Phil Bennett to coach Pitt in bowl
PITTSBURGH -- Pitt no longer has its new coach or its old coach.
Dave Wannstedt, ousted as Pittsburgh's football coach last month, announced Monday he won't be on the sideline for the BBVA Compass Bowl against Kentucky on Saturday.
Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, the former SMU head coach, will serve as the interim coach for a program that soon will have its third coach in two months.
Wannstedt was forced to resign Dec. 7, after the Panthers went 7-5 in a season they were picked to win the Big East. Wannstedt, a former Pitt player and the head coach for six seasons, was given the option of coaching in the bowl.
Wile Wannstedt and his staff conducted practices and put together the game plan, Wannstedt said it would distract attention from his players if he accompanied the team to Birmingham, Ala.
"Ultimately, the focus and the attention for the next few days should be on the players who are here," Wannstedt said Monday. "The focus and attention should not be on their coach, who won't be coaching. ... It would be unfair for any part of their experience to be about the head coach or his particular situation. It would not be right."
Wannstedt declined to talk about Pitt's chaotic New Year's weekend, when newly appointed coach Mike Haywood was fired by Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg after being jailed in Indiana on a domestic violence charge. On Monday, a magistrate entered a not guilty plea for Haywood on the felony charge.
Wannstedt mentioned Pitt's current mess only when asked if he felt for his players, about 40 of whom lined up behind him as a show of support when he resigned last month.
"Sure, I do," Wannstedt said. "Sure, I do. [I] hurt for those kids. ... But I'm proud of how [the players] have handled everything leading up to this point."
While Wannstedt said his decision was based on not creating a distraction for his players, the Compass Bowl -- partly because of its late playing date -- is one of the lowest-profile bowls and media coverage will be minimal.
Still, Wannstedt said, "It's the right thing for them. They'll play like crazy on Saturday."
Wannstedt apparently did not tell athletic director Steve Pederson of his decision until Monday, a day after Nordenberg attended Pitt's practice and reportedly apologized to the players for the Haywood situation. Following that meeting, Pitt lineman Jason Pinkston posted a Twitter message saying the school should bring back Wannstedt.
Wannstedt has been offered a non-coaching position at Pitt, but will take some time off before making up his mind whether he will accept it. He did not say if he wants to stay in coaching.
Wannstedt did not use his press conference to defend a six-season tenure in which Pitt went 42-31. But he appeared to take several verbal jabs at Pederson, who emphasized that Haywood would bring discipline to a program that had four players face charges this season and two the previous season. Pederson hired Haywood, but it is believed Nordenberg will play a more active role in the search for the new coach.
"We did everything in our power to do things the right way all the time, with the best interest of the players, our program and the University of Pittsburgh," Wannstedt said. "This is not the way I envisioned passing the torch."
Wannstedt also said his feelings for the university have not changed.
"I'm a Pitt guy, I'm a Pittsburgh guy, and I always have been and I always will be," he said. "No coach before me and no coach after me will love this university more than Dave Wannstedt."
The Panthers will be without defensive end Jabaal Sheard, the Big East defensive player of the year, against Kentucky (6-6). Sheard recently had elbow surgery.
Pitt also will be down two coaches. Defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley, a top recruiter, and offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, Jr., both left for Rutgers.
Pitt last had an interim coach for a bowl in 1989, when Paul Hackett led the Panthers past Texas A&M in the Sun Bowl. Hackett was hired that day as head coach, but was fired after three seasons.
Sal Sunseri, the father of Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri, was the interim coach for a 1992 loss at Hawaii, after Hackett was let go.
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press