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Criticism often shadows Pitt Athletic Director Pederson

| Sunday, Jan. 9, 2011

Sal Gaetano shook Michael Haywood's hand. He introduced his 6-year-old grandson to the new University of Pittsburgh football coach, wished him well and rode up the escalator, where he spotted Athletic Director Steve Pederson observing from a balcony.

"He was so excited for the night," recalled Gaetano, 73, a 1959 Pitt graduate and donor who is emotionally and financially invested in his alma mater's athletic programs. "He was looking over the railing and watching the whole time as his coach was being introduced."

This was before a Pitt men's basketball game at Petersen Events Center on Dec. 22 at a meet-and-greet with Haywood, hired a week earlier to replace Dave Wannstedt. The scene was largely a Pederson production, from Wannstedt's forced resignation to Haywood's hiring as the school's first black head football coach.

After spotting Pederson, Gaetano, a retired pharmacist from Peters, said he lightheartedly uttered something like, "No matter what you do, you're gonna be wrong. Someone's not gonna like you."

Pederson "just smiled," Gaetano recalled.

Nine days later, on New Year's Eve, police in South Bend, Ind., arrested Haywood and charged him with assaulting the mother of his 21-month-old son. The next day he was released from jail and fired by the university.

Now Pederson, who is searching for yet another head football coach, is under fire.

That is nothing new. From his first stint as Pitt's AD to the same job at Nebraska and then back to Pitt, Pederson, 53, has taken an activist approach and drawn intense criticism. He also has generated his share of praise. But a Google search of "Steve Pederson" and "polarizing" turns up more hits than what might be expected for a university employee who is not a high-profile coach.

"We've made a lot of hard decisions over the course of time," he said. "Those hard decisions were key to moving this program forward. I've tried to make every decision that I've been involved in in the best interest of the University of Pittsburgh."

He might have included the University of Nebraska, as well. A native Nebraskan, Pederson left Pitt in 2002 and returned to his alma mater to take the AD's reins. Bold and aggressive, he helped raise millions of dollars but made some controversial decisions, upset a lot of people and was fired five years later.

Pitt quickly welcomed Pederson back. "I always did feel that Steve had that same talent and drive and ambition that distinguished him even from very, very good people who were intercollegiate athletic professionals," Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg said at the time.

Executive Associate Athletic Director Donna Sanft recalls that shortly after Pederson's return, new signs that read "Only Big Dreams" hung inside the basketball arena.

"That was his theme coming back, encouraging everybody to raise expectations higher and higher and higher," she said. "Steve believes we should win championships in every sport."

But once again Pederson is a moving target. This time the shots are coming from Pitt fans, boosters and alumni, many of whom harbored no love for the AD even before the Haywood news broke. Since then, their antipathy has boiled over.

Pederson would not comment specifically about the criticism or his future. But Friday night, he e-mailed a statement to reassure "fans and supporters of Pitt football" that the university is working "prudently" to find Haywood's successor.

"The past several days have been difficult for everyone who cares deeply about the Pitt football program," Pederson wrote. "We are cognizant of the fact that many of you are disappointed, upset and hurt."

He added, "The University of Pittsburgh is a proud institution and Pitt football is one of its most cherished traditions. As athletic director I take my role in helping to uphold and enhance that tradition very seriously."

From 'Pitt' to 'University of Pittsburgh'

The rancor might be less intense than it was at Nebraska, but it is palpable and real. Former Pitt football heroes like Bill Fralic and Tony Dorsett, who have ripped Pederson before, have turned up the volume. Talk radio is crackling, the Internet aflame. Privately, many are seething.

"I could spout off (the names of) 20 people who are upset," said Paul Helsel, a former Pitt baseball player and 1966 graduate who heads a precious metals trading company. "But I would violate a confidence. They would have everything to lose. They're tied to the university (as advertisers or corporate partners)."

Much of the animosity has been building since Pederson's first term as AD, which began in 1996. He immediately began shaking things up -- changing the colors, the football uniforms and rebranding the school as "The University of Pittsburgh." It went back to "Pitt" after he left. So much for tradition. Then he led the successful effort to raze ancient Pitt Stadium, located on campus, and move home football games to Heinz Field, the North Shore home of the Steelers. Many fans have not forgiven him.

