When asked about Big East Conference officiating despite dubious penalties in games against Virginia, Rutgers and West Virginia, Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt has done his best to downplay his disgust with the topic.
Not that he hasn’t complained to the proper authorities.
“The concerns that I had and have concerning officials in the Big East Conference, I have addressed those with our commissioner, Mike Tranghese,” Wannstedt said Thursday at his season-end media session. “Him and I have had conversations, and I’m very confident that they will be addressed at the proper time. Nothing is being overlooked.”
Except the near-travesty at West Virginia, which appeared to benefit from several suspicious second-half calls with a BCS Championship Game berth on the line. Pitt pulled off a 13-9 upset victory over the No. 2 Mountaineers, and Wannstedt avoided criticizing the calls.
“You come down here, and you have to overcome a lot of things to win,” Wannstedt said after the game. “Obviously the crowd and everything going on and the hype and there were some situations we had to overcome during the game, some critical penalties. The guys just never, ever gave in.”
Neither did the officials, who whistled receiver Oderick Turner for two holding penalties – one of which negated a LeSean McCoy touchdown run – but kept their flags in their pockets when Turner was mugged in the open field.
“The refs made the calls they made,” Turner said. “If that’s what they believe was the right call, I have nothing against them at all. I can’t say nothing about it. The game’s over.”
Wannstedt already had received an apology from Tranghese following the Rutgers game, when Turner was flagged for offensive pass interference on what could have been a game-tying touchdown reception in the final seconds of a 20-16 loss in Piscataway, N.J.
The same crew that did the Rutgers game had handled the Pitt-Virginia game, and Wannstedt warned conference officials of his concerns beforehand, but to no avail. Yet, true to his NFL roots and perhaps leery of a fine, Wannstedt has steered clear of pulling a Mike Leach and publicly admonishing the Big East’s officiating.
“Everybody is going to complain about officiating,” Wannstedt said. “I think you always have to be good enough to overcome it. There’s going to be some missed calls, some judgment calls. I think the repeated ones … just like a player that’s a repeater with penalties, there’s no solution except that he can’t play. I think you’ve got to look at officials and if there’s repeated misses, they can’t survive. You can’t have that.
“(Big East associate commissioner) Nick Carparelli and the commissioner, they’re well aware of that and they’re doing everything they can to get it corrected.”
A call to the Big East this week merited a response that such concerns are handled internally, and Big East officials didn’t responded to an interview request to address the officiating at the Pitt-WVU game.
Wannstedt dismissed the conspiracy theory that the Big East wanted West Virginia to win so it would have a member in the BCS Championship Game and instructed its officials to make calls that favored the Mountaineers.
“That was not even a factor going into the game, in my mind,” he said.
Then again, Wannstedt has reason to bite his tongue. He will continue to coach in the Big East and has to deal with its front-office types, as well as its officiating crews.
Fifth-year senior right tackle Mike McGlynn doesn’t.
“We knew coming into the game that the Big East, they were going to try to get a team in the national championship,” McGlynn said. “They tried. Didn’t happen.”
* Wannstedt also discussed the following topics:
* Staff changes. Wannstedt doesn’t appear in any hurry to make wholesale changes, if any, to his coaching staff.
“I’m looking at things we can improve on,” Wannstedt said. “As the next week or two go on, we’ll have some discussions and see what we can improve and how. The focus has really been on just recruiting the first two weeks.”
Seven Pitt assistants hit the recruiting trail Monday, including offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh and offensive line coach Paul Dunn, who have been subject to speculation because of the Panthers’ offensive woes.
Is there an impending staff shakeup?
“I wouldn’t even comment on that right now,” Wannstedt said. “I’ve got a very good staff. You’re always looking to improve. When I catch my breath, I’ll sit down and see what we need to do and how we need to do it.”
* Contract extension. That Wannstedt’s deal was extended three years, through 2012, gives him the security to assure recruits that he will be their coach. By extending him the university sent a message that it is making a commitment to the football program’s long-term future.
“That hasn’t come up with me, but I know how parents feel. I wouldn’t want a kid to make a decision to go to Pitt just because of me, but I think the head coach is a major part of it,” Wannstedt said. “The commitment I make to these moms and dads know, that I’m going to be responsible for their sons and how they are going to be treated.
“I think parents want to know that. They know my personality. They can come in here and talk to other players, talk to parents of players and get a feel for how I handle situations, am I going to support their son, am I going to handle their son through tough times. That’s all part of the decision-making thing. It’s a comfort zone.”
