Upset Stomachs | Left Field | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Upset Stomachs

While underdogs elsewhere score big wins, Pitt continues to languish

For as long as anybody can remember, college-football fans have suffered under the hegemony of the venerated few. Week in and week out, you could count on saturation coverage of Big 10 teams from State College to Ann Arbor. There was sure to be plenty of horn-tooting punditry and non-stop whining from the SEC about strength of schedule -- not to mention constant mug shots of USC's Pete Carroll and his Heisman-ready quarterback du jour.

But not this year. This year, little programs, ignored programs -- the not-yet-on-the-radar and the largely forgotten -- have taken bites out of the big boys.

Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32 (in Ann Arbor!). Illinois 31, Wisconsin 26. Kentucky 43, LSU 27. Stanford 24, USC 23. When even Stanford gets into the upset act, you can score one for the huddled masses of the NCAA.

During Hillary Clinton's first run at the White House -- er, first stab at health-care reform -- the University of South Florida didn't even field a football team. But USF has catapulted to No. 2 in the BCS standings, largely on the strength of upset victories over Auburn and WVU.

The University of Pittsburgh, though, apparently didn't get the memo. In this season of David beating Goliath, Pitt's been watching from the sidelines. If Pitt fans previously were able to kid themselves that the program was still relevant, they're becoming more and more disabused of that notion with each loss.

In Oakland, there are no stories of upsets -- just upsetting stories. One play has become the sad microcosm of all that is wrong at Pitt.

Oct. 10: Pitt versus Navy at Heinz Field. Pitt down by a field goal in overtime, but standing fourth-and-goal at the 2. Instead of giving the ball to Pitt's best player, running back LeSean McCoy, freshman quarterback Pat Bostick tries to hit tight end Darrel Strong on a fade pattern to the corner of the end zone. The ball falls harmlessly to the turf out of bounds. Game to the Midshipmen.

Fade patterns are tricky. They work probably half the time, and only under optimal conditions. Those would include having a quarterback who has played more than seven quarters, or having a target like wide-out Derek Kinder, who is out for the season with an injury.

As a play-caller, Panthers coach Dave Wannstedt will never be mistaken for Jimmy Johnson or Urban Meyer, or even Joe Paterno in his prime. But with that play, his squad lost its last chance for respectability in 2007. With a win there, maybe the Panthers could have gotten their groove back enough to shock one of the conference foes looming on the schedule.

It's possible Pitt believes in Dave Wannstedt, despite his record. There is something to be said for staying the course, for having a steady hand, for not giving up at the first bump in the road. It's worked pretty well in State College.

Maybe Pitt could try keeping Wanny on solely as a titular head, for purposes of recruiting. That's pretty much what Paterno does now -- goes and wows the parents and leaves the messy work of coaching to his staff.

Of course, Paterno's earned that right with a long and storied career. Wannstedt? Well, as a head coach, he was 41-57 with the Chicago Bears, 42-30, with the Miami Dolphins (before being fired amidst his fifth season with the team 1-7) and 13-16 at Pitt. Plus, he'd have to surround himself with a much sharper staff than he has done so far.

Wannstedt's contract expires at the end of 2008, and without a contract extension, he'll be recruiting as a lame-duck coach. Still, perhaps he could succeed under those conditions. That would go a long way to convincing the powers-that-be, and the fans, that he has what it takes to return Pitt to prominence.

That reasoning might not appeal to fans who smell blood. They don't expect to play for the national championship any time soon, but in this year of the upset, they'd probably like to share in the fruits of parity, NCAA-style.

It's a lot to consider, particularly in a program that currently lacks an athletic director. So if you were the AD at Pitt, would you keep a guy who allowed his staff to run a risky pass, ignoring the most talented player on the team?

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