Approaching the midway point of his fourth season, Dave Wannstedt has compiled a 20-20 record as Pitt’s football coach. The hot-seat talk has cooled after the Panthers posted their second win over a top-10 program in six games. Wannstedt is hoping that the 26-21 victory at No. 10 South Florida on Oct. 2 provides a turning point for his program, which hasn’t been to a bowl game since winning a share of the 2004 Big East Conference championship.The No. 24 Panthers have won seven of their past 12 games and five of their past six, including the stunning 13-9 upset of No. 2 West Virginia last Dec. 1 in the 100th Backyard Brawl in Morgantown. The lone defeat in that span, however, came against Bowling Green in the season opener at Heinz Field. That loss forced Pitt to renew its focus and reassess its arrival as a top-25 program. Wannstedt addressed that, among other topics, with Trib beat writer Kevin Gorman on Friday.
Q: Do you feel like the program is going in the direction you want, not just in terms of wins and losses but also recruiting and depth?
A: I would like to think all of the above. With three full recruiting classes, some of the sophomores and juniors are now in a position where they can make plays and lead the team and be a major factor. I really felt like last year, if we don’t lose Billy (Stull) and have to go with a freshman quarterback, I thought we were a bowl team.
This is probably the most balanced our team has been. In addition to talent and having great leaders, I think it’s probably the most balanced at this point of the season that we’ve been. Two years ago, Tyler Palko has one of the highest passing ratios in the nation and we’re scoring 30 points a game but we can’t stop anybody. Then, last year, we’re playing good defense and we’ve got a freshman quarterback and can’t score any points.
We can sit around and philosophize about many things but if someone asked me personally, I would say the talent has increased, the leadership is strong, the character is strong, but we could have very easily been a game or two better in the last couple years. It seemed like everything was kind of lopsided. Now, we’re a little bit more balanced. You have to be balanced to win, particularly against a team like South Florida when you give up a blocked punt. If you have no offense, you lose that game. It’s over.
Q: What did the season-opening loss to Bowling Green do to the team?
A: These kids worked too hard. We were prepared for that game. We’re up 14-nothing at home. You can talk about being conservative on offense, giving up some big plays on defense, not making any plays – people can find reasons to criticize anything – the facts are we turned the ball over four times, one of them on the (11-yard line). You might as well give them a touchdown. That’s why we lost that game.
They didn’t turn it over but once. We can cut it all different ways and blame it on coaches or blame it on players, whatever we want to blame it on. But if you turn the ball over, you’re not going to win. Nobody wants to hear that. That’s almost too simple.
Q: How did that affect the kids? Did they get a chip on their shoulder?
A: It was sickening. Taking nothing away from what Bowling Green did, but our players felt and our coaches felt that we didn’t get it our best shot out there. If you give your best shot and you don’t win, there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s going to happen. We’ve got to give ourselves a chance.
What that game did to our team was, it opened our eyes that it makes no difference who we play, we’ve got to play every game four quarters and finish. We carried that into Buffalo. It was amazing because we were only up by one at the half. But the halftime against Buffalo was a lot different. I knew at halftime of Buffalo that we were going to win the game, just because of how our guys were. I didn’t know who or how.
For whatever reason, it happened. We’ve got to keep referencing that experience in a positive way. It’s my job not to let our players lose sight of what happened or lose that feeling we had at the end of that game. That has to stay alive all year – because it can happen again.
Q: In some ways, was it a blessing that it happened then?
A: If you beat them by three, do you come out and take Buffalo for granted? Do you beat those first two teams and think you’ve got the answers and then Iowa beats you? You don’t know. I think it sent a sense of urgency with our team that you have to have every week.
There’s a fine line on the great teams I’ve been on of having a swagger but being a little bit on edge that I might get hit in the mouth. If I’m not protecting myself, if I don’t have my guard up, I can have confidence and swagger. But if I put my hands down, I’m going to get hit in the mouth.
Q: How much of a difference was it coming from the NFL to a college game that wasn’t the same one that you left?
A: I don’t know how much it changed. It changed Xs and Os. When I left, the Wishbone was in. We played three or four teams that were running the Wishbone. That has been replaced by the spread offense. Xs and Os have changed. I don’t know how much the college game itself has changed. I think the athletes have changed, and how you deal with these athletes has changed. That’s probably the biggest challenge. Everybody has their own personality, but you need to be tough on these kids. You’ve got to convince them what you’re asking them to do is going to benefit them, too.
