Wannstedt Takes Coaching Position at Pitt

Thursday, December 23rd 2004, 1:00 pm
By: News On 6

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ He was Pitt's first choice all along, so the Panthers were more than willing to give Dave Wannstedt a second chance.

That's why athletic director Jeff Long wasn't discouraged when Wannstedt, the former Dolphins and Bears coach, told him last week he couldn't give his alma mater the immediate commitment it wanted.

``I probably came on a little strong,'' Long said Thursday, shortly after introducing Wannstedt as coach Walt Harris' successor. ``I said, `Let's talk about it and let's get things done.'''

Wannstedt, barely a month removed from coaching the Dolphins, wasn't ready yet to make a decision so quickly. But as a week passed, the more Wannstedt was intrigued by returning to the school where he played from 1970-73 _ his final season as one of 1,600-yard rusher Tony Dorsett's top blockers.

So when Wannstedt called him Tuesday night, Long sensed it wasn't just to talk about the other coaches on Pitt's search list. Long quickly picked up on Wannstedt's interest and, within 24 hours, Wannstedt was on a plane from Miami to complete his contract.

``Dave Wannstedt is the best coach we could have come out with,'' Long said. ``He was the No. 1 guy from the start.''

Long isn't worried that Wannstedt hasn't been on a college staff since 1988, predicting the former Oklahoma State, Southern California and University of Miami of assistant will be a successful recruiter immediately.

``He has a presence,'' Long said. ``He's not going to have any trouble getting into anybody's home.''

Wannstedt will begin recruiting as soon as he can, saying, ``I wish I could talk to a recruit right now. Nobody has to coach me up on how to sell this university.''

The immediate future looks promising: No. 19 Pitt (8-3) returns most of the regulars who will play Utah in the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl, including star quarterback Tyler Palko.

Palko was the only player to attend Wannstedt's introductory news conference, sitting a few seats down from Pitt administrator Johnny Majors, Wannstedt's former coach. Palko was the most outspoken of Pitt's players about retaining Harris, who was hired by Stanford without Pitt making an effort to keep him.

``He (Wannstedt) wants to win, win now and win at the highest level,'' said Palko, who only days before said it ``stinks'' that Harris wasn't coming back. ``I'm real excited about that.''

Some coaches prefer to hire a brand-new staff, but Wannstedt wants to retain some of Harris' assistants _ including defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, who was interviewed twice by Long for the head coaching job. The two will talk next week.

Wannstedt's background is in defense, so his top priority will be hiring an offensive coordinator and a quarterback coach, roles Harris filled himself. Wannstedt repeatedly complimented Harris _ the two met for a half-hour Thursday _ but said Pitt needs a much stronger running game than it has now.

Like Long, the 52-year-old Wannstedt thinks Pitt can win a national championship _ a notion former 49ers coach Bill Walsh, now a Stanford adviser, dismissed when the Cardinal hired Harris.

``It's been a long time since Pitt won a national championship _ too long,'' Wannstedt said.

Wannstedt also thinks this will be his final head coaching job, and isn't looking at it as a path back to the NFL.

``Nobody needs to tell me about Pitt's tradition,'' the 52-year-old Wannstedt said. ``I lived it, experienced it, felt it. The passion that drives me is to return to the great, great days at Pitt.''

Pitt did not discuss Wannstedt's contract terms, but he is believed to have signed a five-year contract worth at least $800,000 per season, or about $150,000 more than Harris was making.

Wannstedt, who grew up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Baldwin, had a 43-33 record in 4 1/2 seasons with Miami _ 42-25 before this season _ but his lone playoff victory came four years ago. Wannstedt coached the Bears from 1993-98, going 41-57, after being the Dallas Cowboys' defensive coordinator from 1989-92.