Pitt donors push to get rid of Pederson
From forcing the resignation of football coach Dave Wannstedt to hiring Mike Haywood, who was arrested and fired two weeks later, Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson has become a lightning rod for criticism.
Now Panthers alumni and boosters are issuing a threat to Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg: They want Pederson to pay.
Or they won't.
A movement is gaining momentum to pressure Nordenberg to fire Pederson or face the possibility of prominent donors withholding financial support.
"If Pederson remains, I'm done," said Paul Helsel, a 1966 graduate who played baseball at Pitt and donates between $10,000 to $25,000 annually to the university. "There are so many people like me who are upset."
Pederson on Thursday deflected criticism directed at him, saying the search to find Haywood's successor is not about him.
"This has been and always will be about the University of Pittsburgh," Pederson said. "And I am honored to be part of this team."
University spokesman Robert Hill, speaking on behalf of Nordenberg, said the chancellor supports Pederson and would have no further comment.
Among the disenchanted are former football stars Al Romano, a captain of the 1976 national championship team; and Bill Fralic, a three-time All-American and college Hall of Famer whose No. 79 jersey the university retired.
What should get Pitt's attention is the backing of big-money booster Armand Dellovade, 73, of Canonsburg.
Dellovade, who owns a contracting company in Washington County, said he donates about $60,000 annually to Pitt. He has 34 football season tickets, including two dozen seats in the prestigious club level, and 10 season tickets to men's basketball games. Dellovade said he is contemplating ending his financial support if Pederson continues to run the athletic department.
"He should be gone," Dellovade said.
Instead, Pederson is part of a three-person search committee interviewing candidates for the Pitt football coaching job. Alumni have accused him of alienating them and embarrassing their alma mater.
They blame Pederson for dismissing Wannstedt on Dec. 7 without notice, then characterizing the program as one that was lacking discipline upon introducing Miami (Ohio)'s Haywood as the replacement. Haywood was fired Jan. 1, a day after being charged with domestic battery after an incident in South Bend, Ind., involving the mother of his 21-month-old son.
Even a popular pick for Pitt's next head coach might not save Pederson.
"I think he has issues no matter who they hire," said Romano, who lives in Syracuse, N.Y. "All is not going to be well.
"I actually like Steve, but that doesn't mean I'm in favor of what he did. Because these things happened so close together, we didn't have time to get over the Dave thing."
While fellow Hall of Famers Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett and Mark May have publicly criticized Pitt for its handling of the coaching moves, none has been as outspoken as Fralic, who serves as the color analyst on Pitt football radio broadcasts and will call today's BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala.
"I can't lie. I care so much about the place, but I can't keep my mouth shut," Fralic said. "I'm sure right now the university would like me to dry up and blow away. I can understand that. But my honest sense of things is that they're not right, and I don't see them going right."
Fralic is upset that Pederson not only forced out a proud Pitt alumnus in Wannstedt, but he also led a coaching search that failed to include any former Panthers as candidates and is part of a second search that has only one candidate with Pitt ties among the half-dozen or so likely to interview.
"It seems almost a prerequisite to get a guy who has no ties," Fralic said. "It's not necessarily important that it's a Pitt guy. It's just that it shouldn't be an anti-Pitt guy."
That's how some alumni and boosters view Pederson, although they aren't reserving their resentment for him alone. The more the Panthers become a national punch line, the more they blame other administrators.
"I don't think the university could take another embarrassment like this," Romano said. "If this goes wrong, it's not just going to be on his shoulders."
Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson, the target of mounting criticism following Michael Haywood's arrest and abrupt firing as the new football coach, sent out an e-mail last night explaining the decision and reassuring fans about the coaching search.
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