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June 1, 2006

Wannstedt tries to turn bad season into good

PITTSBURGH - Dave Wannstedt seemed to be everywhere after becoming Pitt's football coach 18 months ago, riding a whirlwind of hospitality that swept him from alumni functions to recruiting visits, fundraising affairs to magazine shoots.

Never was a hand left unshaken, a recruit's call left unanswered, a photo opportunity not taken.

The former Pitt lineman and NFL coach talked openly of winning another national championship at his alma mater, of building upon the five consecutive bowl appearances by predecessor Walt Harris. As he talked, the optimism and expectations grew beyond realistic proportions, to the point Pitt was being called a possible Top 10 team if it could beat Notre Dame in its opener.

Maybe, Wannstedt says in retrospect, he should have spent more time in the film room and less in the greeting line.

If he had, he might have seen one of the most disappointing seasons in Pitt history coming, one in which the Panthers went 5-6 with blowout defeats by Notre Dame (42-21) and West Virginia (45-13) and an inexplicable loss to Ohio University (16-10).

''The biggest mistake - and it starts with me - is not assuming anything from the standpoint of how good a player might be, where our mental state is. Are we hungry enough? Are we a bunch of fat cats feeling good about the success we had?'' Wannstedt said. ''I probably spent so much time out in the streets with the PR and recruiting and the alumni and everything else that comes with that, I probably didn't do a good enough job knowing our players and what we were capable of.''

If he had gone from coaching the Miami Dolphins to any college team but the one he once played for, he said, it wouldn't have happened.

''If I was not a Pitt guy, I probably would have come in from the standpoint that nothing's good enough, we're changing everything,'' Wannstedt said in an interview with The Associated Press. ''But I really wanted to give everybody the benefit of the doubt and make my own decisions after a period of time. I think we've done that - and, obviously, we've had a lot of changes.''

Those changes began shortly after the season-ending loss to West Virginia exposed all the Panthers' weaknesses: lack of overall team strength and speed, no offensive diversity and relying too much on a few proven players.

Despite the poor season, Pitt's recruiting class looks to be among the best in school history. Wannstedt plans to play recruits such as tight end Nate Byham and wide receiver-running back Dorin Dickerson immediately, even if it sends returning starters to the bench.

If it worked for Joe Paterno, Wannstedt reasons, it can work for Pitt - a rare admission by anyone at Pitt to liking what goes on at Penn State.

''Penn State helped us last year when coach Paterno said some of these freshmen made a huge impact on the season,'' Wannstedt said. ''I've said that to every recruit, we need freshmen to come in and help us.''

Wannstedt also stepped up the team's offseason workouts, adding a surprise 5:30 a.m. endurance run up and down all 47 flights of stairs at the Cathedral of Learning, the world's tallest university building.

''By the time they're 50, they'll be talking like they did it 10 times,'' Wannstedt said.

Another move was to slim down the playbook, after Wannstedt realized college players who spend time in a classroom each day can't absorb an NFL-sized system.

''We kind of pulled the reins in and altered some things. Early on, we were trying to do too much,'' Wannstedt said. ''It's makes no difference how much football I know or (offensive coordinator) Matt Cavanaugh knows, if (linebacker) H.B. Blades or (quarterback) Tyler Palko can't learn it, it means nothing.''

Wannstedt readjusted his schedule to spend more time recruiting in eastern and central Pennsylvania, after focusing almost exclusively on the Pittsburgh area a year ago. He was rewarded with a recent commitment from star quarterback Pat Bostick of Manheim Township, an important addition since Palko - Pitt's QB for the last two seasons - is a senior.

Wannstedt also has six assistants recruiting in Pennsylvania, compared to three a season ago.

''We're kind of flooding the area, shaking hands and being seen,'' Wannstedt said. ''I'm totally convinced, more than ever, that we can get all the players we need within five hours from the Cathedral of Learning, except for south Florida.''

Of course, three of the four BCS bowl winners also recruit within the same radius: Penn State, Ohio State and West Virginia. And while it's one thing to have good players, it's another to develop them into winners. Wannstedt may be recruiting better than Harris did, but Harris' teams often maximized their talent.

''We've got to play some of these young kids - but we've also got to line up and try to find a way to win some games,'' Wannstedt said.

Pitt's schedule looks to be more accommodating this season, with four of the first five games at home - and no Notre Dames among the bunch. Also, key Big East games against West Virginia and Louisville are at Heinz Field.

''We kind of hit the panic button a little bit last year and guys started questioning how good we were,'' said Palko, who has thrown for 5,459 yards, 41 touchdowns and 16 interceptions the last two seasons. ''But it happened, and you learn from adversity.''

The adversity extended into the offseason, when leading rusher (freshman Rashad Jennings) and receiver (junior Greg Lee) left school. Lee declared for the NFL draft but wasn't drafted; Jennings transferred to Liberty to be near his ailing father.

''We hated to see Greg Lee leave,'' said Wannstedt, who placed an angry phone call to Lee's agent after the receiver went undrafted. ''But every pass we don't throw to Greg Lee, that's another we're throwing to Dorin Dickerson or T.J. Porter or Oderick Turner, one of the young kids. Sometimes things work out for the best.''

Wannstedt's hope is that a bad season ultimately turns out good because it brings in better players.

''I don't think it's any secret why we're struggling, the biggest thing we've got to do is build a program where we have the depth and talent at every position where every game and every season is not a roller coaster,'' he said. ''That's how I would describe it, last year as well as in the past a little bit. You can have a great year, but a great year does not mean a great program. A great program is when you win consistently.''

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