Commentary: The Year That Has Been

Going back to January 1st of this year, it's been a whirlwind of events for the Pitt football program. Once things resolved on January 11, no one could have predicted that in less than one year, another bizarre set of circumstances would surround its head coaching job.

What else is there that could really happen to one program in the course of one year. The year 2011 started with Pitt firing head coach Michael Haywood, after reports came out of South Bend that he was arrested for a domestic assault on the mother of his child. Pitt fired Haywood on New Year's Day. One week later, with interim coach Phil Bennett in place, the Panthers defeated %%MATCH_4%% 27-10 in the BBVA Compass Bowl. Three days after that, Pitt introduced Todd Graham as head coach.

That's when a 12-month long infomercial, as it looks now in hindsight, began with Graham—specifically a late February 2011 meeting with the media that lasted 75 minutes. Graham talked more about his personal upbringing, his family values, his views on team discipline, character and things like players going to class. Pitt needed every bit of Graham in the public eye—every bit of good possible—following the debacle that ensued following the firing of Dave Wannstedt, how it was handled, the hiring and domestic troubles by newly hired Haywood, followed by another coaching search.

Need a reminder? Here's a few content items from that late meeting with Graham. Here's a quick refresher from that week:

Graham Talks Personnel (Feb. 15)

A New Direction In Conditioning (Feb. 16)

A New Discipline Structure (Feb. 17)—be sure to look at "The Pitt Way"

Things seemed to be clicking along. The athletic department came through with a "high-octane" campaign, promoting the head coach's personal philosophy on a fast-pace, no-huddle offense—words, as you can tell, that are engrained in every Pitt reporter and fan's mind—or anyone else that has lived in Pittsburgh during the last year. In fact, some of those billboards are still hidden in various suburbs throughout the Pittsburgh area—though you have to wonder if there are some athletic department personnel scrambling to take them down, or at least pawn them off on the next flight to Phoenix.

But never mind the high-octane stuff, the impacting the quarterback, the straining, the training—all these phrases we heard throughout the spring, into training camp in August. Expectations were set at a "high-octane" debut on September 3 against %%MATCH_8%%. Pitt won, 35-16…but it wasn't the high-octane debut that most fans expected.

Even after a 33-20 win over %%MATCH_5%%—a win where it looked like Pitt was turning the corner on some of the things Graham had preached, especially producing six turnovers in a win over Syracuse—that's when things really got interesting. The very next day, Pitt lost three assistants to %%MATCH_7%%. The day after that, former head coach Wannstedt delivered an interview on TribLive radio. He talked at length about how poorly Graham had thrown Sunseri under the bus for some of his comments, citing that Sunseri was not operating within the system. He was referring of course to giving up nine sacks over the course of 25 plays in the West Virginia game. In case you need a refresher, here is that postgame press conference:

Graham's West Virginia postgame presser

That led to a disappointing 6-6 season. But that wasn't all. It's funny, but within the last month, as we look back—perhaps there was some writing on the wall that we didn't pay close enough attention to. On November 22—three days prior to the West Virginia game—questions surfaced about whether Graham was concerned about losing assistant coaches to Rich Rodriguez. Rodriguez had been named head coach at Arizona just three days prior. Just take a look at some of these quotes from Graham three weeks ago. You can almost take the context of these quotes, and apply them here.

"Obviously, you hire good people, and sometimes you have people come after them," Graham said that day. "I want what's best for our coaches and their families, but that's not something I'm spending any time worrying about.

"That's part of the business. I can tell you this. We're a family-type atmosphere. We really pride ourself in how we take care of our staff, and the commitment we make to them; the working environment, the family atmosphere and how we're developing them mentally, physically and spiritually. I think we got a great place to work. That's all we concern ourself with. You can't worry about something you can't control."

Maybe we all should have read that second paragraph a little closer—‘that's part of the business.' Did he know then?

