Kirschman: Pitt football looking for leadership

By Lauren Kirschman

The Pitt football team needs a leader. That much became painfully clear after the 31-3… The Pitt football team needs a leader. That much became painfully clear after the 31-3 throttling the Panthers took at the hands of the Miami Hurricanes last Thursday.

With the slew of off the field problems, including legal issues and Pitt’s performance on the field, I doubt I’m the only one wondering who is going to step into a leadership role this season.

During the Miami game, Mick Williams, Gus Mustakas and Bill Stull were recognized on the field for the Meineke Car Care Bowl victory last season. Watching them stand on the sideline, one thing became obvious: this year’s Panthers don’t have a leader the caliber of any of those former players.

Say what you want about Bill Stull, and as far as I can tell, Pitt fans either loved him or hated him; but here’s one thing nobody can deny: Stull was a leader. Think back on the Connecticut game last season, when Pitt was trailing the Huskies 21-6 late in the fourth quarter.

Stull threw two touchdown passes to even the game, one of which included a successful two-point conversion pass to Cedric McGee. He then led the Panthers on the game-winning drive that finished with a Dan Hutchins’ field goal.

Perhaps most importantly, the team recognized Stull as a leader. There was no doubt.

And before Stull, there was Tyler Palko. Perhaps his most well-known game came in 2004, when he became the first quarterback to throw five touchdown passes against nationally ranked Notre Dame. He completed 26-of-42 passes for 334 yards, leading to a game-winning field goal with one second left.

Like Stull, Palko was the unquestioned leader of his Pitt football team. He was the field general in every sense of the phrase.

Those teams were exactly that: a team. This year’s squad seems more like a bunch of individual players who all happen to wear the same uniform. One of those players needs to be a unifier.

A leader doesn’t have to come in the form of a quarterback, either — think Scott McKillop or Williams and Mustakas. Whoever it’s going to be this year, he needs to speak up fast, before the season and hopes for a Big East Championship slip away.

Greg Romeus could have been that leader for the Panthers this season, but his back surgery took that option away, at least for a while.

Tino Sunseri is young: a redshirt sophomore starting for the first time. But he’s also the quarterback, a natural leadership position, and he’s expressed that he is comfortable stepping into that leadership role. Maybe his confidence was shaken over the first three games, but as a coach’s son, I have a feeling he’ll bounce back.

He showed sparks of performing as a leader during the Utah game and played well against New Hampshire, but he’s not a general like Stull or Palko yet. Once he finds his way to that position, some of Pitt’s ship might right itself, but some Panther upperclassmen need to step up as well.

Wannstedt met with his seniors after the game against Miami, making it clear that some of the younger players needed to be reminded about the levels of commitment and dedication needed to meet their goals this season.

Having a need for a meeting like that three games into the season is troubling.

Some of the post-game quotes were even more troubling.

“We have tremendous players, but we have to play as a team,” Pitt senior Jabaal Sheard said. “I don’t know what the problem is, but we have to find out and we have to fix it.”

He added: “We need to come together as a team right now. The most important thing is that we have to play as a team. We need to support one another. It’s a team game.”

This is a lesson the Panthers should have learned in the offseason, and it speaks volumes about the problems Pitt is having — both on and off the field.

Sheard was one of the Panthers who struggled with legal troubles — he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct this summer—  but the senior seems willing to step into a vocal leadership role now.

“For myself, I need to just practice harder,” he said. “I’m not the most vocal player, but if I have to step up I will.”

That’s exactly what Pitt needs: an older player to take control and offer direction who’s not afraid to speak up. Somebody needs to gather the troops and remind the Panthers that football is a team sport.

They are going to have to come together as a team if they are going to finish the season successfully. They’ll also have to find a way to get past the off-the-field distractions.

Pitt has a relatively young football team that seems to have lost its identity. That identity can be found in the form of a player that teammates can talk about after the game and say, “That’s our leader. There’s no question.”

Here’s hoping the Panthers find him — and soon.