Football: Alumni slow to judge Pitt

By Alex Oltmanns

While the outside world has been quick to criticize — and sometimes condemn — those at the… While the outside world has been quick to criticize — and sometimes condemn — those at the helm of Pitt football, four recent players expressed far more understanding.

“Chancellor Nordenberg, I couldn’t find a guy I respect more than him,” said Yogi Roth, a former Panthers receiver who graduated in 2004. “[Athletic Director] Steve Pederson right now is being unjustly criticized. He got put into a really bad scenario.”

Alumni and Pitt fans have questioned Pederson, Nordenberg and the way they chose to hire and fire Michael Haywood, who served as head football coach for about two weeks before being arrested on a domestic battery charge and fired. Haywood pleaded not guilty earlier this week.

Recent alumni were more reluctant to judge Pederson and Nordenberg, pointing to the many outside influences that can impact a decision to hire or fire a coach and to their own experiences working with the two men.

Roth — who has since worked as an assistant coach at the University of Southern California and now as a sports analyst at ESPN and FOX — said the decision to hire Haywood, the former Miami University of Ohio head coach, made a lot of sense at the time.

“They went and hired Mike Haywood, who a lot of people didn’t know, but if you did your homework on him and talked to people who had worked for him in the past, they raved about him,” Roth said.

Haywood’s hiring came nine days after head coach Dave Wannstedt resigned under pressure.

Former offensive lineman John Malecki reflected on the emotional ties players had with Wannstedt.

“For me personally, he [Wannstedt] was half the reason I went to Pitt,” said Malecki, a current Tampa Bay Buccaneer . “I don’t know if I would’ve been a Panther without Dave Wannstedt.”

While attempting to understand the dynamic’s of Haywood’s hiring and firing, some of the players also reflected on how Wannstedt left the team and the role a university’s image and reputation play in coaching decisions.

For former Pitt place kicker Conor Lee, Wannstedt drastically improved the program in his six years as head coach. He thinks the nature of today’s what-have-you-done-for-me-lately society, forced the administration to act after a disappointing 7-5 season.

“Their [Pederson and Nordenberg] hand was forced,” Lee said. “I think it’s just a matter of how everyone wants wins now, and it’s unfortunate that’s just the way it is. People need to understand where the program actually is.”

Lee, who was a Panther during the 2004-2008 seasons and now works for PNC in Columbus, Ohio, said that despite the season record, the program is in better shape now than it was when Wannstedt took over, citing several factors including increased depth that simply wasn’t present before Wannstedt’s tenure with the team.

“There’s a lot of impatience now in the college game,” Lee said. “They expect results quickly from programs like Pitt that were once great, that have stumbled, and they’re starting to see things turn around. But it’s not turning around as fast as maybe some donors or other people like. So people are getting forced to pull the plug on things before maybe they play out.”

For Roth, Lee and former linebacker Adam Gunn the switch to hire Haywood was made by highly qualified people — including Pederson — who later also made the best decision they could given the allegations against Haywood.

“I have a perfectly great relationship with Chancellor Nordenberg, Mr. Pederson and Coach Wannstedt,” Gunn said. “That situation, it’s tough. It was out of a lot of people’s hands.”

Lee believes the University made the right move when it fired Haywood. When a person is accused of a crime, people tend to view him as guilty even if he hasn’t been convicted, he said.

“Chancellor Nordenberg is one of the best guys I’ve ever met in my life and Pederson is too,” Lee said. “I know they wouldn’t make a decision and bring someone in that they thought would be like that, so I’m assuming Haywood was not that kind of person, just got caught up in the wrong situation.”

The University might be going through a public relations crisis right now, but for proud Pitt football alumni like Roth, who have since left Pittsburgh, it’s easy to trust the people thousands of miles away who are making the decisions.

“I know the kind of guy that Chancellor Nordenberg is, the kind of guy that Steve Pederson is, the kind of person that [Director of Football Operations] Chris LaSala and [Director of Media Relations] E.J. Borghetti are. I know the kind of people that this University stands for, and they’re doing what they feel is right. I trust them as an alumni.”