But, back to that win over Syracuse—a win where it looked like Pitt was turning the corner on some of the things Graham had preached, especially producing six turnovers in a win over Syracuse. Sadly, that win over Syracuse was the paramount of the season, and of the year to be quite honest. Pitt fans hoped for this high-octane approach, this "standing out of your seat" type of football. You got a 6-6 season, and you had to hope to scratch by Syracuse just to be bowl eligible. Is that what you signed up for as a fan, or even a player for that matter? Well, that's when the fun started. The very next day, Gibson, Magee and Dews wasted little time in heading for Tucson to join Rodriguez:

"I want to thank %%MATCH_10%%, %%MATCH_9%% and Tony Dews for their contributions during this past season," Graham said in a statement. "We will move expeditiously yet thoroughly in finding full-time replacements, and I know we'll have some exceptional candidates to consider. This is an opportunity for us to strengthen an already strong group of coaches and support staff."

"Moving forward, our coaches will be laser-focused on recruiting and having our team ready to play, and win, a bowl game. We've got an incredibly bright future at Pitt and I'm extremely ambitious and enthusiastic about what we can achieve."

Sources have already indicated to PantherDigest that one, Graham's ties are to the Louisiana and Dallas area, and that some coaches he had been targeting in that area weren't interesting in coming to Pittsburgh. In addition to that, there weren't many coaches with any local ties that were interested in joining him in Pittsburgh. Those sources indicate that these obstacles in finding assistants to come in were an obstacle. Therefore, to an extent, you can credit Arizona's hiring having an indirect impact on Arizona State's hiring. Again—a sign we should have been paying closer attention to.

The very next day, December 5 to be exact, former head coach Wannstedt delivered an interview on TribLive.com radio. He talked at length about how poorly Graham had thrown Sunseri under the bus for some of his comments, citing that Sunseri was not operating within the system. He was referring of course to giving up nine sacks over the course of 25 plays in the West Virginia game.

Wannstedt's comments on the TribLive.com radio show, spoke volumes. It was also quite a surprise to hear such words from Wannstedt. When it came to approaching opponents, Wannstedt was always cautious with his words—often praising opponents, complimenting coaches, etc. Not to mention, this was an NFL coach. It was surprising to hear the following words from Wannstedt, but then again he was forced out the door.

"If he was my son, he would be gone. I would pull him out of there and transfer him," Wannstedt said of Sunseri. "I'm really shocked the way people have put a microscope on this kid. It is very disappointing to me. In the NFL, you do it when a guy is making $10 million a year. You throw him under the bus and try to run him out of town.

"But not a 20-, 18-, 19-year-old college kid who had other places to go and chose to come to Pitt, and he wins a state championship there at the local high school and his father (Sal) was an All-American there. Hey, if he can't play, don't play him, but do it the right way." He didn't stop there.

"It doesn't sound like the school or the football program is giving him many options, to be quite honest with you," Wannstedt said. "I don't know enough about the details and what they are asking him to do or not do. But I do know when you get sacked nine times out of 25 plays (at the end of the West Virginia game), I guess you can put some of it on the quarterback, but anybody who knows anything about football sits back and chuckles when you read that and you are going to blame it all on the quarterback."

That led us to Wednesday, December 14. Almost a year to the day that Haywood was introduced as head coach. A year ago at this very moment, we had our focus narrowed down to two or three names—knowing that Haywood as someone who had met with University representatives.

After all that—all the drama that surrounded this program over the last year—2011 would not go by without one more public relations black eye for the University of Pittsburgh. Todd Graham was leaving—not for %%MATCH_25%%, not for %%MATCH_15%%—but for Arizona State of the Pac-12. The same Arizona State that is in the same Pac-12 South Division as %%MATCH_26%%. The same Arizona State that must compete with %%MATCH_19%%, %%MATCH_22%% and now programs such as %%MATCH_14%% that has more higher profile coaching hires in %%MATCH_12%%, Rich Rodriguez and %%MATCH_13%% Jr. That's not to say Todd Graham won't be a high-profile name. If he wins a conference, or wins a game he's not supposed to, guides the Sun Devils to a conference title or a Rose Bowl they haven't seen in 15 years, that he might not become a hot commodity.

