Mike Gottfried has been watching Pitt football intently the past few weeks, and not just because he is a former Panthers head coach. Gottfried serves as a color analyst for ESPNU, which carried the Pitt-Connecticut game last week and will cover the Pitt-Virginia game tonight at 7 p.m.
Although Gottfried could have every reason to be critical of Pitt, which fired him before the 1989 John Hancock Bowl after compiling a 26-17-2 record, he was actually quite complimentary of the Panthers in the aftermath of their 34-14 loss to UConn at Heinz Field.
“They’re close,” Gottfried said. “I saw a lot of good things. I saw a team that, if you’re preparing for them, can give you fits. When you take your starter out and replace him with a young guy, you’re going to suffer a little bit.”
That was plain to see against Michigan State, a game Gottfried studied in preparation for UConn and one he believes the Panthers should have pulled off instead of losing, 17-13, in East Lansing.
“They had that game won,” Gottfried said. “You have a series of chances to beat them. Against Michigan State, Pitt was 0 for 12 on third down and still had a chance to win that game. That’s amazing. They have to do better on third down.”
Gottfried also was complimentary of Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt for his coaching against Michigan State, giving support to the claims that the Panthers’ problems lied with execution instead of scheming.
“He had a great game plan,” Gottfried said. “They should have won that game. They were probably sitting on that team plane (afterward), thinking, ‘One thing could have won that game.'”
As expected, Gottfried is very impressed with freshman tailback LeSean McCoy, who rushed for 70 yards on 11 carries and ranks fourth in the Big East at 104.2 rushing yards a game.
“I think McCoy is a great player,” Gottfried said. “He’s fast. He’d be one of those backs where, if you’re the other coach, every time he gets the ball you hold your breath. You saw a different gear. He was moving forward while he was faking. The great ones don’t have to stop to do that.”
Surprisingly enough, Gottfried wasn’t as harsh on the quarterback play as you’d expect after freshmen Kevan Smith and Pat Bostick combined for four interceptions in a game where Pitt had six turnovers.
“Both quarterbacks were really trying hard, probably too hard. They didn’t play with a lot of confidence early,” Gottfried said. “When (Smith) threw that first interception, he stumbled to the left. He put the weight on his left foot. Maybe he lost sight of the linebacker. … He was walking on eggshells after that.”
It was, however, as obvious to Gottfried as everyone else that Smith’s struggles had an adverse effect on the Panthers’ offensive play-calling.
“The team feeds off the quarterback,” Gottfried said. “There comes a certain point where you say, ‘We can’t throw.'”
That changed once Bostick entered the game, especially with how he carried himself in the fourth quarter. Although it’s easy to critique play based on statistics, Gottfried looked at some of Bostick’s other traits.
“He settled down, showed me a strong arm and made some great throws,” Gottfried said. “The interceptions, I write off. He stood in the pocket, took hits, threw good passes, a lot of passes.”
Wannstedt is the first to admit that the game plan shouldn’t have Bostick throwing the ball 41 times for 230 yards in a half, but Gottfried believes that second-half experience will help Bostick against Virginia.
“The thing that helps him is he has played,” Gottfried said. “I think it’s better for him to be on the road. You concentrate and focus. When you’re calling the game, you say, ‘I want to put him in the best possible position to have early success.’ Virginia knows that, too.”
Gottfried sounded optimistic that Pitt, after back-to-back losses, could reverse its fortunes in Charlottesville, of all places. Sometimes, Heinz Field can be an advantage. Right now, Gottfried thinks it’s best for Pitt to be away.
“I was impressed with the defense, too,” Gottfried said. “I fully expect that they’re going to play a lot better against Virginia. For a young team, it’s better to be on the road.”
And despite a daunting schedule that could lead to a third consecutive six-loss season, Gottfried is convinced that Pitt’s program is headed in the right direction.
