Tue Dec 07 03:58pm EST
This season began with the highest expectations of Dave Wannstedt's six-year tenure at his alma mater: Pitt was the overwhelming favorite to win the Big East, opened in the top 15 of the preseason polls for just the second time in 25 years and arguably had a chance to win every game on its schedule. It ends with the Panthers headed for something called the BBVA Compass Bowl and Wannstedt officially getting the boot this afternoon, effective immediately. Defensive line coach Greg Gattuso told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the staff has already been informed.
It was hardly Wannstedt's worst season, even relative to the expectations – his first team finished 5-6 in 2005, a year after predecessor Walt Harris had taken a borderline top-25 outfit to the Fiesta Bowl. It took Wannstedt two more years to break through to a bowl game, but it really did seem like a breakthrough. The 2008 Panthers won nine games and finished with the highest ranking (No. 15) of any Pitt team since it joined the Big East in 1991. The '09 team was seconds away from a conference championship and ultimately turned in the first 10-win campaign since 1981, when Dan Marino finished fourth in Heisman voting. This team, with All-Americans Dion Lewis and Jonathan Baldwin back on offense, was poised to finish the job.
Instead, it went down in flames in three high-profile non-conference games against Utah, Miami (a home blowout in front of a national audience on Thursday night) and Notre Dame, and blew a chance to take a wide open Big East race with losses to UConn (another Thursday night flop) and rival West Virginia. Saturday's icy win at Cincinnati ensured the Panthers of another winning record at 7-5, and technically earned them a share of the conference title. But it couldn't cover up the obvious regression in a season that offered a golden opportunity to break back into the big time. Apparently athletic director Steve Pederson wasn't very impressed by UConn's Cinderella Orange Bowl run, either.
The bright side for Wannstedt: His old NFL connections should guarantee him some kind of job in the pros, at least as a position coach. As currently employed NFL coaches Charlie Weis, Bill Callahan, Cam Cameron, Dan Henning, Karl Dorrell and countless others prove, once you're in the club, you're in it for life. The downside for Pitt: The program is back at square one after five years of steady progress, ultimately signifying nothing. If the mandate for the next coach is a BCS bowl, the opportunity is certainly there in a mediocre conference. But it's no greater now than it was six years ago.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.