During Pederson's second tenure, the acclaimed Petersen Events Center on the Pitt Stadium site and other state-of-the-art facilities were built. Fundraising has increased -- a university spokesman said the athletic scholarship fund raised a record $7.4 million last year -- the men's basketball program has flourished, and academic and social support for athletes has improved.

But recently, Wannstedt's dismissal to some extent, the Haywood fiasco to a larger extent -- he was not heartily received by Pitt faithful before his arrest -- and what is perceived as a slow-moving search for a replacement has galvanized Pederson's critics and provided a tipping point.

'Abrasive, arrogant'

Helsel is leading a campaign to persuade boosters to cut athletic donations unless Pederson is fired. "I've had issues with the athletic department for a while," Helsel said, and he is not alone.

"He alienates people," Helsel said of Pederson. "He's abrasive. He's arrogant. He's all of that."

In 2003, Gaetano was quoted as saying of Pederson's first term at Pitt: "Everything Steve did was right." Seven years later, he was asked if he would say the same thing.

"I would guess a lot has changed," Gaetano said. "I'm guessing that 75 to 80 percent of the alumni are against him right now."

In a visible profession that brings Pederson into contact with all kinds of people, style often counts. Ideally, there should be some meaning behind the smile, sincerity behind the words, some consideration of feelings. Some of the AD's detractors say he lacks those traits.

"I don't think the guy knows how to relate to common folks, let's put it that way," said David Jancisin, a Merrill Lynch executive and former Pitt defensive tackle.

Jancisin, who said he does not plan to renew 16 of his 20 club seats for football games, played with Wannstedt at Pitt in the early to mid-1970s. He said Wannstedt remains a friend and resents his firing. But Jancisin said that did not alter his impressions of Pederson.

Said Gaetano: "(Pederson is) very good at greeting people. That 'Hello, how are you?' smile. But there's something that just doesn't come out with him. He doesn't give you a feeling of warmth. There's something he's not getting across to the alumni."

Fired for 'leadership style'

Such comments sound familiar, going back to when Pederson left a revered Nebraska football program, the lifeblood of the state, in disarray. Things unraveled after he fired popular coach Frank Solich and replaced him with an NFL coach, Bill Callahan.

Solich had a 58-19 record in six seasons at Nebraska -- winning more games than Hall of Fame Nebraska coaches Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne won in their first six years -- when Pederson fired him in 2003, uttering the memorable line, "I refuse to let the program gravitate into mediocrity."

Callahan was 27-22 with two losing seasons in four years and was fired shortly after Pederson.

Pederson, a 1980 Nebraska graduate, alienated many in the athletic community. Nebraska Chancellor Harvey Perlman, who wielded the ax, cited Pederson's "leadership style" for his dismissal, telling a newspaper that Pederson was "losing the support of people in the athletic department, many of whom were strong supporters initially." Pederson was fired three months after receiving a five-year contract extension and reportedly received a $2.2 million buyout.

Those around the Cornhuskers athletic program almost gleefully chimed in after his firing, recounting the difficulties of life with Pederson, under whom athletics fundraising doubled during his last four years and graduation rates improved. Written accounts described a "culture of fear" and a lack of connection with donors, fans and ex-Cornhusker athletes.

Marc Boehm worked for Pederson at Pitt as an assistant AD, became interim AD after he left, then joined his old boss at Nebraska. Boehm is still there as an executive associate AD.

He said he and Pederson have not spoken in three years.

"I am incredibly grateful for Steve providing me the opportunity to get into college athletics," Boehm said. "But Steve and I are two different people. I've learned the importance of communication and cooperation and people being honest with each other. It's a team game, and you need people working together."

To be sure, Pederson has supporters who view his style as that of an energetic, innovative and exacting manager.

"He has had some very difficult decisions to make, both tenures, and he's tried to make them in the best interest of the university," Jim McCarl, a prominent booster whose name adorns the Hall of Champions inside The Pete. "I've found him to be a man of high integrity, and extremely hard worker and extremely loyal."