There’s more communication now – and I think you have to have it – between coach and player. The only time the coaches ever talked to me when I was playing here was when you were doing something wrong and they told you about it. There was never the relationship thing, talking about getting your degree and what you’re doing to do when you graduate, the personal things at home with family and social life. Maybe what we’re doing is a little bit different. To me, that’s why I’m doing this. We’re doing this to make a difference in kids’ lives, on and off the field. If I would ever lose that interest or incentive, go to the NFL and coach.
Q: How hard was it to inherit a BCS team, then having to preach patience that it was going to take time to build a good program?
A: When I took the job here, that was the point that the Chancellor (Mark A. Nordenberg) made very clear to me, that we want to have a great year but we want our program on the field, off the field, academically to be a top-10 program. That’s the ultimate goal. That doesn’t happen overnight. It hasn’t happened yet. I’ll be the first one to say we’ve got a lot of work to do this season. They give no trophies out in October. Nobody gets a bowl bid in October. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but I do like where we’re at right now mentally and how we’re approaching it.
Q: Is there a desire to get back to the NFL and take another crack at it?
A: I don’t even take into account the last year I was at Miami. It was a complete disaster. I could give you a list of 10 reasons. But the four full seasons I was there – we didn’t win a Super Bowl – but there was only two teams that won more games than we did. I want to get us back to where we’re a contending football team. As long as they think we’re moving forward and I’m enjoying doing it and the chancellor and university wants me around, I’m not going anywhere.
Q: Your career has come full circle, from shutting down Oklahoma’s Wishbone to stopping West Virginia’s read-option. Do you find satisfaction in one game like that, or in the body of work?
A: I’m looking for the big picture. Right now, my main focus is making sure that Conredge Collins and C.J. Davis and Rashaad Duncan – who have not been redshirted and who have a chance to graduate in April and have a chance to play in the NFL – that they do both. That’s what is gratifying to me. I want to see all these kids get a chance at the NFL and do it with a degree in their locker. If we do that, the wins are going to take care of themselves.
As excited as I get about the wins – and this is sick – the emotional drama of losses is stronger than the emotion of winning. That’s crazy. Maybe because I expect to win, as much as you enjoy them you have a tougher time dealing with the losses at this point in my career. When I was younger, it was another game and you just kept rolling.
Q: Can you translate your failures to the recruiting trail, filling the weaknesses with new players?
A: Oh, yeah. Our first couple years here, defensively, I was preaching it and everybody around here thought I was crazy, was that I don’t care how good H.B. Blades and Darrelle Revis and Clint Session were. If we don’t have defensive linemen that make plays, you can’t play defense. I don’t care who you are, on what level. We finally got that. We have 16 defensive linemen on scholarship. We were going to run the football. We’ve got some running backs now. We’ve got some good, young ones that we’re recruiting. We have two or three coming in this year.
Q: How important was it getting a LeSean McCoy, a player who brings swagger and makes his teammates feel like they can win any game?/
A: We all feel that way. And we should. When you have outstanding players, we went into every game at Dallas with Emmitt Smith. When I was playing here with Tony Dorsett, I’m sure we threw some passes but I can’t recall how many. You need to have some of those guys that can make a difference. Jimmy Johnson always said, ‘Let’s recruit players and draft players that do things we don’t have to coach.’ And LeSean does things … the (6-yard touchdown) run against South Florida, he bounces outside, the safety comes up to make a tackle and he makes him miss and scores.
That’s what the Matt Grothes do, what Pat White does.
Q: Every time people want to write you off, you’ve responded with big wins. Do you take that personally, and do your kids feed off that?
A: You’d have to ask them, but if you asked them what did coach do different from Bowling Green to Buffalo, I would hope they’d say, ‘Nothing.’ We came out and we practiced just as hard. We worked on improving the things where we weren’t good enough. We addressed the issues with why we lost. I would hope that the players didn’t sense a panic in me or a fear or an uncertainty or a lack of confidence. I would hope they sensed a feeling of urgency, of disappointment, yet still confident.
Q: Do the goals change at all now?