Pitt could fire Wannstedt today, if it felt so inclined. But the university was at a crossroads where, for perception’s sake, it had to either extend Wannstedt or hang him out to dry the way it did with Walt Harris in 2004.
Harris had compiled a star-studded recruiting class that February, but it fell apart when Pitt refused to extend Harris’ contract after the 2003 season. He had three years remaining, but recruits questioned whether he was staying.
In the aftermath of the West Virginia win, the extension certainly looks like a smart move.
“That was definitely big, one of the biggest things for a program, knowing that your coach is going to be there,” McCoy said. “You don’t have to worry about anything. We know he’s not going anywhere. We had a rough season. Some people get to talking, what if this or that. When the head man is going to be there, it ends that. It makes everything better, just knowing that.”
* Four losses by seven points or less. What is going to eat at Wannstedt is that the Panthers failed to score inside their opponents’ 10-yard line in four of their seven defeats.
The percentages of scoring inside the red zone are high, and even higher the closer to the goal line. That Pitt came away empty-handed in all four games practically defies the odds, and is the difference between a five-win season and a seven-win season, between a bowl game and staying home.
“You’ve got to win the ones you’re supposed to win,” Wannstedt said. “As you get better, you’ll be expected to win more games and you’ll play better in more games. When you play better, you’ll win them.”
Even though this was Pitt’s first seven-loss season after losing six in each of his first two campaigns, Wannstedt believes Pitt showed signs of progress from last year.
“No question,” Wannstedt said. “Yes, and I think the opportunity to win games was there. Unfortunately, when you’re playing with a young quarterback you’re handcuffed more than ever, but our defense is playing better than it’s ever been, our kickers are kicking the ball as good as we have, our running game is better than it’s been. We’re definitely a better team. We still have a few flaws and we’ve got to find a way to get those corrected.”
* It says here that one of the keys to beating West Virginia was that Pitt players had made so many costly mistakes over the course of the season that they were prepared for almost every imaginable scenario by the end.
For example, McCoy’s fumble at Louisville helped him learn to better protect the ball in the fourth quarter. Cornerback Kennard Cox getting burned on a double move against Rutgers prevented it from happening again when covering Darius Reynaud on the final series.
“I would hope that that’s the truth,” Wannstedt said. “You’d like to think as a coach that you do learn and improve, but I think the most important thing that you learned coming out of that game Saturday was that you can do it and overcome great odds if you play together as a team.”
Wannstedt has another theory:
“You have to play this game in a very gray area between confidence and fear,” he said. “I think that’s we play on defense; if we miss a tackle, it’s over. There’s no room for error. The sense of urgency for 60 minutes was a little bit of, ‘I know I can make the tackle, but I have to. If I miss, it could be: Game. Over.
“You almost have to play every game like that, in that gray area. The minute you put your guard down, you think you figured it out, you get hit in the mouth. Watching the tape of West Virginia and the experiences we had with this group the last couple years not being successful, our kids knew there was a sense of urgency. It was not over until the final gun.”
* Scott McKillop. One day after becoming a unanimous first-team All-Big East Conference selection, the redshirt junior middle linebacker was named to the Scout.com All-America team after leading the nation at 12.58 tackles per game.
“That’s an incredible accomplishment, to go from first year starting to first-team All-American,” Wannstedt said. “That is outstanding, and his numbers back up his play – and he’s not on a 10-win team. There are a lot of things going against him, and to overcome them and to receive that type of national recognition is really a great accomplishment for him and for our program.”
Not only was McKillop productive on the field, Wannstedt said he filled a valuable role off the field by becoming a respected locker room leader.
“It’s funny. In training camp, there were some freshmen pranks going on in the locker room. I was trying to get some information on it and put an end to it,” Wannstedt said. “I mentioned it to the team, and the guy that stepped up and took a leadership role – and at the time, I said, ‘Geez, he’s an underclassmen. He’s never started before.’ – was Scott McKillop. As the season went on, players started turning to Scott for advice on what’s right and what’s wrong. I think, quietly, Scott became a leader off the field as well as on.”
* Wannstedt’s primary concerns are at quarterback and on the offensive line, which go hand in hand, but left no doubt that the guy taking snaps is a focal point.
“We’ve got to get quarterback back in sync, but we should,” he said. “We’ve got to get a quarterback playing at a high level. The quarterback position needs to be capable of winning a couple games himself. That’s what the big-time programs do.”
