Gephart: In the Dawg House

Here is another column from the PantherDigest columnist Steve Gephart, on the odds and ends of Pitt sports and the world of college football.

For some Pitt fans the most recent college football season was officially put to sleep way back on Thanksgiving night. That was when the regular season came to a final hideous thud with a blowout loss against West Virginia in Morgantown. A crushing defeat to the Mountaineers left Pitt with only five wins and ineligible for a bowl game for the first time in 6 years. Certainly not an exciting end considering we've all become accustomed to bowl appearances in the last five years leading up to this season.

But to the Dawg, the season is most definitely NOT over…at least not just yet.

That is because I'm still excited about Pitt football, now more than ever. What gets me so fired up is the fact that a day is approaching that could end up as one of the most important days in the history of Pitt football. The day I'm referring to is less than three weeks away from now. It's a day that many die hard fans are hoping will erase the bad memories of this dreaded 2005 football campaign. And any of those fans who spend a considerable amount of time here on know exactly what day I am talking about.

LOI day…

It's officially the first day of February, and more importantly the first day high school seniors can sign a letter of intention to play football for a college program of their choice – provided the recruit holds a scholarship offer from that school. This year's signing day is particularly special since Pitt is set to assemble one of its best and most complete incoming classes ever. It's no secret that Dave Wannstedt's first class is currently ranked #8 by the Scout Network. It was never more apparent to me that this class would be special than when I was watching the All American Bowl this past Saturday.

Nothing made the Dawg more proud than seeing two future Panthers lined up for the East squad in this high school all-star game. But, it wasn't Dorin Dickerson and Nate Byham's performances during the game that had me so excited, not that either played disappointingly. To the contrary, Dickerson had two very nice catches in limited action and Byham's exceptional blocking was praised several times by NBC's announcing crew.

What impressed the Dawg most about these two prized recruits was the way they carried themselves personally the whole week leading up to, during, and after the game.

Bob Lichtenfels' outstanding coverage of the event gave Panther Digest members the rare opportunity to learn a lot more about Dickerson and Byham. What I appreciated most about both future Panther was not only their genuine enthusiasm for the chance to play in the prestigious game, but also their unwavering loyalty to Pitt, the new coaching staff, and most importantly their families. Both players easily expressed their excitement about the opportunity to attend Pitt and stay close to home, especially so their loved ones would have the opportunity to see them play more often the next few years.

As promising as both these young men are as players, it is their modesty and cordiality that should have Pitt fans excited the most. They demonstrated a fine understanding of the importance and excitement that a healthy and successful Pitt football teams brings to the local community. They also expressed all week something that should be even more impressive to Panther fans: a respect for the great tradition of Pitt football and the desire to make it a respected program once again…regardless of this year's disappointing season.

Sure this may be starting to sound like a syrupy and fluffy story about two high school players who haven't even proved themselves at the next level yet…but I promise it's not.

The real reason the Dawg is bringing this up is because Pitt has been missing something the last few years…and it wasn't wins. Walt Harris brought plenty of wins and bowl appearances to the program the last few years and he deserves much praise for his success.

What Harris' regime really lacked was a true passion for the tradition and history of Pitt's football program.

In fact, it was Harris' agent himself who offered the opinion that it was Pitt that was lucky to have someone of his caliber as its head coach, and not the other way around. Harris never felt the need to distance himself from those scathing comments of his employer, and there were obvious signs his last few years here that he felt exactly the same way.

Unfortunately it seems possible maybe even some of own his players started to adopt that philosophy as well. There is no debating Pitt needed an infusion of talent when Wannstedt came on as head coach, but it was very obvious the program also needed a whole new attitude as well. The pride of being a part of the Pitt legacy seemed to be lost on many of the players brought in under Walt Harris, a man with no real connections to the University of Pittsburgh before being named the head coach of its football team back in 1997.

So it is VERY heartening to see two players of Dickerson and Byham's caliber to remain so enthusiastic about coming to play for the Panthers and Coach Wannstedt. In a year where many young men flip-flopped week-to-week on what schools they planned to commit to, it's refreshing that Pitt's two biggest recruits seem so dedicated to the program for the long term. No big time surprises on national TV on where they are going, no decommitting at the first sign of trouble, something we seemed to see more and more at the end of Harris' time in Oakland. These two players are excited to become Panthers more for what they plan to do to make this program better than for what Pitt football can do for them.

It's not only commendable, but it's a very good sign for the future of the program.

That's the reason everyone (including the administration and the athletic department) wanted Dave Wannstedt as the head coach in the first place…to recruit young talented players who WANT to be Panthers. If it was a matter of wins and losses, Harris would still be the head coach at Pitt. Sure, the success might be there on the field, but all the best local talent wouldn't be. And although Pitt might have continued to win a minor bowl here and there, they certainly would never have competed consistently for a Big East Championship and BCS berth under Harris either. Not when the best talent in your backyard is leaving in droves to play for those heavyweights from the other BCS conferences, most notably the Big 10.

Some might say Wannstedt should be pursuing even more blue chip recruits than he already does. That Penn State's class will have caught up to and even pass Pitt's in the Scout team rankings. As for me, I'm more than happy to have the class we already have: young players who stuck by Pitt when the team was down and their stock was rising. I call it "Panther Pride" and it appears to be something that Dave Wannstedt's team will fully embrace and exude.

Now that's something to be excited about…

In the Dawg House: What's up with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Sports Mailbag?

Believe me, the Dawg already knows all about the theories that the paper is anti-Pitt, and is so for a variety of reasons. A lot of them are nothing more than message board banter, so it's hard to know for sure what the truth is. But it's also hard to argue against the anti Pitt slant when the paper continues to publish some of the horrible drivel they have in this fan forum the last few weeks.

It has been inexcusable.

If you haven't noticed, whoever selects the letters to be published in the Mailbag has a penchant to pick any note that conveniently bashes either Pitt and/or Head Coach Dave Wannstedt. One letter conveniently pointed out Dave's shortcomings as a head coach in the NFL (conveniently exempting all the positives) and another described the "laughter" around the city of Pittsburgh regarding Wannstedt's assertions that the best players will soon be coming to Pitt.

Now I understand that not every opinion I have is shared by others. And I definitely understand there are some out there who have a poor opinion of Pitt and its current head coach. Nor do I expect to see every story written by the Gazette to be propaganda for the Pitt Panthers. But, what I find most interesting is that whoever selects the articles that appear in this column always finds a way to slam the local university while at the same time treat that familiar Big 10 program to the east of the Oakland with kid gloves.

I find it hard to believe that no one wrote to slam Joe Paterno for his controversial remarks about Florida State linebacker A.J. Nicholsen and his recent suspension before the Orange Bowl. I also find it hard to believe the harshest criticism of Penn State is a mild letter suggesting Pitt drop Penn State in basketball since it's not a competitive series anymore. But the final straw was publishing a letter criticizing the Gazette for consistently taking cheap shots at Pitt's program followed by a letter taking cheap shots at the programs!

To the Dawg, that was taking it too far.

So for this week, the person who selects the letters for the Sports Mail Bag…You ARE IN the DAWG HOUSE!

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