“I think you’ll see some signs. I really believe this team can still do some good things this year,” Gottfried said. “So many times, games are lost instead of won. These guys making mistakes are going to get older and make less mistakes. Once it starts to click, it just clicks. When you win and get that feeling you play with confidence.”
• In 1986, Gottfried inherited a Pitt team coming off a 3-7-1 record that got Foge Fazio fired. After a 5-5-1 opening season, Gottfried took Pitt to an 8-4 record and the Bluebonnet Bowl, where the Panthers lost to Texas, 32-27.
“I thought the first year was the toughest because you’re in there with players you didn’t recruit,” Gottfried said. “You have to see whether they buy into the system. The second year, they understand the system a little better.”
In his third season, Pitt went 6-5, losing the final two games to North Carolina State (14-3) and Syracuse (24-7). The next year, he was fired despite a 7-3-1 record. Paul Hackett led Pitt to a 31-28 win over Texas A&M in the John Hancock Bowl as interim coach and was promoted. Hackett went 12-21-1 in three seasons and was fired.
Gottfried thinks a coach should have his team pointed in the right direction by that third season, and used Charlie Weis at Notre Dame (0-4) as an example of a program foundering in comparison to Pitt under Wannstedt.
“Look at Notre Dame,” Gottfried said. “They’re devastated. All are different because they take on a life of their own. If you lose a quarterback like (Tyler) Palko or Brady Quinn and don’t have someone ready. Pittsburgh was in better shape at quarterback, but all of a sudden you lose (Bill) Stull (to a thumb injury).
“By the third year, you ought to be headed the right direction. I think Pitt is. I don’t think Notre Dame is.”
For that reason, Gottfried doesn’t believe that Wannstedt should be on the hot seat just yet.
“You have to give a guy four or five years to build a team, get his philosophies set in.”
• I asked Gottfried how Pitt’s search for an athletic director will affect Wannstedt’s status.
“That’s a big question,” Gottfried said. “Are they going to hire somebody from within? If they do, that’s better for the coach. If they go outside, you hope you have someone who is patient.”
Pitt’s past two ADs, Steve Pederson and Long, replaced their football coaches. The top in-house candidate is interim AD Donna Sanft, even though she denies interest in the position at the moment. Wannstedt and Sanft were classmates at Pitt, and remain on friendly terms.
“If they stay in-house, they’re better,” Gottfried said. “You know all the people. It’s like family. He can’t worry about that. He’s got to coach this football team.”
Gottfried knows what it’s like to coach under pressure, considering he was fired by the man who hired him, the late Ed Bozik. Gottfried said he still considered Bozik a friend.
“One of my regrets in life is that after I was fired, I always wanted to talk to Ed Bozik again,” Gottfried said. “I’m sorry I didn’t.”
• Some other thoughts from Gottfried:
On Virginia’s offense: “They have the best selection of tight ends, other than USC and Missouri, in the country.”
On Virginia’s program: “Al Groh is a pretty good football coach. It’s very tough to play at Wyoming. I think he’s got his team believing they can be a factor in the ACC.”
On doing Pitt games on TV: “I’ve done a bunch of Pittsburgh games. I think I did the opening game the year after I was fired.”
The difference was we were independent. I think the Big East has helped everybody. I think it’s a godsend for Cincinnati, where I also coached. With the bowl ties, if you have six or seven wins, you have a great shot of getting in.”
• For those wanting to watch the Pitt-Virginia game on ESPNU, there is some positive news. The following is a news release from ESPN, courtesy of Tilea Coleman:
“ESPN and Armstrong announced today the addition of 24-hour college sports network ESPNU to Armstrong’s Television Plus 40 channel line-up in Ohio, Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland and Kentucky. The new carriage agreement has had an immediate impact on Armstrong’s Pittsburgh-area customers who can see the Pittsburgh Panthers kickoff at Virginia at 7 p.m. Saturday on ESPNU. ESPNU is currently available to approximately 20 million households nationwide. …
“ESPNU is also available nationally through DIRECTV (Ch. 609) and DISH Network (Ch. 148).”