Not the Same Old Panthers: Dave Wannstedt Takes Pitt to the Next Level

Paul SieversAnalyst IDecember 28, 2009

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 26:  Bill Stull #11 of the Pittsburgh Panthers and the rest of the Panthers celebrate with head coach Dave Wannstedt after a 19-17 victory over the North Carolina Tar Heels on December 26, 2009 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

After two straight last-minute losses to Big East rivals West Virginia and Cincinnati, there was a lot of talk about whether the Pittsburgh Panthers have turned the proverbial corner under fifth-year coach Dave Wannstedt.

Has this program truly taken a step forward or are these the same old Panthers, no different from the teams Walt Harris coached?

If Saturday night's win over North Carolina didn't kill this debate, then the anti-Wannstedt arguments are on life support at best.

Wannstedt proved that Pitt was absolutely justified in letting Walt Harris walk in 2004. If Harris were still coach, there is no way the Pitt football program would be where it is today.

This was the best Pitt football team of the decade, a 10-win team that might have won 11 or 12 games with more competent special teams play. This team didn't rely on schemes and trickery like Harris' teams; they simply overpowered their opposition with dominant line play on both sides of the ball.

Admittedly, the Meineke Car Care Bowl is a strange place to prove that a BCS program has turned the corner. However, to judge this team against prior Pitt teams by comparing bowl bids would be an extremely lazy analysis.

While Harris did guide his 2004 team to the Fiesta Bowl, they had no business competing in a BCS bowl game. That team went 8-4 in a diluted Big East. Their best wins were against Boston College, West Virginia, and Notre Dame—three teams that ranged from average to above average.

In fact, the 2004 Panthers did not face an elite team until the Fiesta Bowl, where the Utah Utes embarrassed Pitt in front of a national audience.

While this year's Pitt team also lacks an elite win, they consistently faced more challenging competition than their 2004 counterparts.

When the 2009 Panthers faced elite competition in the undefeated Bearcats, they were not outclassed. In fact, the Panthers were very unlucky not to come away with a win in that game (I won't rehash the details for the sake of my fellow Pitt fans' mental well-being).

The '04 Fiesta Bowl team wasn't even the second or third best Pitt team of the decade. The honor for No. 2 would either go to the 2008 Panthers (lost in the Sun Bowl) or the 2002 team that won the Insight Bowl. However, neither of those teams would have beaten this year's squad.

The job Dave Wannstedt has done goes far beyond the results on the field. Since Wanny took over, graduation rates have increased and local interest in the program is as great as it has been since Pitt moved into Heinz Field.

Now, before accusing me of being a homer (fine, I'm a homer...but not an extreme one) or a Wanny-lover/Harris-hater, please consider who this is coming from.

You will probably be hard pressed to find someone more nostalgic for the Larry Fitzgerald/Tyler Palko era than me. I now have a life-sized likeness of Larry Fitzgerald on my living room wall (trust me, ladies love it).

I also made my triumphant return to Heinz Field after a three season absence. After a 10-hour trip from New York to Pittsburgh, I was treated to one of the most heartbreaking losses in school history when the Panthers lost to the Bearcats.

I’m still bitter, and if anyone has a reason to paint a glass half empty picture of this season, its me.

But I'm not going to do that. This is the best Pitt team I have seen since I started following the program. With the dearth of young talent on the team, there is reason to believe that Pitt will only continue to get better.

With 19 wins in the past two seasons and a bright future ahead, Wannstedt deserves credit and admiration, even from his strongest critics.

That said, there is room for improvement. I can't wait to see what Pitt football has in store this next decade.

For all things Pitt athletics check out The First Church of Fitzgerald