haywood coming in as a candidate coming out of left field, definitely expect a big name coming in this time. Expect Pitt to make a splash this time. They have to now. Even though Haywood's tenure was just 16 days, when he came in, Pitt's program was in place. Pitt had three consecutive winning seasons under Dave Wannstedt, and was coming off its first 10-win season in nearly 30 years. We heard the same type of propaganda before.
That didn't meet the expectation level in certain peoples' eyes, mainly the main decision-makers; athletic director Steve Pederson and Chancellor Mark Nordenberg. Wannstedt's 26 wins in three years wasn't enough. The administration was clearly unimpressed with losses on big stages, such as the ones to Miami and West Virginia in 2010. Pitt had some flexibility in bringing in an unknown like a Michael Haywood. The Pitt brass can cite the way he turned a 1-11 Miami team into an 8-4 team. Fair enough.
This time, Pitt will not have that same luxury. Even though Haywood was Pitt's head coach for all of 16 days, the bad publicity Pitt received over his arrest and is jail time is going to be an uphill climb. Chancellor Mark Nordenberg's abrupt move to fire Haywood on Saturday afternoon was a first step towards rebuilding the school and the football program's perception. We have also been informed that Nordenberg has even taken the time to meet with the team, and explain to them that they are looking to bring someone in who can relate to them well and ease in the transition.
While the rest of the country was watching the bowl games that were on for nearly 12 hours on Saturday, how many times did a Michael Haywood headline come across the ticker on the bottom of the TV screen? Not exactly what Pitt fans had in mind for being on TV on January 1. Think of the bad publicity generated by Haywood's arrest as being the equivalent of three 2-10 seasons filled with NCAA violations and countless off-the-field incidents. Despite everything in place with Pitt's current roster, the 26 wins over the last three seasons and everything Dave Wannstedt and his staff worked hard for have taking a major hit by the events that happened in South Bend, Indiana on Friday. There's a lot of repair-work needed. The program, all of a sudden, needs its image re-shaped.
In addition to finding someone who can rebuild the program's perception, Pitt also needs that person to be a big name with a strong reputation, in addition to someone who can bring in the same traits that Pitt wanted the first time around--someone who is a gamer, someone who has a track record of success. More than ever, Pitt needs the total package in this next hire. They are not going to be able to sell the idea of an up-and-comer. They need a name. It can be a top assistant with a name, but they won't be able to sell someone the way they promoted Haywood in the early-goings. Not to say that another up-and-comer will go off and have another incident like Haywood did the other day, but for the sake of its fans and its image, Pitt needs a name.
There may be few names on that list, but based on conversations we've had with a number of sources, a lot of focus is being put heavily on two of these candidates, with a couple of other candidates on the outside.
TOM BRADLEY, Defensive Coordinator, Penn State
The first wave struck with this name on Sunday morning, when Penn State head coach Joe Paterno issued the following statement, when asked about Tom Bradley being a candidate for the Pitt head coaching job. Paterno met with a group of media on Sunday morning following the Outback Bowl. When questioned about Bradley's candidacy at Pitt, Paterno responded positively.
"He should be a very, very strong candidate," Paterno told reporters. "He's a good recruiter, a good coach. He's organized. He certainly deserves consideration."
Paterno has always been guarded, and even in the few instances of coaches coming and going, hasn't always been forthcoming with information. When he issued his endorsement of Bradley--not only as someone who would make a good head coach, but someone who would do a great job if put in the position at Pitt--it's one of the most complementary things he has ever said towards Pitt. His outgoingness towards naming Bradley in conjunction with Pitt's opening should be a sign that he is either ready to see Bradley move on, or that he is hopeful that Pitt is wise enough to interview Bradley this time around.
In addition to Paterno's endorsement, our sources have indicated that there is mutual interest this time between Bradley and Pitt. The question is, where does Pitt go from here, and how long would it take to get Bradley in place? And, is he the top target? Our sources tell us he is one of the top targets, but is he the one that is being zeroed in on the way Haywood was. That much, we do not know at this time, but could have a better idea of by the end of today. The shock value of a Penn State assistant coach being on Pitt's campus--even for a daily stroll, let alone a job interview, would send shock waves. That, according to our sources, could happen as early as Tuesday.
Bradley's name surfaces for a variety of reasons--his local ties to Pittsburgh, his 32-year tenure as a Penn State assistant, but the one area where he can have an impact immediately is recruiting. Not only has Bradley been successful in western Pennsylvania for a number of years, but he is familiar with a number of the same players Pitt was recruiting. Given the short-turnaround--the 25 days to be exact between the end of the BBVA Compass Bowl and National Letter of Intent Day, Pitt needs someone familiar with enough recruits, to guarantee ten commits right off the bat. With his geographical ties--not just to Pennsylvania--Bradley can use his ties to give Pitt's 2011 class a nice base.
