Peterson Events Center and Heinz Field: Pederson angered many when he demolished Pitt Stadium, but it looks like he's made the best of a bad situation. Pitt Stadium, sad to say, was not something that was going to be good for the football program moving forward. It was dilapidated and a hindrance to recruiting. If it was to replaced by a new stadium, then what would Pitt do with their basketball facilities? Fitzgerald Field House as a major venue also needed to be replaced as it was also behind what other universities had for their basketball programs. It would be too expensive to replace both, and there was no place for the basketball team to play if Fitzgerald Field House was not an option. The Consol Energy Center did not exist yet and the Civic Arena was also out of date. But as luck would have it, Heinz Field was about to be built. The plan that Pederson came up with was to demolish Pitt Stadium, replace it with the beautiful new Petersen Events Center for basketball as well as other events, then move the Pitt football program to beautiful new Heinz Field. It's not perfect. That would be an on campus football stadium so that students won't have to bus to games. But for now it's the best situation that the football and basketball programs can hope for, realistically, and it's light years ahead of where Pitt was before Pederson arrived. You can argue that Pitt's facilities were so bad that any AD would have no choice but to improve them, but you have to give Pederson the benefit of the doubt that he made some excellent decisions that many ADs may not have done as well.
Firing Dave Wannstedt: You can't say that Pederson was not a fan of Wannstedt. In fact, when Pederson was at Nebraska, he was interested in hiring Wannstedt as the head coach. Plus, Pederson extended Wannstedt's contract at Pitt, and was a big supporter for the first few years since he returned from Nebraska. But last season, Pederson, surprising many, fired Wannstedt (technically he resigned, but who are we kidding?). Even me, who wrote an article the week before the firing opining that Wannstedt had already maxed out what he could do at Pitt, that his program was starting to decline, and that he had to be fired, was surprised that it happened as soon as it did. But clearly Pederson thought a year too soon was better than a year too late, and I applaud that decision. It was the right choice, even though it angered many former Pitt players who loved that a former Pitt man was at the helm. Unfortunately, there were two incidents related to this firing that turned what could be an exciting change into a nightmare. More on that in the "Bad" section".
Hiring Walt Harris: This was not a sexy hire. Harris was a quarterbacks coach at Ohio State and his only head coaching experience was at Pacific. But after the second stint of Johnny Majors dropped Pitt to about as low as the program could go, Pederson didn't have a lot of options. No excellent candidates wanted to join such a mess. But Harris ended up being a fine coach who deserves great credit for helping Pitt come back from the brink.
Move to ACC: Pederson was instrumental in helping the university to flee the dying Big East to bolt to the ACC. Of course, Mark Nordenberg, among others in the university, were highly involved also, but Pederson gets a lot of credit for, perhaps the second time in his career, saving the football program.
Great relationship with Jamie Dixon: Pederson did not hire Dixon. That fortunate fluke happened when Pitt did not have an AD, which is probably the only reason why Dixon is the head coach today. But Dixon likes Pederson very much and it's not an understatement to say that Pederson's presence helps in keeping Dixon around. In fact, Dixon was no longer talking to former AD Jeff Long before Long left for Arkansas, and it's not a stretch to think that if Long was still at Pitt, Dixon would not be. Football is where the money is, but Dixon is the star of Pitt athletics. It doesn't hurt to keep him happy.
Improving the facilities: Outside of the Petersen Events Center, Pederson also was involved in the Petersen Sports Complex, which included the Charles L. Cost Field for baseball, the Vartabedian Field for softball, and the Ambrose Urbanic Field for soccer. It took over ten years to get it done, but Pederson started it, and when he came back, he finished it. The UPMC Performance Complex was another huge addition to the football program, and despite the inconvenience of having to bus the players from the campus, the sparkling South Side complex is beautiful. The fact that they share it with the Steelers is a plus.
Raising money: Despite many public comments by donors who've said they will not donate anymore, Pederson has raised a lot of money in both of his tenures, including a record amount last year.
Hiring of Alonzo Webb, Joe Jordano, and Chris Beerman: Webb (Track and Field), Jordano (baseball), and Beerman (women's volleyball) were all successful hires by Pederson, though Beerman has since left for Kentucky.
