When Dave Wannstedt took over Walt Harris' BCS team in 2005, the team looked like it was on its way to being a powerhouse. From 2002 to 2004, the team won 25 games, enjoying more success than it had since the Dan Marino era. The program's recruiting had improved and the team appeared in its first BCS bowl, winning the Big East.
Then something funny happened.
Pitt lost its first three games in 2005 on the way to a 5-6 season, including a 42-21 beat down-loss to Notre Dame at home, a 7-6 loss at Nebraska, and a 16-10 OT loss to ... Ohio.
Things looked promising enough in 2006 when the team started off 6-1 against a weak schedule. But five straight losses ended not only any talk of a successful season, but even a minor bowl game.
In 2007, it got worse. The team was 4-7 heading into the finale at West Virginia. Pitt's only wins were against Grambling State, Eastern Michigan, Syracuse, and Cincinnati. The alumni, this writer included, were ready for a change. Some pointed to Wannstedt's mediocre record as a pro. Others hated his record against inferior teams. Whatever the reason, he wasn't popular and even some of his most ardent supporters had doubts.
Then something funny happened. Again.
Pitt went into the Backyard Brawl and stunned highly touted West Virginia, a squad many thought was destined for the national title game. People started to talk. Maybe Wannstedt was the man for the job. If you've never heard of a signature win, this was it.
Then something ... aw, never mind.
The next year, Pitt began the season ranked in the top 25 then promptly lost, at home, to Bowling Green. This time, though, the losses stopped. Pitt went on to win five in a row, including beating No. 10 South Florida on the road. The Panthers won four more games and finished with nine wins -- a total not bested since 1982.
The momentum didn't stop there. Last season, Pitt's 10 wins gave Pitt two consecutive successful seasons and this year, some predict even bigger things. The team has superstars on both sides of the ball and a recruiting class that could end up in the top 10 this year. With a recruiting team led by Jeff Hafley, Pitt has moved farther east and extended its reach.
Sure, not everyone is on board. Some fans believe Wannstedt's in-game coaching is suspect, others seriously doubted his coaching abilities when Pitt folded at home against Cincinnati. But no coach is perfect, and coaches don't kick extra points or make tackles on punt returns. Sure, Wannstedt was wrong when he repeatedly kicked to all-world talent Mardy Gilyard in that Cincinnati game. But no coach is perfect, and I'd challenge anyone to find a coach who got it right 100 percent of the time last year. Or any year. Or even in a single game.
That Wannstedt is a "Pittsburgh guy" was not, in itself, a good reason to hire him. But there's something to be said for his devotion to the University -- something Walt Harris never seemed to have. Harris deserves lots of credit for leading the program to respectability, but it was clear he never considered this his dream job. Wannstedt, on the other hand, says this is his last stop. He bleeds blue and gold and would run through a wall to bring a title to Pitt. Even his biggest detractors can't argue with 19 wins in the past two years, and it will be even harder if Pitt adds another 10-win season this year.
If you doubted Wannstedt, you weren't alone. But the future looks brighter than ever.