TODD GRAHAM - Tulsa Head Coach
We have also learned that Tulsa's field general is high on the wish list; not necessarily as a second-choice candidate, but a "1A" type of candidate. Graham has an impressive resume in a short time period. The only knock against him, is that while he has taken Tulsa to three Conference USA championship games in his four seasons at the helm, he has not taken them to a conference championship. For a program like Pitt, looking to get to the next level, and looking for a coach that can win the big game, Graham falls short of that expectation only in that he has never won a championship game. He does have a four-year record of 36-17 at Tulsa with three first-place finishes in Conference USA's West Division.
This past year, Tulsa lost the tie-breaker to SMU, and missed its chance for a spot in the Conference USA Championship game. The other two tries--in 2007 and 2008, the Golden Hurricane lost to UCF and East Carolina, respectively. If he were to come to the Big East, he wouldn't have to worry about winning a conference championship game--just winning out the regular season, something that based on the number of teams in Conference USA‘s West Division, would be the equivalent of winning out the Big East regular season.
You certainly can't take away Graham's track record, along with the system he runs. He's a defensive-minded coach who worked his way up the coaching ranks, before being given his first shot as at the Division I level in 2001, when he was hired to coach the linebackers. The next year, he was promoted to co-defensive coordinator, before moving on to being defensive coordinator at Tulsa from 2003-2005. He went to Rice for his first head-coaching gig, where in just one season in 2006, he led the Owls to a win in the Texas Bowl. He came back to Tulsa for the following season as head coach, where he has been ever since then.
Aside from his system, Graham has a good track record of not only making wise decisions in hiring his assistants, but also developing them and putting them in a chance to be hired for bigger and better opportunities. He hired Major Applewhite as his offensive coordinator at Rice in 2006. Applewhite went on to become the assistant head coach for running backs at Texas two years later. Graham also hired Gus Malzahn to be his offensive coordinator for the first two years of his tenure at Tulsa. Malzahn left to become Auburn's offensive coordinator, where he has been for the last two seasons. His name has been linked to several coaching openings over the last month. Perhaps just as attractive as his game day decisions are how he has a knack for picking the right people to be on his staff, develop them where they're coveted for other jobs. It might hurt Pitt in some aspects, but any assistant worth anything is going to get offers down the road. It's a small price to pay for being strong program. The really good programs have long-standing track records of churning out successful assistant coaches who go on to have successful coaching careers.
Then there are a few names in the mix that are up there, but don't seem as strong as Graham or Bradley:
MARVIN LEWIS - Cincinnati Bengals Head Coach
Technically, Lewis is still the Bengals' head coach. However, if the motive is still to go a different direction with the program, then why would the Pitt administration even give Lewis a look?
We did, however, receive conflicting information from some different sources on Sunday that Lewis was either indeed on the short list, or indeed not a candidate at all. Therefore, we're not going to put him in the class of a Bradley or a Graham just yet. In addition to that, he's still employed by the Bengals for the moment.
The one thing going for him, is that in addition to being a Pitt guy, Lewis' 4-12 record this past season was better than Dave Wannstedt's final 1-8 start to the 2004 season with the Miami Dolphins. If there's any translation between how NFL coaches who might have have succeeded as well, succeed better in college--by that theory, Lewis would produce more wins than Wannstedt did.
TERYL AUSTIN - Florida defensive coordinator
He's still out there. Perhaps now that Florida's bowl game is over, not only can Will Muschamp fill out the rest of his Florida staff, but Austin can figure out if he indeed is staying on at Florida, or if he is a candidate for the Texas defensive coordinator position. Tennessee defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox was a candidate for that job, but went on record--a rare thing these days with coaching searches of the head and assistant variety--saying he was happy to be staying put at Tennessee.
Muschamp added six assistants to his Florida staff yesterday, and the Texas defensive coordinator position is still open--once thought to be Austin's. There's been interest in Pitt from Austin before. With Pitt taking a different route in this next coaching search, will they reach out to Austin this time around, after there was some interest from his camp last time? On the other side, will Austin still consider Pitt if he is contacted?
SAL SUNSERI - Alabama Assistant Head Coach/Linebackers
The chances of Sunseri even getting an interview appear to be even more slim than they were in December. Sources close to him say that at least his agent expressed an interest on his behalf, but he was not taken into account as a candidate.
When contacted on Sunday, a member of Alabama's media relations department informed us that Sunseri was spending time with his family in Florida following Alabama's bowl game. Sunseri has made an impact on Alabama's program in his short time there. Based on the level of contact from some of the other candidates as opposed to him, it's not looking like he's going to get contacted this time around.