Wannstedt change of heart complete

Updated: December 24, 2004, 9:35 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

PITTSBURGH -- Former Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt accepted the coaching job at alma mater Pittsburgh on Thursday, exactly a week after he turned the Panthers down and said he wasn't ready to coach again.

"Yeah, I'm going to do it," Wannstedt told ESPN's Chris Mortensen. "The more I thought about it and talked it over with Jan [his wife], I realized that this was the right job for me at this stage of my career. Jan said, 'Who are you fooling about doing TV? You're a coach. Let's go home.' "

Dave Wannstedt
The similarities between Dave Wannstedt and Pete Carroll are too hard to ignore as Wannstedt takes over at Pitt.

Oklahoma co-defensive coordinator Bo Pelini also was interviewed for the position.

Following his initial talk with athletic director Jeff Long on Dec. 13, Wannstedt remembered one of his first staff meetings as an assistant on Pitt coach Johnny Majors' staff in 1976.

"I was at the end of the table, and I was a little upset -- probably because he made me make the coffee," said Wannstedt, a former Pitt tackle who once blocked for future Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett. "I said to myself, 'Someday I will be the head coach at Pitt.' I've thought about that for a long time."

Now, the former Dolphins and Bears coach takes over a program that isn't quite at a level with that 1976 national championship team, but is vastly improved from the one predecessor Walt Harris inherited in 1996.

Majors went 12-32 during his second and less-successful stay at Pitt from 1993-96, but Harris has since taken Pitt to six bowl games in eight seasons and is 25-12 over the last three seasons. The No. 19 Panthers (8-3) play No. 5 Utah (11-0) in the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl, Harris' final game before leaving for Stanford.

Like Long, the 52-year-old Wannstedt thinks Pitt can win a national championship and contend each year in the Big East Conference. He also thinks this will be his final head coaching job, and isn't looking at it as a path back to the NFL.

"Nobody needs to tell me about Pitt's tradition," Wannstedt said. "I lived it, experienced it, felt it. The passion that drives me is to return to the great days at Pitt."

The immediate future looks promising: Pitt returns most of its regulars next season, including star quarterback Tyler Palko.

Palko was the only player to attend Wannstedt's introductory news conference, sitting a few seats down from Majors. Palko was the most outspoken of Pitt's players about retaining Harris, who was hired by Stanford without Pitt making an effort to keep him.

"He (Wannstedt) wants to win, win now and win at the highest level," said Palko, who only days before said it "stinks" that Harris wasn't coming back. "I'm real excited about that."

Wannstedt doesn't plan to tinker with Palko, the first quarterback to throw five touchdown passes against Notre Dame, but said Pitt needs better running backs to support him.

Pitt did not discuss Wannstedt's contract terms, but he is believed to have signed a five-year contract worth at least $800,000 per season, or about $150,000 more than Harris was making.

Wannstedt faces a busy few weeks hiring a staff -- he wants to retain some of Harris' assistants, including defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads -- and finishing up Pitt's recruiting. The former Pitt, Oklahoma State, Southern Cal and University of Miami assistant isn't worried about trying to recruit 18-year-old high school students rather than millionaire NFL free agents.

"I wish I could talk to a recruit today," Wannstedt said. "Nobody has to coach me up on how to sell this university."

And Long didn't need to sell Pitt to Wannstedt, who began having second thoughts about the Pitt job shortly after initially turning down Long.

Wannstedt called Long back on Tuesday night and said he was interested, then flew to Pittsburgh on Wednesday night. He finalized the deal Thursday morning before a hectic series of meetings with chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg, Harris, Harris' assistant coaches and Steelers owner Dan Rooney and coach Bill Cowher. Pitt and the Steelers share a practice complex.

Coincidentally, Wannstedt and Cowher were the two finalists in 1992 when the Steelers hired Cowher.

Wannstedt, who grew up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Baldwin, had a 43-33 record in 4½ seasons with Miami -- 42-25 before this season -- but his lone playoff victory came four years ago. Wannstedt coached the Bears from 1993-98, going 41-57, after being the Dallas Cowboys' defensive coordinator from 1989-92.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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