Respect from those he works closest to: There's no way to know how everybody who works with Pederson feels about him, and in fact he has had coworkers at both Pitt and Nebraska who have clearly not liked him. But Nordenberg, Dixon, and Executive Associate Athletic Director Donna Sanft all publicly rave about him, and it's safe to say that Todd Graham is a fan, too, since Pederson hired him.
Elimination of Pitt brand: Let's be honest, the whole "Pitt script" argument has become a running joke amongst Pitt fans. Many fans want the old Pitt script back that began in 1973 until Pederson changed it in 1996, while others don't see what the big deal is. But there is more to just the memory of good times that makes the script, and the "Pitt" name, important.
One thing that many college sports fans don't think about, but is huge behind closed doors, is a university's sports brand. When people think of Notre Dame, they have a certain image that has been shaped for decades- the leprechaun, Notre Dame stadium, Touchdown Jesus, etc. It's the same with major programs like Penn State, Ohio State, USC, Michigan, etc. With the name "Pitt", the university's brand was strong. Sports fans knew exactly who Pitt was. There was only one, and they wore it uniquely in cursive letters on their helmets or across their chests.
But Pederson did something completely irrational. He decided to take the Pitt out of the university to replace it with Pittsburgh. The problem with that is obvious. When people around the country think of Pittsburgh, they don't think of Pitt's sports programs. And they don't think of the university. They think of things like steel mills, rivers, bridges, the Duquesne Incline, Primanti Brothers, and the Steelers. As Pittsburgh, the university loses it's unique brand. It gets swallowed up by more powerful things.
Gone was Pitt, gone was the script. In it's place was Pittsburgh and a "Dinocat" that an average observer would never recognize as belonging to the University of Pittsburgh. In fact, the Pittsburgh Panther looks no different than probably dozens and dozens of high school teams across the country. You want to have brand recognition. Somebody walking by a television set and see a helmet with "Pitt" written in cursive letters across the helmet makes an immediate connection to the university. But walk by and see a large cat head on a helmet and you have to ask who it is. Notre Dame and Penn State doesn't need anything on their helmets because their brands are strong without it. But the name of Pitt is all the university had that made their brand stand out. Why take it away?
It was a horrible mistake by Pederson and it made absolutely no sense. When he left to go to Nebraska, new AD Jeff Long replaced the name Pitt, but the nondescript Panther head remains on the helmet, and the name "Pitt" is still not the strong brand that it once used to be. It's not hard to understand why. Pitt, under Pederson, literally went out of their way to destroy any uniqueness the Pitt brand had.
Hired Mike Haywood: What an absolute disaster this way. The firing of Wannstedt was understandable, but how can you do it without even having an inkling that you can find somebody better? It appears Pederson targeted Todd Graham early. It wouldn't have been my first choice, but he was still somebody who was coveted. The university did not want to part with the money that Graham needed to leave Tulsa. Pitt's thriftiness was bad enough, but unfortunately it only got worse. It's unknown what Pederson's thought process was next. Did he try harder for Graham? Did he try for anybody other than Haywood? That's something we don't know yet. But one thing we do know is that there were many more competent candidates out there than Haywood.
Haywood was a head coach for a grand total of two years and in the first one he was 1-11. In the second season he improved to 9-4, but the fact remains, a coach that coached for only two years, and in the MAC, is not somebody who is clearly better than Wannstedt. I'm not trashing the MAC because some of the greatest head coaches ever came out of there, but none of them were ever going to be confused with the former Notre Dame star. It was a very important hire for the football program and they needed a slam dunk. This was not the man to dunk.
Haywood was considered a journeyman. He tried, and failed, for many head coaching positions before. He's had interviews but after hearing his post-hire press conference is there any wonder why he never got those jobs? To say he was uninspiring is an understatement. He had zero charisma, made little sense, and looked as if he could fall asleep any second. And yet somehow Pederson singled this guy out to lead this moribund program back to excellence? Seriously? This was the best guy he could come up with? What could Pederson have possibly seen? I couldn't tell you. There are top coordinators all around the country that would love a chance to coach at Pitt. All Pederson had to do was just find one of the dozens of future quality coaches out there. It is his job, after all, to know who the top up and coming young coaches are. A 46-year old journeyman with no charisma is the antithesis of what Pitt needed.
