Students, alumni react to Haywood firing

By John Manganaro

Contrary to the steady attention paid to Pitt this week by national media outlets like The New… Contrary to the steady attention paid to Pitt this week by national media outlets like The New York Times and ESPN, news of head football coach Michael Haywood’s firing apparently didn’t spread quickly among segments of Pitt’s student body and alumni.

An informal survey of about 30 Pitt students in Towers lobby throughout the afternoon on Tuesday found that less than half had heard enough  of Haywood’s arrest on a domestic violence charge to feel comfortable discussing it. Few had any comment to make about the incident or Haywood’s not guilty plea.

Some students both present and past, however, did have thoughts to share about the troubled state of Pitt’s football program. Those with comments included Pitt alumnus and long-time New York Times sports writer Murray Chass, who graduated in 1960.

“Frankly this is all tremendously embarrassing for alumni and the current students and administration,” Chass said. “A week after all this tough disciplinarian talk and we get an incident like this — it’s amazing.”

Chass has covered Pittsburgh and New York sports since the 1960s, when he was hired by the Pittsburgh branch of the Associated Press. In that time, he has seen a number of incidents like this one, Chass said, and they “typically aren’t pretty.”

“I covered the Yankees during the early George Steinbrenner era when managers were getting fired left and right,” Chass said. “There’s always a lot of politics, especially when it’s not just the win-loss record that leads to a firing.”

Chass said the reaction of alumni and those outside of the football program is an important part of judging how big this incident will be for Pitt — if these parties are angry enough with Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and Athletic Director Steve Pederson for what’s happening, deeper consequences could arise.

“There’s a lot of blame to be placed there,” Chass said.

Fellow sports historian and former Pittsburgh Associated Press reporter Lou Prato agreed that blame should be placed on the administration. During an interview on Monday, Prato strongly questioned Pederson.

“This kind of an incident goes back on the athletic director,” Prato said. “What kind of a search did they perform on this guy? Did they just check his criminal record? Did they get to know his personality or just make a snap decision?”

Officials from Pitt’s Athletic Department weren’t available to explain the exact process by which they chose Haywood or address other questions as of press time yesterday.

At the time of Haywood’s hiring on Dec. 16, Pederson said that the search for Pitt’s new football coach involved more than 400 candidates. He told the press that the search “only involved college head football coaches” and that the list was narrowed down to five candidates, including Haywood.

“I began to travel for a series of extensive meetings with five head coaches over five days,” Pederson said. Haywood was the first and only coach offered the position and was chosen at least in part for his character as a disciplinarian, Pederson said.

Prato agreed that Haywood’s arrest — regardless of the outcome of his trial — can realistically have an impact on the school as a whole, especially if it leads to bad blood between officials or the loss of donations or University credibility.

“I don’t know Nordenberg personally, but I can tell you that he must have been pissed when he heard this news,” Prato said.

Pitt spokesman John Fedele declined to comment further on the issue, but a statement issued earlier this week by Athletic Department spokesman E.J. Borghetti said, “Steve Pederson has played a key role in elevating Pitt’s athletics programs, remains an important member of the University’s senior leadership team and continues to enjoy the full support of the chancellor.”

Still, Haywood’s arrest does not exactly spell disaster for Pitt football, Prato said. Haywood is not the only coach in recent college football history to be forced out of a program without ever coaching a game. Other teams have rebounded nicely from such troubles.

In 2001, Notre Dame head coach George O’Leary resigned after just five days at the helm following reports that he fabricated key elements on his resumé, including a phony master’s degree in education. Today, Notre Dame is still considered a top football program, Prato said.

Two years later, in May of 2003, the University of Alabama fired head coach Mike Price for actions that included a much publicized visit to a strip club. The university had hired Price in December of the previous year, and he never took the field as head coach during a game.

Alabama won last year’s BCS National Championship over Texas.

“Of course all this character type stuff really means something,” Prato said. “Parents want their kids to play for the right school and the right education and the right coach.”

Of the students on campus yesterday who were aware of Haywood-related news, most reported feeling that Pitt did the right thing in firing the new coach, though some still weren’t sure Wannstedt should have gone in the first place.

“It’s never good publicity when a coach is tied to any kind of violence,” said sophomore Bryan Seelnacht during a mid-afternoon meal in Market Central. “It doesn’t matter if he’s guilty, really. The bowl game is even more pointless now, too. I’ll still be rooting for Pitt but it’s getting harder to do.”

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