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On Wounded Knee

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Perhaps it was symbolic that Dave Wannstedt had an ice pack taped to his left knee after a mid-morning workout Friday at Pitt’s UPMC Sports Performance Complex.

When asked whether it was an old football injury, the Panthers coach shrugged it off and tried to straighten his slight limp. It’s about perseverance through pain.

It was a fitting way to start a discussion about Pitt football, as mental toughness quickly became a topic with Wannstedt in an interview session on the South Side.

“We’ve got to become a mentally tough team,” Wannstedt said. “The roller coaster days are over. We’ve got to change the culture, we really do.”

Despite back-to-back six-loss seasons and no bowl appearances to show for it, Wannstedt remains characteristically upbeat about Pitt’s football program. Maybe it’s because the university just delivered on a synthetic Sportexe surface to replace one of the grass fields at the outdoor facility just in time for Pitt’s summer camps.

Maybe it’s because he thinks the Panthers are ready to turn the corner. It might seem overplayed, but the hiring of Buddy Morris as strength and conditioning coach has brought a serious attitude to Pitt’s off-season program.

“I expect us to be a little better than we were,” Wannstedt said. “We’ve got to find a way to win a couple close games. Every year, we’ve been a quarter away from winning one or two more games and now you’re in the bowl-game scene. I don’t know how much of it is maturity or mental toughness, but we’re trying to address all those areas.”

If Pitt had won two games it was supposed to win – at Ohio in 2005 and at Connecticut last year, both overtime losses – the Panthers would have finished both seasons with winning records and bowl berths. The defeats might have been a blessing, given the unfair expectations that would have been placed on the 2007 team.

It shouldn’t be difficult for Pitt to be better than 5-6 or 6-6 this season, considering the Panthers’ favorable home schedule. Seven wins shouldn’t be a stretch. But it likely will require Pitt winning all of the games it is supposed to win and maybe even a close game the Panthers aren’t.

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