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November 3, 2009

Q&A with Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt

It hasn't happened as quickly as he hoped, but Dave Wannstedt finally has the nation talking about Pittsburgh football again.

Pitt's 7-1 start is the program's best since 1982, when Dan Marino was the quarterback. That also is the last time the Panthers were ranked No. 1. Now, Pitt is honing in on its first Big East title since 2004.

Last season, Wannstedt led Pitt to a 9-4 record and its first bowl since the 2004 season. But he endured growing pains his first three seasons after taking over for Walt Harris, posting a 16-19 record.

Pitt stuck by Wannstedt, 57, a former Panthers offensive tackle who is trying to help the program regain the glory it enjoyed when he played in the 1970s.

Rivals.com caught up with Wannstedt as he prepped for the season's stretch run, which begins with a visit from Syracuse on Saturday and continues with big games against Notre Dame, West Virginia and Cincinnati.

What has pleased you most about the development of your team?

"I have been impressed with the way the young players have stepped up, [CB Anthony Gildon ] and others. We have been tested because of injuries."

Has it taken you longer than you expected to build this program?

"The minute most head coaches walk in the door, nothing is good. Everything is wrong. The players aren't big enough, strong enough, smart enough, tough enough. Everything about the program is wrong and it gets trashed. When I came in, I knew I wanted to change the culture to my philosophy and my way of doing things. But these were Pitt guys and I'm a Pitt guy. You didn't see a bunch of guys getting run out of here. Everybody finished, and everybody who was willing to stay the course, I kept them around. And it wasn't the best thing for our team. We probably should have played a lot more younger players. But I just felt that I owed these kids that and I chose to do it that way.

"In our third year [2007], if [quarterback] Billy Stull had stayed healthy, we would have won seven games and gone to a bowl. There was no question. That was LeSean [McCoy's] first season. And in the first game, Stull tears a ligament in his thumb and he's out for the year and we have to go with Pat Bostick, who is a true freshman. That's the year we upset West Virginia in the last game. But during the course of that year, we gave away two or three games. With a little bit of experience at quarterback and not having to depend on a true freshman, it would have made a huge difference.

"Last year we had a good year. We won more games than they had here in 26 years. So we made a big step. Who knows where we are at now? I know we have a solid foundation with the program, we are having our best recruiting class ever and we are just about finished for next year. We'll see how this plays out. It never happens as fast as anyone would like it."

What do you say to your critics who think you'll never win a championship?

"I don't say anything. You don't have to explain things to your friends because they don't need an explanation, good or bad. And don't try to respond to the critics because regardless of what you tell them, they don't want to hear it anyway because they are going to be critical. Why waste the time? As long as I am having a good time, enjoying it and we are winning some games, then I'll keep doing it. If I get to the point where that isn't true, then I'll do something else."

When did you know this team could be special?

"I think all of the really good teams I've been on, you're going to have two or three games during the season that you'll have to come from behind, win at the end or hold on. You have to win a couple of those close games to have a good year. I think the most exciting win may have been that Connecticut win [on Oct. 10]. To be behind like we were in the fourth quarter and come out and execute in all three phases -- to control clock, play defense, play special teams -- that was probably as big a turning point as we have had."

How much does that 38-31 loss at N.C. State hurt when you consider you blew a 31-17 lead?

"I truly, truly underestimated how good that quarterback [Russell Wilson] was. We didn't play good, we had penalties, turned the ball over in the red zone, we didn't play as good as we were capable. And we didn't coach as good as we could have. That was maybe a wakeup call for starting the conference the next week. And if we were to lose a game, I would much rather have lost to N.C. State on the road than to Louisville, Connecticut or Rutgers."

Which part of the team still needs to improve?

"I don't know if I would zero in on one area. I don't know if any coach could. If you watch the tape close, you see mistakes. We can be more efficient running the ball. There are ways we can be more efficient stopping the run. On special teams, we can be a lot more efficient in our return game. So I wouldn't zero in on any one area. We have to improve as a football team. We have to include everything. Coaching football is like being a fireman. You put out one fire and you turn around and the minute you feel you good about it, something flares up somewhere else. So you're constantly putting out fires to improve."