A: As you have success, your confidence rises. There’s no talk around here about confidence, except for the next game. The sign on the door is a pretty clear message of what I told our players the day after South Florida: ‘Don’t eat the cheese.’ I got that from Bill Parcells. It’s real clear. Don’t fall into this trap now. I just put it up this week. Don’t buy into what people are telling you. Don’t be fooled by the people patting you on the back. Don’t be fooled by rankings. Don’t be fooled by anything you hear or read. Don’t eat the cheese.
Q: At what point can this team be the best when it steps on the field?
A: We’ve got to go out and play a complete game. When you’re turning it over two times and getting a punt blocked, you’re not playing a complete game. We’ve got to get a lot better.
I’ve coached teams that have had zero turnovers, zero penalties. We do that, we won’t lose. We’re No. 1 in the country in penalties.
Q: You’ve said this was your dream job, the one you want to retire to. How has this job changed the way you approach life?
A: If I ever did the say the word ‘retire,’ I need to get a dictionary and look up the word. I walked in here (Friday) morning at 5:30. That’s not retiring. Besides the job part of it, it’s given me a chance to reconnect with my family – my mother, three sisters and a brother live here – and with some of my high school friends and a lot of my college friends. At my age, I think friendships and relationships are a lot more important when you’re in your 50s than when you’re in your 30s. I think coming back here has given me a chance to really enjoy and appreciate that part of life.
Q: How has becoming a grandfather changed you?
A: That’s probably the one thing, I wish I could spend more time with him. About a month ago, my wife, Jan, said, ‘During the bye week, are you going to work?’ I said, ‘I’m probably going to give the players and coaches off that weekend.’ She said, ‘Let’s go to Chicago.’ I said, ‘I don’t know if I can.’ She said, ‘I’m going to book the tickets because I’m going.’ I was about 50 percent sure I was going to go. After the Syracuse win, my daughters called to see if I was coming and I said I was about 60-70 percent sure I was going. When we beat South Florida, both of my daughters texted, ‘Can’t wait to see you in Chicago!’ I would have gone under any circumstances, but that part of the job is tough. I would like to go. It’s the first weekend we had off since July. It’s just part of the job.
Last weekend, I was at a park in Chicago, the weather was gorgeous and it was like, ‘What are all these people doing out there with their dogs and their kids and grandkids on a Saturday afternoon?’ It’s not just me, but as a coach you really miss those things. Unfortunately, when you’re playing games on weekends and working every weekend, you don’t experience the normal things that an average, everyday person does on weekends. That’s OK until it starts cutting into your family. Then it’s tough. You better have a good wife who can pick up the slack.
Q: How much does Jan balance you out?
A: She’s the best thing I’ve got going. I’ve always said I don’t know how a football coach gets married unless he marries someone that’s 25 years old and that’s all she knows because the time and schedule. Fortunately, Jan loves what I do. She’s involved. She loves the recruiting weekends. She’s one of the biggest assets we’ve got with the moms. Basketball games. Alumni functions. She’s totally committed to this, as much as I am. I think that makes a difference. I think it really does.
We were recruiting a player last year and we go to dinner at Monterrey Bay with the parents. I’m upstairs with some of the parents and Jan is downstairs with some of the mothers. All of a sudden, the mother and Jan come walking in 20 minutes late, looking like they had a semi-workout. The mother was afraid to get in the elevator, so Jan says, ‘I’ll walk up with you.’ They walked up the steps. I think it was 16 flights.
We got the player. Was that the determining factor? No. But did it make a difference? I don’t think there’s any question. And she did it sincerely.
Q: What is it like to be back on campus, checking on players in class, on Friday?
A: I wish I could spend more time on campus. If our facility was on campus like it was in the old days, I would be living on campus, like Johnny Majors did, and I would be visible on campus. Because I went to school here, it makes a little difference that way. I love pulling up to the circle in front of the Cathedral and get a coffee and stop to see the Chancellor or stop in to see (vice chancellor) Jerry Cochran, see the students and make the rounds. College kids are energizing. They’re opening to learning. They’ve got a lot of energy, physically and mentally, and that’s a neat thing. When people are still trying to finalize opinions on things and you can be influential on that in the right way, that’s a neat thing. You don’t get that in the NFL.
One professor asked me to come up in front of the class and address the class. The other professor singled out all the students and gave me a run-down on all our guys. They’re teaching for the same reasons I’m coaching. They want these kids to learn and better themselves.