The rebranding of Dave Wannstedt

When Dave Wannstedt’s Pittsburgh Panthers fell to Charlie Weis’ Notre Dame Fighting Irish by three touchdowns in the opening game of their collegiate coaching careers, many college football experts thought Wannstedt wouldn’t last the length of his contract. Conversely, nearly everyone—most importantly, ND brass—believed that Weis would be able to deliver the Irish their first national title since 1988. Weis received a mega contract extension the following season and South Bend was seemingly once again the college football capital of the world.

A lot has changed since then.

After that 2005 opener which saw both Wannstedt and Weis leading their alma maters, both men have traveled down divergent paths after high expectations were placed upon them to instantly change the culture of their new programs and return the teams to national prominence.

Saturday evening at Heinz Field, the two meet again under very different circumstances.

Wannstedt’s Panthers have soared to No. 8 in the AP poll, as they’re off to their best start since the Dan Marino-led ’82 team. Sitting at No. 12 in the BCS standings, Pittsburgh finds itself on the brink of a big payday if it can win the Big East—a difficult task as West Virginia and Cincinnati close out the schedule following the tilt with the Irish.

No matter what happens the rest of the way, however, Wannstedt’s days on the weekly hot seat—the one currently occupied by Weis—are over, and with good reason. While many expected this game to be a walk in the park for the Irish on their way to a BCS berth, the Panthers—despite not having a win over a top-20 team—have stolen the thunder.

Wannstedt has managed to put together a campaign that only he and his players have thought possible. Behind a defense that leads the nation in sacks with 38 and leads the Big East in total defense, the Panthers have held their last three opponents to less than 300 yards and have won five straight since a 38-31 setback to North Carolina State.

Quarterback Bill Stull is much improved under new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, supported by his 17-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 68 percent completion percentage. He’ll have plenty of chances to rack up yardage against a Notre Dame team that has given up 38 pass plays of 20 yards or longer—the same problem the Irish have had year after year and one area that has yet to get fixed under Weis.

Not only is Stull quickly becoming a household name across the country but shifty freshman running back Dion Lewis has picked up where LeSean McCoy left off, tallying over 1100 yards and 12 TDs on the season, including going over the 110-yard mark six times and having five multi-TD games.

Pittsburgh football has never been hotter, as the Wannstedt era has been marked by progress on the field and recruiting success off of it.

Yet there are still some who wonder whether or not Wannstedt is capable of sustaining consistency and bringing stability to the program.

A look at Wannstedt’s career record at Pittsburgh:

2005: 5-6 (4-3)
2006: 6-6 (2-5)
2007: 5-7 (3-4)
2008: 9-4 (5-2) lost in Sun Bowl
2009: 8-1 (5-0)

After compiling a 16-19 mark in his first three seasons, Wannstedt has begun to answer his critics. He is 17-5 since then, and the Panthers have a chance to prove that the Big East is a legitimate BCS-worthy league. What better proving ground than a primetime showdown against Notre Dame?

Why does there seem to be concern about Wannstedt’s coaching ability, year in and year out?

Well, as a lifelong Chicagoan, Wannstedt’s legacy in this city will always be that of an inept head coach—a coordinator who knows the game well but doesn’t have what it takes to be a head coach. In my opinion, that has more to do with the fact that Wannie followed a “legend” in Mike Ditka as Bears head coach. I love Ditka as a brand, but wasn’t he partly to blame for the internal strife that cost the club a potential Super Bowl repeat in 1986?

Don’t get me wrong Chicago. Ditka’s run from ’84-88 was superb, and his ’90 and ’91 campaigns were excellent. He was a good coach. But it seems as though Bears fans can’t let go of him. Just ask Lovie Smith.

The bottom line is that Wannstedt didn’t have a chance to succeed in Chicago because he wasn’t Da Coach. And I feel that a lot of that pessimism about Wannstedt’s coaching potential spread across the country and followed him to Pittsburgh.

Dolphins fans? Well, there’s no question that his lack of playoff success still probably has you steaming mad. Let me remind you, though: one losing season. One. Ten-win and 9-win seasons without a postseason? Not too shabby either.

But now he has a chance to change the national perception of him and his program.

Saturday evening at Heinz Field will serve as the perfect backdrop for Wannstedt’s signature moment at Pittsburgh “Don’t call me Pitt” University. His defining moment up to this point has been knocking off West Virginia two seasons ago in the Backyard Brawl. But for me, that was more about what West Virginia lost than what Pittsburgh gained.

Saturday night, like most times in college sports, is all about the coaches—specifically the one who was never given a chance from the very beginning.

Dave Miller is the Web Manager of the National Football Post and an unfortunate hopeless romantic. After receiving his Masters in Writing from DePaul University in Chicago, he realized that he would never be John Updike so he returned to a sports career. He enjoys coffee at any time of the day, CW teen dramas and has an appreciation for girls in boots. You can follow him on Twitter at Miller_Dave, where he constantly chronicles every moment of his mundane life.

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