PITTSBURGH — Dave Wannstedt is out as Pitt football coach following a disappointing season in which the Panthers were big favorites to win a weak Big East Conference, only to finish 7-5 and qualify for a minor bowl.
Wannstedt resigned under pressure Tuesday, three days after Pitt (7-5) salvaged its regular season by beating Cincinnati 28-10. The former Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins coach, highly respected by Pitt's administration, will remain at the school as a special assistant to athletic director Steve Pederson.
Pitt apparently chose to change coaches now, rather than after the Jan. 8 Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., because most top candidates would have been hired by then. Also, the national letter-of-intent signing day would be less than a month away.
Wannstedt gave no signs Sunday after Pitt accepted a Compass Bowl bid that he was considering resigning, and he said he was looking forward to recruiting. But after Wannstedt met Tuesday with Pederson, Pitt held a hastily called news conference to announce that Wannstedt would not return next season.
Several Pitt players and assistant coaches were in the room as the decision was announced, although they apparently were not invited.
"The past six years have been among the most gratifying of my career," Wannstedt said in a statement. "To be the head coach at my university was the realization of a lifelong dream."
Wannstedt's tenure was marked by upset losses to teams such as Ohio University and Bowling Green and a failure to play in a BCS bowl — something the Panthers did under lame-duck coach Walt Harris before Wannstedt took over in 2005. Wannstedt went 42-31 in six seasons, including a 26-12 mark from 200-8-10 that is Pitt's best for a three-season stretch since 1981-83.
"I'd like to thank Dave for his passionate and committed service the past six years," Pederson said. "This has never been just a job for Dave."
The Panthers didn't have a winning record during Wannstedt's first three seasons, then failed to meet expectations even while going 9-4 in 2008 and 10-3 in 2009. Last-minute losses to West Virginia and Cincinnati to end the 2009 regular season cost Pitt the Big East title and a BCS berth after the Panthers moved into the AP Top 10.
This season was marred by the arrest of four players in a short span of time. The Panthers also lost non-conference games to Utah, Notre Dame and Miami, then blew a two-game lead in the Big East race. The Panthers were upset by Connecticut ahead of an embarrassing 35-10 defeat at home to West Virginia that may have convinced Pederson a change was needed.
Pitt running back Dion Lewis also had a disappointing season, rushing for fewer than 1,000 yards after gaining 1,799 last season. Greg Romeus, considered one of the nation's top defensive ends, was limited to two games by a pair of major injuries.
Pitt won only one bowl game under Wannstedt, beating North Carolina 19-17 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl last season.
Pederson, who returned to Pitt in 2007 after first serving in the job from 1996-2002, also was concerned about numerous no-shows at Heinz Field. The announced attendance often was far larger than the actual attendance, and the Panthers had few sellouts under Wannstedt. Pitt was 4-2 at home this season, with blowout losses to West Virginia and Miami (31-3).
This will be Pederson's first national coaching search since his failed hiring of Bill Callahan at Nebraska in 2004, a move that followed the surprise firing of Frank Solich following a 9-3 season. Callahan and Pederson were fired weeks apart in 2007, with Pederson returning to Pitt shortly after that. Wannstedt was hired in late 2004 by former Pitt AD Jeff Long, who is now at Arkansas.
Pitt's highlight moment under Wannstedt's tenure was a 13-9 upset victory in 2007 at West Virginia, a 28-point favorite that needed to win to qualify for the national championship game. After Wannstedt used that victory to accelerate recruiting, the Panthers began the following season by losing to Bowling Green, a three-touchdown underdog.
Wannstedt, a former Panthers player, tried to return Pitt to its roots by emphasizing local recruiting. Wannstedt succeeded in doing that, but with decidedly mixed results since the area turns out far fewer impact players than it did during the 1960s and 1970s, when Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino and Bill Fralic all came from the region.
The top Pittsburgh-area high school player during Wannstedt's tenure, Terrelle Pryor, never seriously considered Pitt before signing with Ohio State.
Pitt's best players under Wannstedt were cornerback Darrelle Revis, now a star with the New York Jets, and running back LeSean McCoy, now with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Wannstedt will be allowed to coach the bowl game if he wants. Offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. likely will coach the team if Wannstedt doesn't.