He was lured away from Pittsburgh after a 6-6 season—a year after he preached for a year about Pitt being, of all things, a faith-based program. How can you have a faith-based program without giving your players a reason to have faith you won't bolt after one year?

I can't say I'm surprised by Graham's departure. I can't even say I'm disappointed. This is college athletics. This is the nature of the beast. And get ready, because we're not too far off from having one-year coaching tenures at all schools. Oh wait, we just saw a one-year tenure at Pitt…who am I kidding? Don't believe me? Why are coaches being canned after winning seasons, or guiding teams to mediocre Long gone are the idea of .500 seasons or 7-5 seasons being enough to save jobs, or impress fans. You can get to three bowl games in a row (evidenced by Wannstedt's departure) and be pushed out the door. Then again, with more and more bowl games popping up every year, it's further proof of how meaningless some of these bowl games are (6-7 %%MATCH_24%% team making a bowl?)

Need another example, look at %%MATCH_21%%. %%MATCH_11%%—who won at Buffalo like no one ever has—was courted by several programs during his time there. He was canned after two years at Kansas. Granted, his record and some of the lopsided scores were to blame…but to compete in the same conference as %%MATCH_23%%, %%MATCH_17%%, %%MATCH_18%% State and Oklahoma (not to mention an impressive %%MATCH_20%% team that deserves mention as well as %%MATCH_16%%). It's a sign of the shorter leash coaches are going to be on. I predict within the next decade, coaches will be on an even shorter leash than ever. At the rate things are going, don't be surprised if every coach in the country is only at a school for one year. High school programs are at that level now, it seems.

I'll give Graham credit for one thing. He's smart enough to see that direction. He saw a 6-6 season, and the reaction it generated in a football-savvy town as Pittsburgh. He took the proactive approach and got while the getting was good. He hit a gold mine in Arizona State. Tempe's a beautiful place, a gorgeous campus with top-shelf facilities. Of course, he had kind of the same thing at Pitt. The only difference is the weather. Now…since we're heading towards one-year coaching tenures, can we at least get some more honesty? If you're just there for one year, looking for the next job, just say so. You might garner some more respect, and maybe garner yourself some more job interviews. You might also be able to impress fans a little more and showcase a better attendance record for your resume. Though it wasn't the only factor, if Pitt hires someone who appear to be more of a real person--that might solve some of the ticket woes initially.

Introduced at a press conference Wednesday night, Graham promised the same expectations in his introductory press conference at Pitt 11 months and 3 days ago; preaching to an audience that sounded like a bodacious group. Instead of "the Pitt way" it was the "Sun Devil way." Other things such as "high-octane" and "fast-pace" were also talked about, not to mention character, integrity and discipline. If you want a real definition of character, take a look at any Pitt player that has tweeted or commented publicly on the situation. I don't think there's too many adults that can respond with the same level of class the way these young people have. The bad thing is, they will now be guarded from making any contact. For a second year in a row, as a result of a coaching change, we're likely looking at limited or no access during bowl preparations. Keep in mind the 2012 seniors will have had—by the time someone is hired—six head coaches during their final three season, if you include interim head coaches for the bowl games. If there's one good thing that has come out of this, it's that we've seen a tremendous display of class and loyalty on the part of the Pitt players and recruits—you know, what the program and the bigger picture should really be about.

There's your 2011 season, and your 2011 year in a nut shell, and there's still two weeks left in the year. Be careful in choosing your New Year's Resolution. Don't pick one of Graham's catch phrases—such as "The way to do anything is the way to do everything," which in hindsight was a microcosm of how he's bounced between coaching jobs, complete with similar-type introductory press conferences.

At least now, we've seen the coaches and players show their true colors in the last 24 hours—the coaches who have left, and the players who have remained loyal and committed to the program. For those Pitt fans who were disappointed in a 9-4 season in 2008, and having to spend New Year's Eve in El Paso, Texas, you can't tell me you're not longing for those good old days. It sure has to beat the way New Year's Eve events kicked off for the program this past year.


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