Wannstedt's Panthers learning discipline the hard way
The signs began to show when a starting linebacker was suspended one game for violating team rules, and again when a reserve tight end flipped his middle finger to an opposing student section after scoring a touchdown.
A promising season that started 6-1 ended in a five-game slide that cost Pitt another bowl bid.
If team discipline wasn't an issue then, it is now.
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt restored order in his program, handing out indefinite suspensions to a pair of part-time starters and hiring strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris to enforce a no-nonsense atmosphere.
"There's nobody that's bigger than a team, and I don't care who you are," Wannstedt said. "It's just creating a real sense of accountability and responsibility on a day-to-day basis."
Wannstedt proved he was serious when he tossed a pair of Western Pennsylvania products, weak-side linebacker Tommie Campbell (Aliquippa) and nose tackle Corey Davis (Peabody), from spring drills for repeated violations of team rules. Although Wannstedt hasn't publicly ruled it out, Pitt players don't expect either player to return to the team.
"That's a big message," safety Mike Phillips said. "Some guys think, 'Well, he's a starter. He's not going to do too much to him.' Everybody thinks they play favoritism, but they really don't.
"When that happened ... it opened some eyes. It shows that coach Wannstedt is not playing around, that there's players everywhere and if you're going to mess up, he doesn't want you to be part of this program."
If that message wasn't loud and clear, the next was. Wannstedt suspended sophomore Elijah Fields, a contender for a starting safety position, for a violation of team rules when spring drills started March 17. Fields will return to team meetings Monday and practice Tuesday.
"I definitely think it points to us that no one is protected, no matter who you are or what you've done," linebacker Scott McKillop said. "You'll be disciplined just like everybody else."
While Pitt players are learning to respect Wannstedt's authority, they already fear the consequences dished out by Morris. He wasted no time instilling his own set of rules to which players had to adhere. No one was immune to getting cussed out or thrown out of workouts.
"If you're not going to give the effort, get out of here," Morris said of his philosophy. "I don't want you. You're wasting my time, you're wasting this university's time, this program's time and, more importantly, you're wasting your time."
Morris instituted 6 a.m. "punishment runs." Sometimes, they even came on Wednesdays.
"Wednesday used to be our day off, so when you had to wake up on a Wednesday and run, it gets to you," Phillips said. "It brought us together. It was like, 'I've got to depend on you to go to class.' Some guys still didn't grasp it and thought, 'Maybe I can just miss this one class.'"
That didn't last long. Morris created accountability among the players by separating them into groups by position. When one player missed an assignment, his group mates had to run early the next morning. A second miss required the entire offense or defense to run. A third offense?
"You wouldn't want that," quarterback Bill Stull said, "because it would mean the whole team would have to come."
That, apparently, played a role in the suspensions. Some players went to Wannstedt after repeated slip-ups to demand action be taken; otherwise, they said, they would take it upon themselves.
"It got to a point that you were ready to fight the person who was missing - 'we're going to beat you up' - because we were tired of running," Phillips said. "Things got really heated because we had to run for one person. It got the message across."
Wannstedt saw a turning point in team discipline when the players causing problems were largely outnumbered.
"When you've got a large faction of guys that you're having to discipline and stay on, it's tougher to self-police than when you have 95 percent of the guys doing the right thing and there's one or two who aren't falling in line," Wannstedt said. "Now, it's easy for the pack to turn on those guys. Their actions get magnified. That's a little bit what happened in a couple situations."
Wannstedt believes there can be carryover in discipline from offseason workouts to the practice and playing field and discipline will come to fruition when they are fatigued during a football game.
"It's all the same," Wannstedt said. "You can't fudge either one of them."