Then of course there is the second part of one of the darkest weeks in Pitt football history, and that was the news that Haywood was arrested for assaulting the mother of his child. This was after Pederson said that Haywood's values were "in line with the values of this great university". Pederson then went on to say, "Michael is a man of character and integrity and will be an inspirational leader for our football team." Yikes.
Look, personally I don't care if a man has a child out of wedlock. But many in a university setting might, especially in a job that is so high profile. If you make a special point to talk about values needed to lead young men, it might be best not to hire the guy with a baby's mama. These situations tend to blow up, which is exactly what happened. Schmoozing is a huge part of being a high profile football coach. What was the reaction going to be when an older, more conservative booster asks Haywood what his family situation was? Right or wrong, I can tell you that was going to turn off some people. Being a major football coach is like being a politician. If the package isn't right, nobody will be in your corner. That's just the way it is. Many college coaches simply didn't jibe with boosters over the years and got fired because of it. For the life of me, I can't see why Pederson thought this man was going to be a hit over a dinner party.
What's worse is that Pederson was practically on his own with making the recommendation. And this is a guy whose last hire was Bill Callahan, and who nearly fired Walt Harris for the not so legendary Ron Zook. Needless to say, football is where the money is in college athletics, and hiring football coaches seems to be Pederson's biggest weakness. Graham is Pederson's latest chance to get Pitt football where he wants it, but the slow start is already making people antsy.
The way he fired Dave Wannstedt: This was another egregious mistake by Pederson. In fact, it angered Wannstedt and his supporters so much that their public uproar is still being felt. For some inexplicable reason, Pederson allowed Wannstedt to address the media immediately and while Wannstedt was in a rage. The result was predictable. Wannstedt, flanked by many of his players, not so subtly condemned the whole proceeding, furthering darkening the black eye of the university at such a fragile time.
Hired women's basketball coach Traci Waites: I mentioned Pederson's good hires outside of the two big revenue sports, so it's only fair that I talk about this one. Waites had a career 53-85 record at the university and was fired after five seasons. Not only was her record bad, but her off the court problems also proved to be a problem. In fact, reportedly she treated her players badly and her foul language made university officials cringe. Waites got another coaching job again, this time at Columbia, but she was fired again, and this time it was so bad that she was actually barred from the campus. Perhaps this is more proof that Pederson may not be the best judge of character when hiring coaches.
Depends on who you believe
Hiring of Ben Howland: This deserves it's own category because while Howland was hired by Pederson, there is serious doubt about whether or not he was the man most responsible for the decision. In fact, Sonny Vaccaro explicitly says that it was he who got Howland to Pitt.
In an April 6, 2003 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, Pederson admits to calling Vaccaro about hiring Howland: "I called Sonny and told him I was considering Ben and I hoped that we could rely on a shoe contract, in terms of getting Ben all set financially and so forth. He did know Ben and helped him at Northern Arizona."
In the same article, however, Vaccaro denies that Pederson knew of Howland (and I have my own doubts that Pederson was very familiar with a basketball coach from obscure Northern Arizona that he had no ties to), and says he set up the whole thing: "He was a football person. He wasn't a basketball person. He wanted someone who was a solid, fundamental coach. That's who I recommended. "
"I told Steve about Ben and said, 'He's what you need. He's a coach. He ain't going to play in Pittsburgh the first year, but he's one of the best young coaches in the country.'"
According to Vaccaro, he called Howland and told him he was going to try to get him the Pitt job. He did and the rest is history. And for anybody who doubts that Vaccaro has that kind of clout, in the same article, then Duquesne AD Brian Colleary was quoted as saying that Vaccaro was "a very influential person in regards to hiring coaches".
