John Malecki has thought about this day for a long time. So has Dorin Dickerson.
When No. 14 Pittsburgh (9-2) faces No. 5 Cincinnati (11-0) Saturday at noon at Heinz Field, it will be the final home game for seniors Malecki, Dickerson and Nate Byham. And as members of Coach Dave Wannstedt's first full recruiting class in 2006, it's a day that's taken a long time to get here.
"I think they all have hung together,'' Wannstedt said. "Every story's a little different. ... But it's a close-knit group of seniors and a great group of kids. These young players, they've got to appreciate what happened around here the first couple years and the foundation that was set to give us an opportunity to be where we're at today.''
Where the program is right now would be on the verge of a 10-win regular season, the first since the 1982 Panthers led by quarterback Dan Marino also reached that mark, and it's also in line for the Big East title and BCS Bowl bid that accompanies it with a victory against the Bearcats.
"It's pretty crazy,'' Byham said. "I haven't been able to think about it too much. I've tried, but it's just kind of surreal right now. I really don't think it's going to hit me until I get out there for the last time, but it's pretty crazy. I'm not really taking it any different, though. I'm just going to ... work as hard as ever for this last game.
"The year I came in we went 6-6, and we were 5-7 my sophomore year. Then, we really started getting the program rebuilt. The guys that Coach Wannstedt recruited in my class and the other guys really played pivotal roles on offense and defense, and we finally were successful at 9-3 last year. We were happy with that season, but we still knew we could improve.
"Now, we're sitting here at 9-2, but we want more,'' Byham added. "This isn't what we want. I won't be happy if we go 9-3. I don't care if we go to a bowl game and win that to go 10-3. I didn't come here for that. I don't want to win just nine (regular-season) games. At the same time, we've still set the tone for the classes behind us. That's what happens when you build a program.''
Wannstedt talked about building a program when he arrived before the 2005 season. The Panthers were coming off five straight bowl games with a BCS game the previous year, but the recruiting needed an overhaul. So, he broke things down to build it back up, and now Pitt looks to keep reloading instead of always rebuilding.
"We talked about coming to Pitt to turn this program around by winning a championship,'' Malecki said. "A lot of us came from winning programs in high school, and we just wanted to carry that over to here. And to see how far this program has grown, from 6-6 and 5-7 to 9-3 last year and having a chance to win the Big East championship now.
"That's definitely been in our sights for a long time. It's attainable now and a blessing to be able to do what we've been talking about for the past three years. (And) I feel like the senior class, and even the younger guys who have played a lot, have seen what happened in the past. (The seniors) feel like we've made a big difference, and we're very proud of our accomplishment.''
Dickerson noted that it was nice for the seniors to finally be part of a winning program with successive nine-win seasons already recorded, but more wins and a Big East title still a possibility this year.
"It's what we wanted to play for ever since we got here, but things just didn't happen like that,'' Dickerson said. "Now, we're sitting here ... counting down to senior day. I just hope we can be victorious. We wanted to be a winning program, and we have a chance to finish the way we wanted.
"So, it would be real disappointing if we didn't finish this season out with a couple wins, against Cincinnati and in a bowl game. I don't want to have that feeling, because I've had that feeling before. That was in high school, where we got close, but didn't finish it. So, we don't want to think about that. We definitely want to finish strong this season.''
And that would be with a win against Cincinnati to go along with a BCS Bowl victory as well.
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