Steve Pederson was introduced as Pitt’s athletic director today, five years after he left for the same position at the University of Nebraska, and promised to focus his energies on improving the football program.
“Leaving here five years ago was the hardest professional decision that we have ever made,” said Pederson, accompanied by his wife, Tami. “Coming back this time was the easiest decision we have ever made.”
Pederson, 50, headed Pitt’s athletic department from October 1996 until December 2002, when he returned to his alma mater. Pederson was fired by Nebraska Oct. 15, following the football team’s 45-14 loss to Oklahoma State, its worst home loss in almost 50 years.
He had received a five-year contract extension in July with a $500,000 annual salary with additional incentives, and had a buyout worth more than $2 million. His contract terms with Pitt were not announced.
Under Pederson’s watch, Pitt made major changes to its athletic department and facilities, focusing primarily on the struggling football program.
The Panthers unveiled new school colors and football uniforms, razed Pitt Stadium and built the Petersen Events Center in its place, moved the football facilities to the UPMC Sports Performance Complex on the South Side and began playing home games at Heinz Field. Pederson said no radical changes are necessary this time.
“This is a different place than it was in 1996,” Pederson said. “The university has skyrocketed. It’s spectacular. The athletic department is a very outstanding athletic department. But we think there is more to be done, and I believe there are no limits to what can be done at the University of Pittsburgh. It’s a unique and special place, and we’re excited to look to the future.”
In his six years at Pitt, Pederson was responsible for hiring Walt Harris as football coach, Ben Howland as men’s basketball coach and Traci Waites as women’s basketball coach. Howland turned the Panthers into a Big East force, winning a school-record 29 games and reaching the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament in 2002, while Harris led Pitt to four bowl berths in six seasons and a top-25 ranking.
“Steve led our program through a period of unprecedented progress,” Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg said. “This period was shaped by his ambition and his vision, but it was characterized by high accomplishment.
“Most visible, of course, was the stunning transformation of our athletic facilities. But this also was a period in which our teams performed at dramatically higher levels, our national attention was reignited, our fan interest and attendance soared, programs for the overall development of student-athletes were strengthened, fundraising records were set, enviable sponsorship agreements were reached and uncompromising standards of institutional integrity were maintained.”
Pederson replaces Jeff Long, who left Pitt in September to become the head of the athletic department at the University of Arkansas.
“Christmas came early for the Panther faithful today,” said ESPN college football analyst Beano Cook, a former Pitt sports information director. “Steve Pederson saved Pitt athletics the first time he was here. Now, like Grover Cleveland, he returns to the office where he belongs. All Pitt fans should thank Santa Claus – and Mark Nordenberg – for this early gift.”