Summary: Pederson may be the most polarizing AD in college athletics. Many Pitt fans despise him, donors routinely, and very publicly, state that they will stop giving money unless he's out, and many former Pitt athletes want him to leave and never come back. Former great Bill Fralic trashed Pederson so vehemently back in January of this year that he lost his job (technically "stepped down") as the color commentator on the Pitt radio broadcasts. Al Romano, captain of the 1976 National Champions team, Mike Ditka, and Tony Dorsett were just some other big names who have criticized Pederson. And Dorsett actually had a street named after him thanks to Pederson so that one had to sting.
And while I would prefer to concentrate on what Pederson has done at Pitt, one can not completely ignore what Pederson did at Nebraska. His failure there was epic. We're talking Shakespearean tragedy type of disaster that they would write books about if he was something more important than an athletic director. Pederson is still so reviled in Nebraska that he was actually named the most hated sports figure in the state by a poll conducted by ESPN. And this guy is from Nebraska and went to the school. How could somebody mess up that bad?
But you can also ask how somebody could mess up that bad at Pitt sometimes. The whole Wannstedt firing/Haywood hiring/Haywood firing fiasco would have gotten pretty much any other AD in the country fired. Changing Pitt's brand was another big mistake, and it's a mistake that he's yet to correct fully.
Yet one can not deny that Pederson moved Pitt's sports programs into the 21st century also. Previous ADs, and administrators, should be embarrassed by the state of how things were when Pederson first arrived. A merely competent AD could easily make improvements to the charred remains of past failures. But Pederson went way beyond that. The facilities for both football and basketball are now amongst the best in the country and the Olympic sports now finally have a place to play without having to be embarrassed.
You also have to give Pederson credit for saving Pitt football by hiring Harris, and by possibly saving Pitt football again by getting the university into the ACC. The hugeness of both can not be denied.
Ultimately, what Pederson will most be remembered for is his massive ego. In people of power that's not always a bad thing. In fact, people in power have to have a strong ego because they have to believe they can get things done. And Pederson did get things done. But his biggest flaw is also his ego. When he gets in trouble with his decisions, it's because he tries to make a big, flashy move when a big, flashy move was not needed. There was no need to change the Pitt brand. None. He did it because he got swept up in the power to change things, and he never stopped to wonder if it actually made sense.
He made the same mistake with the hiring of Haywood, and also Bill Callahan at Nebraska. Instead of just hiring somebody who made sense, Pederson had to find somebody outside the box so that when, in his mind, that person succeeded, he would look like a genius. Now, I'm not saying that Pederson sits around thinking how great he can look, but I do think subconsciously he gets swept up in his own power. How else can somebody blithely keep smiling as if nothing is wrong while the villagers are throwing rocks at him daily? Yes, all people in his position gets criticism, but this man is actually loathed by a large amount of people. You would think in this situation, you would be more conservative and try to take the heat off of you some. But not when you have the massive ego that Pederson has. He just goes on as if brilliance is about to shoot out of his head at any second, and that we will all be so lucky to experience it.
Of course, none of this can be make possible if he was not sheltered, and even enabled, by Nordenberg, who routinely gets a pass despite being Pederson's biggest fan. How big of a fan is he? When Pederson got fired at Nebraska, he was dead man walking. Nobody wanted to be around such a colossal disaster, which is exactly what he was at that time. But Nordenberg called him to ask him if he would be interested to return to Pitt- and he did this the day after Pederson was fired. Nordenberg obviously thinks Pederson was a great AD for Pitt, and there is no doubt that Pederson did a lot for the university's sports programs. But Pederson was already not loved at Pitt, was absolutely despised at Nebraska, and the next day you can't wait to get him back? Where's the pride? Yes, Pederson did great things at Pitt, but there's seriously nobody else you can find at this point other than the most hated AD in the country? And you needed him so badly that you couldn't even wait for him to clean out his desk at Nebraska?
According to a 2007 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article by Paul Zeise, Jeff Long was getting approximately $200,000 a year salary at Pitt at that time. If that is correct, then that means Pitt is currently paying Pederson three times that much. That's just more proof that Pitt not only wants Pederson, they really want Pederson.
So a large portion of the alumni, fans, and former athletes be damned. It looks like Pederson is going to continue dreaming big at Pitt. Sometimes he will succeed spectacularly. Sometimes he will fail spectacularly. But make no mistake about it, Nordenberg will be encouraging him as he does it.