Has any area of the team performed better than you had imagined?

"Our offense in general. I knew we would run the ball because we were going to make an effort to do it and spend the time to do it. But I didn't expect to have this much success. The big focus in the offense was how to improve our play-[action] pass off of our running game. I knew we would be better and I am very pleased with where we are at now. Special teams is about where I thought it would be. The last few weeks, we have started playing good defense. I was disappointed in the first four or five games defensively. I didn't think we really lined up and dominated. We gave up too many plays and dumb penalties. But we have kind of calmed down and settled into a rhythm the last few weeks."

What has new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti meant to the attack?

"His dad recruited me to West Virginia, so I have known the family for a while. I had talked to Frank a couple times over the years. I was looking for a guy who had a very similar philosophy to what I want to do run the ball and play-pass. And Frank fit that mold. We talked a long time about what his background is and what he believes in. And I really felt comfortable that there would be a great mesh, not just with where we were but how we could improve and get better. I really liked his energy. And I wanted someone who was from this part of the country, who would have some type of appreciation for Pitt and what we are about here. Frank was a graduate assistant here at one point. So he knew the culture and the good and the bad."

What makes freshman running back Dion Lewis special?

"There are two things Dion has going for him that most freshmen don't. Most freshman backs have speed, have 'make you miss,' a lot of energy. But Dion is mature beyond his years. He takes everything in stride. He handles himself in the classroom and he handles himself on the field. He's very consistent and accountable in everything he does. From a football standpoint, he isn't faster than many other backs and doesn't make guys miss any more. But he is stronger and breaks tackles as well as any back in the country. For a freshman who is 190 pounds, he can bench-press 360 pounds. And his leg strength and upper-body strength are what separate him from most other backs."

Did you know he'd be this good?

"No. He went into spring practice as the third tailback and he rotated all through spring. We came out of spring and said, 'He had a good spring practice, let's see what happens in training camp.' He came out of training camp as the starter. And the rest is history.

Is this your best coaching job?

"Oh, no. We have a lot of football left. I wouldn't talk about that ever. I wouldn't talk about it any way. It's not my personality."

Is this your last job?

"I think so. I knew two things when I took the job. I knew for sure we had great football tradition here. I was here when we won the national championship. And I knew that the leadership at the top was solid and dependable. That third year, when Stull got hurt and all of the critics were out and everyone was wondering where the program was going, we didn't even have an athletic director. Jeff Long had gone to Arkansas and [current A.D.] Steve Pederson was still at Nebraska. And the chancellor stepped up and extended my contract before the West Virginia game. That was very unique. We talked long and hard about what we wanted to do with this program and where it was at. And he trusted. He made a great decision for the program, not me."

What's it mean to share a training facility with the Steelers?

"Steve Pederson did a great job with the Rooneys of designing this thing 10 years or so ago [when he was an assistant AD at Pitt]. I don't know if this would work in any other city. The Rooneys are good people. They are Pittsburgh people and are committed and try to help us out in any way they can. The relationship between me and [Steelers coach] Mike Tomlin is fantastic. That's what makes it go. From a working and cohesive standpoint, it's good because of the people we are working with."

Can you bring back the mustard yellow uniforms?

"We wore the old traditional uniforms a couple of years ago. You don't have to twist my arm. Those are the colors I wore. They always will be special in my heart. Times change. I never have been one who gets too caught up in uniform colors. That's a decision the higher-ups can deal with. I have more important things to deal with. They talked about when we play West Virginia, with both teams wearing throwback uniforms, but I don't know if that will happen or not. I would favor that."

Do you want to play Penn State every year?

"We need to be playing Penn State. I was on the job about a month and I talked to Coach Paterno about it. It probably won't happen until he retires and I understand that. It's his prerogative. But it'll happen. Maybe I won't even be here, either [when it happens]. We should play each other. It's a great, great national in-state rivalry. We should be playing each other. There is no question about that. There probably isn't anyone who would disagree with that."

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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