Pederson's contribution to the winning men's basketball program "speaks for itself," coach Jamie Dixon said, as well as "what he's done with the facilities and the other programs."

Sanft, a former volleyball coach who first came to Pitt as a student in 1970, credited Pederson for being a "great leader."

"Make no mistake, he holds the bar very high," she said. "He holds himself to that standard, and he holds others to that standard."

The letter

The full text of a letter written by Pitt Athletic Director Steve Pederson regarding the firing of football coach Michael Haywood:

To the fans and supporters of Pitt football:

With the events of the past week, we felt it was important to write you to discuss those events and the direction we will be taking into the future.

The past several days have been difficult for everyone who cares deeply about the Pitt football program. We are very cognizant of the fact that many of you are disappointed, upset and hurt. The University of Pittsburgh is a proud institution and Pitt football is one of its most cherished traditions. As athletic director I take my role in helping to uphold and enhance that tradition very seriously.

The decision to dismiss Michael Haywood as our football coach was made after very careful consideration. Ultimately, we determined that moving forward with him as our coach was not possible under the circumstances. Our head coaches rank among Pitt's most visible representatives and we expect only the highest standards of personal conduct from them. The people of Pitt -- and especially our student-athletes -- deserve nothing less.

This has resulted in a period of adversity for our program. We are strong believers that with adversity comes opportunity, and we are committed to ensuring that we take advantage of the opportunities we have coming out of these difficult circumstances.

As we write you, we have already embarked on our search for a new head football coach. Time is of the essence but we will move prudently to find the right leader for our program. We truly believe this is one of the best coaching positions in the country -- a tremendous football tradition and world-class academics centered in one of America's finest cities.

This search will be conducted with a team effort. I will be joined by Executive Vice Chancellor Jerry Cochran and Executive Associate Athletic Director Donna Sanft to conduct initial candidate interviews. A smaller number of candidates will be invited to participate in further discussions, which will include a meeting with Chancellor Mark Nordenberg.

It is my personal and professional pledge to you, the loyal fans and supporters of the University of Pittsburgh, that we will find the right man to lead Pitt football. Our belief that this program can, and will, compete for championships on an annual basis has not wavered and we are committed to bringing that championship vision to fruition.

Thank you for time, support and dedication to the University of Pittsburgh.


Steve Pederson

Athletic Director

Additional Information:

Steve Pederson

Profession: University of Pittsburgh athletic director

Age: 53

Family: Wife, Tami; children, Mark, Kari and Kristin

Residence: Squirrel Hill

Education: Bachelor's degree, business administration, University of Nebraska (1980)

Additional Information:

Through the years

Pitt athletic director: 1996-2002, 2007-present


• Hired Ben Howland as men's basketball coach in 1999

• Helped oversee construction of Petersen Events Center, which opened in 2002, and Petersen Sports Complex, scheduled to open this spring

• In the forefront of football program's move into UPMC Sports Performance Complex in the South Side and into Heinz Field in 2001; some heralded the move into an NFL stadium, but others bemoaned the demolition of on-campus Pitt Stadium

• Introduced new school colors and football uniforms and demanded that teams be referred to as the University of Pittsburgh rather than Pitt

• Bolstered the academic support system for athletes

• Forced resignation of football coach Dave Wannstedt in December

• Hired virtual unknown in Miami (Ohio) coach Mike Haywood to replace Wannstedt; Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg fired Haywood on Jan. 1 after the new coach was charged with domestic battery

Nebraska athletic director: 2002-07


• Fired football coach Frank Solich in 2003 despite his 58-19 record in six seasons, the most wins by any coach in a six-year span in Cornhuskers history

• Hired former Oakland Raiders coach Bill Callahan in 2004 to replace Solich; Oakland had fired Callahan in 2003, a year after he led them to the Super Bowl; he went 27-22 in four seasons before Tom Osborne fired him in 2007; the university had fired Pederson a month earlier and named Osborne interim athletic director

Source: Tribune-Review research

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