Panthers, Jefferson share a connection


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Bill Cherpak remembers his days as a Pitt Panther. A Western Pennsylvania native, Cherpak… Bill Cherpak remembers his days as a Pitt Panther. A Western Pennsylvania native, Cherpak experienced many of the procedures high school athletes go through while choosing a school today.

Recruited then by current Panther assistant coach Bob Junko, Cherpak played for the Panthers from 1985-89 under then-head coach Mike Gottfried. A near-fatal neck injury at the end of Cherpak’s senior year at Pitt ended his playing career, but opened the door to coaching.

Two years ago, that door blew off the hinges when Cherpak, head coach of nearby Thomas Jefferson High School (another school Cherpak graduated from), coached the Jaguars to a Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association state title.

“His record speaks for itself as to what type of coach he is,” Panther head coach Dave Wannstedt said of Cherpak. “There’s a reason why T.J. has such a good football program.”

Wannstedt also made a comment that in his first few months at Pitt, he didn’t know who Cherpak was. That changed, however.

“I’ll bet you he was down to our place in a two-month period half a dozen times, sitting in meetings, asking questions,” Wannstedt said. “That impressed me right off the bat.”

That is exactly the impression Wannstedt looks to give community members around Pittsburgh.

Last Friday, Wannstedt and the Panthers made their second of two stops to practice for the public at different area high schools.

“With Bill Cherpak being a Pitt guy, that made it real nice to come out here,” Wannstedt said.

Thomas Jefferson High School, part of the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League, hosted the Panthers and fans to let the community get closer to the program, but more importantly, the program closer to the community.

“This is one of the better facilities in the South Hills and that’s why we came out here, to give the people in the South Hills area a chance to see our team a little bit and it worked out good,” Wannstedt said.

But there was one particular audience member that was more important, both to Pitt and Thomas Jefferson.

“Nate Nix was out there watching practice,” Wannstedt said. “He’s a guy that we’ll be anxiously awaiting his arrival at the University of Pittsburgh.”

Nix, currently a senior and former Jaguar football star, is part of a talented recruiting class that will join the Panthers in the fall. Of the 26 incoming recruits, 12 are from Western Pennsylvania. Nix will be part of the first class to re-establish Pitt’s prowess among local high school stars that has since been lost since Cherpak’s time as a player.

“The way it was when I was at Pitt, was you’re No. 1 choice was Pitt,” Cherpak said. “You want to be that hometown kid and you want to make it the best it can be, and that’s where it’s going.”

And that’s exactly what Wannstedt wants. By touring local high schools, first Center High School last month, then Thomas Jefferson last week, he’s looking to reinstall the high standing of the Panthers in both local communities and recruits.

“He came right to our school the second day he was hired,” Cherpak said of Wannstedt. “That’s the way he is. He wants to get in the community, he wants to be part of this community and he’s from Western Pennsylvania. He makes you feel like he’s one of you, and that’s just awesome.”

“We want to have kids [going to Pitt] every year,” Cherpak said. “Not just [from] Thomas Jefferson, but all of Western Pennsylvania. That class that’s coming in next year and what they’re going to do, it’s going to be a great run. I’m excited for Nate to be a part of it and to have that legacy built.”

Despite lightning cutting short the fanfare at Thomas Jefferson High School in Jefferson Hills, the now second-year Panther head coach accomplished what he wanted.

“T.J. did a great job tonight,” Wannstedt said after the practice had been called because of the weather. “The people out here, the boosters and everybody in the community with what they did for our players. We do appreciate that.”

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