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Madden: Pirates, Pitt; Do we care?

Saturday, October 05, 2002

Walt Harris and Lloyd McClendon: Should they stay or should they go?

My basic response: Who cares?

Harris is riding herd over a boring football program. McClendon is in charge of a hopeless baseball team. Neither situation shows any sign of changing, so who's in charge doesn't matter.

Harris is beneficiary and victim of a lame schedule. Non-conference stiffs such as Ohio, UAB and Toledo combine with Big East garbage like Rutgers and Temple to guarantee a winning record and a low-level bowl, but by the time all that transpires, everybody's asleep. If you had to cite one primary factor behind the lack of interest in Pitt football, it would be a preponderance of bland opposition.

The schedule isn't Harris' fault. His penchant for badly overcoaching is.

Harris is determined to sign his name to every game, and it backfires a lot more than it helps. Pitt might be 5-0 if not for Harris' insistence on using the totally unnecessary "swinging gate" extra-point formation against Texas A&M. He ruined most of Pitt's 2001 season by sticking with the no-huddle spread offense for about a month after reasonable minds concluded it wouldn't work. His three-man tailback rotation is sheer lunacy. So were his quarterback rotations in years past.

Harris did a remarkable job resuscitating the Pitt program after Johnny Majors left it for dead. But that was then. This is now. Can Harris take Pitt to the next level? That's a question he needs to begin answering when the Panthers visit Syracuse today.

If the decision turns out to be a close one, I'm always in favor of retaining a coach, especially at the college level. When you fire a college coach, you're breaking a promise to every recruit he brought to the program. So you should sack college coaches only when there's no other alternative.

As far as creating new interest in Pitt football, that's up to Athletic Director Steve Pederson. Pederson needs to get better non-conference opponents, even if Pitt has to give up an extra home game to schedule a series with a compelling foe. I would much rather see Pitt lose a non-conference game to a Big Ten or Big 12 team than rough up yet another MAC school.

It sure doesn't get any better next year: Pitt opens with Kent State, Ball State and Toledo. Zzzzzzzzzzz ...

As for McClendon, let's get one thing clear: It doesn't matter who manages the Pirates. If super genius Tony La Russa had guided the PNC Park patsies this season, they still would have lost 89 games. La Russa just would have had the good sense not to break out champagne to toast the disaster.

It's hard to gauge the level of respect Pirates players have for McClendon. Jason Kendall and Brian Giles stopped just short of openly laughing at McClendon after he threw a clubhouse tantrum. Yet the team played hard for McClendon all the way to the end of the season.

Since no manager could significantly change the Pirates' level of success, the only barometer by which McClendon can be accurately judged is the team's level of effort. McClendon passes that test with flying colors. Add in the fact that several youngsters showed definite improvement -- most notably shortstop Jack Wilson and several pitchers, and bringing back McClendon seems logical.

It won't work out that way, though.

General Manager David Littlefield didn't hire McClendon, who already was already manager when Littlefield got hired. Littlefield is going to fire McClendon and hire his own man just for the sake of hiring his own man. I can't say that's an improper decision. Littlefield should not feel beholden to anything or anyone in place when he arrived. He should follow his own vision.

And that vision will not include McClendon.

But, like at Pitt, the real pressure shouldn't be on the field boss. The real pressure should be on the guy upstairs pulling the strings.

If the Pirates are going to experience small-market glory like Oakland and Minnesota, they're going to have to do what both those teams did and totally rebuild. Get rid of all the veterans, especially the high-priced ones, and stockpile promising youngsters. If Littlefield continues the twisted Pirates tradition of "semi-rebuilding," i.e., keeping X amount of veterans as the team's core, then 72 wins may turn out to be the best they can hope for.

The Pirates have to take many steps backward before they can take legitimate steps forward. They need to spend that revenue-sharing windfall on scouting and development, period.

My prediction: Harris gets fired at season's end. McClendon gets fired next week.

Will anyone notice? Given the paltry fan interest in both teams, you've got to wonder.

Mark Madden is the host of a talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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