Junior Bill Stull will return from a thumb injury, but now has the least amount of experience among the returning quarterbacks. Still, Stull is the favorite to win the starting job over freshmen Pat Bostick and Kevan Smith, whose inexperience limited what Pitt could do offensively.
“Pat got better, but I think it was a situation, too, where as we got to the end ,we totally changed our offense from a passing-game standpoint,” Wannstedt said. “We didn’t change a whole lot when we jumped in with Kevan from Billy, and we didn’t change a whole lot when we went to Pat from Kevan.
“It did take a week or two to say, ‘He can’t do this. This is all we can do.’ We made the adjustments and, unfortunately, but I think it was smart, that we really limited and tried to win games where he was not going to be in position to carry the burden.”
That’s not to say Bostick won’t be a contender for the starting job this spring. But he has work to do with strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris, and his mechanics need refining to correct his windup release. “I think he needs to go out in the spring and when his opportunity comes, which it will, he needs to move the chains and put the ball in the end zone,” Wannstedt said. “Buddy will be a major player with Pat, from a weight reduction and a strength gain.”
Although it has been generally accepted that Bostick could redshirt next season, that’s not necessarily the case.
“I’m not counting on him redshirting,” Wannstedt said. “He’s competing for the starting job in his mind and my mind. I never said anything about a redshirt.
“The spring will be interesting.”
* Speaking of Buddy Morris, Wannstedt gave him some credit for the way the Panthers played against West Virginia. Instead of falling apart as the season wore on, like last year, the later it went the better Pitt played.
“I think that Buddy Morris and his team made a huge impact on our football team,” Wannstedt said. “I think if we would have had to play two more quarters against West Virginia, we could have done it. I think our kids were strong. We showed up in shape, physical and I was very pleased with the impact that Buddy made.”
* That brings us back to the offensive line, where starting tackles Jeff Otah and Mike McGlynn and center Chris Vangas are graduating. (Otah and McGlynn, by the way, have been selected to play in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., while cornerback Kennard Cox and defensive end Joe Clermond will play in the Hula Bowl in Hawaii).
Wannstedt said sophomore Jason Pinkston (shoulder) might not be ready for full contact by the spring, but the Pitt coach is confident Pinkston can play left or right tackle.
Junior C.J. Davis returns at left guard and sophomore Joe Thomas at right guard. The rest of the spots are up for grabs, so the line will once again be on the youthful side.
“The area I’m going to have to spend the most time with is the offensive line,” Wannstedt said. “Where we need to get it laid out right, depth chart-wise, between now and March is on the offensive line.”
Wannstedt said there is a possibility that some defensive players could switch sides. Although he didn’t mention any names, John Malecki is a potential candidate to end up the offensive side of the ball.
“As an offensive line coach, I always liked getting those defensive guys because you’re getting tough guys and good athletes,” Wannstedt said. “We’ve got to sit down and stack out that position for the depth chart. …
“We’ve got to decide who the five starters will be and bring that unit together as fast as we can.”
* Wannstedt said he has talked with sophomore Dorin Dickerson, and the two will meet next week to discuss his future and whether it’s on offense or defense.
“He got better at linebacker,” Wannstedt said. “The toughest thing on Dorin is that he’s been thrown in the fire both years under some unfair situations. The first year, he’s hurt and doesn’t even practice in training camp. Everybody expects him to be the answer when the season starts, and he’s playing a new position on offense.
“This past year, he’s playing linebacker. He’s never played linebacker. It takes time to learn. The thing we should have done was to move him to linebacker and redshirt him, give him a year just to practice and learn the fundamentals.”
Wannstedt declined to comment on whether Dickerson could make another position switch, although it’s not hard to imagine him in an H-back type of role.
“We’re going to try to find the best place where he can help the team and be successful,” Wannstedt said. “He wants the same thing. He’s a great kid with a great attitude.”
* Sophomore safety Elijah Fields, who served a suspension all season, practiced with the team all fall and has remained in good standing with the football program.
“Yes, to this point,” Wannstedt said, “but it’s a week-to-week thing. He’s on a short leash, but he’s doing great and I’m very encouraged. His weight’s down, he’s doing good in school, he’s going to class. I’m very encouraged by Elijah. Now, we’ll see if it continues.”
* Wannstedt said Marcel Pestano, a starting receiver early in the season, will not return next fall and added that “there will be some more names. I’m still in the process of talking to some guys.”