PITTSBURGH (93-7 The Fan) – It’s déjà vu all over again at the University of Pittsburgh, as their Athletic Department finds itself in an unenviably familiar position to where they were just over six years ago.
Ironically enough, it’s for some of the same disjointed reasons.
Let’s hop in the DeLorean and head back to December 7th, 2010, the day the Panthers’ football program began its long, slow, descent into a half decade of tepid mediocrity, as Athletic Director Steve Pederson forced Dave Wannstedt to resign from his head coaching position despite 27 victories in his previous three seasons. What followed was the Mike Haywood fiasco, a painfully brief – or perhaps thankfully short – tenure from Todd & Penny Graham, three of the dullest seasonZZZZzzzzzzzzz …
Apologies. I dozed off for a moment there just thinking about Paul Chryst’s time at Pitt.
Where was I?
Oh, yeah: Pitt football seemed lost at sea, rudderless in the ocean of conference realignments, the refuge of traditional rivalries too far off in the distance to provide an identity to a program that was years removed from relevance and, aside from the rare supernovas of Darelle Revis and LeSean McCoy, generations removed from greatness.
Then came Pat Narduzzi.
Focused, persistent, demanding, and deliberate, Narduzzi has Pitt football looking back on a 2016 season punctuated by not one but two “signature”” victories, one of which came at the expense of the eventual National Champions. While still a few years away from Playoff contention, Pitt football is certainly relevant again, and it feels like they’re on the precipice of something… bigly.
What’s this have to do with the situation Pitt Athletics is currently facing, you ask?
Simply put, it’s time to find the stable footing necessary to vault Panthers basketball back to the level of excellence they reached at the pinnacle of the Ben Howland/Jamie Dixon-era Big East beasts. Much like December 7th, 2010 loomed over Pitt football for years as the day the program went left when they should’ve gone right, March 28, 2009 could be looked as the day the dark cloud of uncertainty arrived over Pitt basketball.
Sure, Dixon stuck around for seven more seasons after Scottie Reynolds ripped out every heart in Oakland, but was it ever the same? The results would say no, as Pitt still hasn’t returned to the Sweet 16 since, and has found itself lost in a sea of conference realignments, with no real identity anymore.
That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Unable to get out from under the shadow of that ’08-’09 season despite 5 tournament appearances in 7 seasons, Pitt once again decided to cut off a program’s nose to spite it’s face and let Dixon leave for his alma mater.
And now Pitt basketball looks to be in desperate need of stability, just as football was a few brief years ago. And Kevin Stallings, he of two Sweet 16 appearances in nearly as many decades at Vanderbilt, is on the sideline wondering why the seniors who came up under Dixon and Brandin Knight (and don’t think for a second Knight isn’t just as missed as Dixon is) aren’t responding to him.
Don’t get me wrong, as a member of the media, I love Stallings. His weekly appearances on the Fan Morning Show are must-listen, if just for his brutal honesty. He will not suffer fools easily, and he won’t suffer a halfhearted attitude from his players at all. That’s well and good when dealing with kids you have a rapport with and who can take hearing and seeing the same harsh criticisms on the radio and in their social feeds as were previously reserved for the practice court and film room. This team doesn’t yet trust Stallings as they did Dixon, though.
Jamie Dixon may have been as dry and uninteresting for those of us in the media as three-day old oatmeal. But his players trusted him.
Now, less than a season into the Stallings regime, after watching his team give up about eight minutes in to a thrashing at the hands of Louisville on Tuesday night, and considering his latest appearance on The Fan, it has to be wondered if there is a fissure between coach and players. And if there is, does the coach even realize it? Or care? If the answer to either of those is ‘no,’ then whoever the new Athletic Director is will be faced with some difficult questions.
Is Stallings the university’s basketball equivalent to what Graham was five years ago? Would dispatching him set the clock back to ‘0’ for the re-development of a recently proud program after just one season? Or can Stallings – like Chryst did for football – lend the hoops program some stability for a few years? Or maybe even beyond?
Who will be the Narduzzi-style leader to set the basketball program back to where it once was? Who will get Pitt basketball to resemble anything even remotely close to the DeJuan Blair/Sam Young/Levance Fields-led team that was one bucket from the Final Four?
That has to feel like an all-too-familiar question to those at the top of Pitt Athletics.