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Wannstedt puts new spin on Sun Bowl

Kevin Gorman
| Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2008

EL PASO, Texas -- Trying to turn a negative into a positive, Dave Wannstedt not only embraced the underdog role but attempted to treat the first bowl appearance in his four seasons as Pitt coach as a good omen.

Despite a higher national ranking and a better overall record, the No. 18 Panthers (9-3) remain 2 1/2-point underdogs against Oregon State (8-4) in the 75th Brut Sun Bowl at 2:15 p.m. today at Sun Bowl Stadium.

Wannstedt's spin put the pressure on Oregon State coach Mike Riley, who received a one-year extension on his six-year, rollover contract for clinching a bowl berth for the fifth time in six years. The Beavers are 27-12 in the past three seasons, the best stretch in school history, but lost their top playmakers in tailback Jacquizz Rodgers and receiver James Rodgers to shoulder injuries.

"This is somewhat new territory for me," Wannstedt said Tuesday in a pregame news conference at the Judson F. Williams Convention Center. "Mike's obviously been in bowl games the past couple years. He's 4-0 in bowl games, so he knows what he's doing. He's been to the Sun Bowl recently (beating Missouri, 39-38, in 2006), but this is new territory for myself. It's been a few years since I've been to a bowl game."

Wannstedt's last bowl appearance came as the defensive coordinator for the Miami Hurricanes when they defeated Oklahoma in the 1988 Orange Bowl to win the national championship.

Instead, Wannstedt drew upon his NFL head-coaching career for laughs, noting that after a strong start with the Chicago Bears, "I was coach of the year and everything was 'hee-hee, ha-ha.' Four or five years later, it was 'no hee-hee, ha-ha.'" He also added that, after going 11-5 and winning the division in his first year with the Miami Dolphins, "I had a running back from Texas (Ricky Williams) that decided to take a sabbatical."

"I think this might be a good omen," Wannstedt said, "that we start off a little slow in Pittsburgh and we might get it going now."

It's no wonder Wannstedt is looking on the brighter side, as well as the lighter side, considering he had a 16-19 record in his first three seasons at Pitt. After making six bowl appearances in eight years under Walt Harris - including five consecutive from 2000-04 -- the Panthers went 5-6, 6-6 and 5-7.

Pitt sophomore tailback LeSean McCoy believes that the Pitt coach uses humor to escape the expectations, knowing that one thing both Wannstedt and Riley are former NFL head coaches who want to help lead their hometown schools to national prominence. Where Riley is a University of Alabama alum who grew up on Oregon State's Corvallis campus, Wannstedt is a Baldwin native who played at Pitt and was a graduate assistant on its 1975 Sun Bowl team and an assistant on its '76 national champions.

"I think it means a lot to him, especially when he took this job and the big thing he stresses is to try to get this program back to winning games and back to how Pittsburgh used to be," McCoy said. "He's a competitor. Everything going into this game, both are former NFL coaches back in their hometown, I know he wants to win this game."

Wannstedt lamented that Pitt failed to earn a bowl bid the past two seasons, when the Tyler Palko-quarterbacked team in '06 "couldn't stop anybody" and last year's team "couldn't generate the offense we needed" with freshmen quarterbacks despite boasting a top-five defense.

This year, things finally fell into place for the Panthers, who won nine regular-season games for the first time since 1982 and have a chance to clinch their first 10-win season since 1981 with a victory in the Sun Bowl.

"It's been a little bit frustrating," Wannstedt said. "This is the first year we've been able to stay healthy and get some positive production out of both sides. We would have liked it to happen quicker, but maybe this is a good omen."

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