Harris: Pitt AD Pederson gets a bad rap
If you think that former coaches Mike Haywood and Todd Graham were bad hires for Pitt, you're right. Both were terrible, indefensible hires that set back the football program several years.
If you wish to criticize, berate and demonize the person who made those decisions — athletic director Steve Pederson — prepare to stand in a long line of critics.
Pederson blew it.
Are they fireable offenses? No. Unless there's specific legal language in Pederson's contract that he isn't permitted to make a mistake — or in this case, multiple mistakes — no way. Pederson has accomplished more good than bad at Pitt.
“If it wasn't for Steve Pederson, Pitt's not in the ACC,” said former shoe executive and Trafford native Sonny Vaccaro.
Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg has taken the controversy in stride, and Pederson still has his job.
Nordenberg knows how valuable Pederson is to Pitt, and I mean that literally.
Pederson's magic touch enabled Pitt to evolve into one of the elite college basketball programs in the country.
Without the benefit of a top-20 football team, Pitt, on the strength of men's basketball, secured a deal with Nike in 2009 while also gaining membership in the ACC. Pitt's football team finished 10-3 in 2009 for its first 10-win season in 28 years.
If you insist on blaming Pederson for hiring Haywood and Graham, give him credit for the Panthers joining the ACC.
“Without basketball, Pitt would be like Connecticut — no place to go,” Vaccaro said. “Pitt would be going to the Catholic 7.”
Former Big East members Pitt, Syracuse, Louisville and Notre Dame jumped to the ACC. Connecticut, despite winning three national titles under former basketball coach Jim Calhoun, was left out.
Among Pederson's biggest supporters on campus is Jamie Dixon, the most successful basketball coach in Pitt history. Dixon said Pederson continued to influence him even after Pederson became Nebraska's athletic director before returning to Pitt in 2007.
“Steve didn't hire me as the head coach,” said Dixon, who was Ben Howland's top assistant when he was promoted to replace Howland in 2003. “But he told me what Pitt could become, and he also convinced me when he wasn't here that this wasn't a place you needed to move from but a place you turn into the best job in the country.
“Steve has made so many great decisions, so many great moves,” Dixon said. “Yeah, there's going to be one or two or even more that some people are going to question. But with the great moves and the rise in a number of our programs, you get held to a higher standard. As the rise came, standards became higher and expectations became higher.”
While highlighting the substantial growth occurring in Pitt's athletic department, Pederson recalled when the Petersen Events Center didn't exist and there was so little money available that baseball players purchased their own cleats.
“We're talking 15 years ago, not 50 years ago,” Pederson said.
“Adidas was very good to us. Nike's been superb since we made that transition,” he added. “If you're not spending that much on equipment, you have a chance to put it in other areas we thought would elevate the program — a lot of that facility centered.”
Department of Education statistics reported the Panthers were the 14th most profitable program in college basketball in 2009-10. The program netted $7.1 million.
In comparison, UCLA brought in $6.1 million and Kentucky $5.2 million.
Does Pederson have his faults? Yes. Has he made mistakes? To be sure.
But Pederson's track record at Pitt — first building and later housing the nationally-ranked basketball team in a state-of-the-art facility while maintaining the athletic department in the black financially — deserves praise, not scorn.