Pederson opens up about coaching search, Haywood

By Paul Zeise

Updated Jan. 9:

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson… Updated Jan. 9:

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson broke his silence Thursday and spoke with selected members of the media through a teleconference from his office in the Petersen Events Center. He addressed a number of issues surrounding the Athletic Department and its coaching search.

He also talked about his own job security and his focus as he tries to find a new football coach for the University.

One thing he clarified was the process with which the University is conducting this search, and it is clearly different than the first one, which led to the hiring of Michael Haywood. Haywood was fired Jan. 1, a day after being arrested on domestic-battery charges.

“We have created a small team who will assist in the initial interview process,” Pederson said. “We are meeting potential candidates in a first round, then we will identify a smaller number of candidates from that pool who will be brought to campus to participate in further interviews with a group that includes the chancellor [Mark Nordenberg].

“We want to move swiftly, but we have no timeline for completion of the process and we want to make sure we find the right person to lead this program but do so in a timely manner.”

The small group conducting the initial interviews will be Pederson, Executive Associate Athletic Director Donna Sanft and Executive Vice Chancellor Jerry Cochran.

Pederson said the second round of interviews means no candidate will be hired — or offered the job — until the finalists are identified and have had met with Nordenberg.

Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley remained the leading candidate to land the position last week. He also remains a candidate for the head-coaching position at Connecticut, sources said.

Three more candidates emerged last week when sources confirmed that Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst has been interviewed, former Pitt player Teryl Austin was scheduled to be interviewed this weekend, and Stanford associate head coach Greg Roman was scheduled to be interviewed Sunday.

That brings the number of known candidates to interview to five with four of them being Bradley, former Pitt linebacker and current Alabama assistant head coach Sal Sunseri, Austin and Chryst. The fifth unknown candidate was believed to be, according to several sources, Florida International coach Mario Cristobal.

That group, along with Tulsa head coach Todd Graham, who was one of five coaches interviewed during the first round of interviews after Dave Wannstedt was fired, represent the known candidates in the mix.

A source close to the situation said, however, that Graham is unlikely to be a finalist and that his candidacy was much more serious the first time.

Clearly, the University is attempting to avoid a repeat of the Haywood situation, but, as Pederson explained, that was an unfortunate situation because the University did a proper background search on him.

Pederson said in addition to the exhaustive background checks done by Parker Executive Search, the University has every candidate’s criminal history investigated by Kroll Background Screening.

According to its website, Parker Executive Search “is a leading global retained executive search firm.”

Its client base ranges from intercollegiate athletics programs to Fortune 500 corporations. Parker Executive Search states on its website that its workers “consistently exceed client expectations by providing the very best candidates through a seamless and inclusive search approach.”

Kroll Background Screening provides services that range from traditional background checks to more “specialized searches,” according to its website. It also states that its “industry-leading expertise and cutting-edge technology help organizations all over the world detect potential risks such as resume fraud, criminal convictions, and past terminations.”

The actual process that the University goes through to conduct a “proper” background search on any new hires remains unclear.

E.J. Borghetti, spokesman for Pitt athletics, did not comment on how the Athletic Department conducts its background searches. Borghetti said in an e-mail that “this is an institutional subject rather than a departmental one.”

Borghetti also suggested that the human resources department was somehow involved.

University spokesman John Fedele did not respond to requests for comment.

Nicole Barraclough, labor relations coordinator at Pitt, said that human resources does conduct background searches on University employees.

According to Barraclough, the person responsible for conducting searches on new hires is Michelle Sukal, director of recruiting and client services. Sukal could not be reached for comment this weekend.

In addition to professional services, the Athletic Department also contacted people who knew Haywood before hiring him.

“We also made numerous phone calls and contacts with people covering his time at LSU, Miami [Ohio], Notre Dame, Texas and everything came back clean,” Pederson said. “There were no red flags at all in his background from anyone at these institutions.”

Pederson said the school continues to use Parker Executive Search as a part of the process and that it did not have to pay Haywood anything because his contract was terminated for cause.

Other universities across the country said they conduct extensive research on any new hires.

Heather Dunn, executive assistant to the director of athletics at the University of Southern California, did not specify if companies were used, but did say extensive searches were conducted.

“We go back as far as possible through multiple resources and we always conduct comprehensive criminal background searches,” Dunn said in an e-mail.

Penn State Football Sports Information Director Jeff Nelson said in an e-mail, “Penn State’s policy is to conduct a reference and background check on all full-time employees.”

When asked if it was fair to say that Dave Wannstedt was fired because he did not win enough games, Pederson said, “expectations are and should be for this program to compete at a championship level.”

It is the first time he has acknowledged publicly that the administration forced Wannstedt to resign and that Wannstedt’s lack of winning Big East Championships was part of that decision.

Pederson said all candidates he has met have been extremely receptive to such high expectations and all believe Pitt can play at a much higher level than the Panthers have in recent seasons.

“This is a program that has won nine national championships,” Pederson said. “Some of the greatest players in college football history have played here. We should expect excellence in this program, we should expect a progam that is competing for and winning championships.

“We don’t shy away from that and we hope people interested in this job don’t, either. And I’ll say this, the people that we talked to, they believe this is a program that can achieve greatness, [and] it has been a consistent theme among everyone we’ve talked to.”

Pederson also addressed the intense criticism he has received from alumni, fans, key former players like Mike Ditka and Bill Fralic and others for the way he’s handled Wannstedt’s firing, Haywood’s hiring and everything in between.

Many, like Fralic, publicly called for him to be fired and Pederson said he has not let that affect how he goes about his business. He said he is committed to hiring the right coach and continuing to move the Athletic Department forward and is not focused on his job security. But he understands the criticism and said that happens when you make tough choices.

Pederson said he is “absolutely not” worried about people calling Pitt’s Athletic Department a laughing stock and said the University is bigger than one decision or person.

“People within a university can make mistakes, but the University itself stands strong, stands vibrant and is built on character and integrity.”

Senior Staff Writer Marissa Meredyth contributed to this report.