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Smizik: Pitt administration shouldn't get too involved in athletics

Sunday, April 20, 2003

Perhaps the most intriguing and telling aspect of the nearly two-week soap opera that was the Pitt coaching search came near the end of the ordeal when Jamie Dixon had been told the job was his, but before it had been publicly announced.

As Gerry Dulac reported in Wednesday's edition of the Post-Gazette: "As part of the deal, Dixon would keep one of [Ben] Howland's other assistants, Barry Rohrssen. ... Rohrssen was preparing to join Howland at UCLA and was dropping his company car at the dealership two days ago when his cell phone rang. Vice Chancellor Jerry Cochran was offering him a job, to stay with Dixon, and he accepted."

Neat anecdote, but isn't there more pressing business to be conducted by the No. 2 man at the university than offering an assistant basketball coaching job? And even if there wasn't, shouldn't notifying Rohrssen have fallen to Dixon?

This is like Dan Rooney appointing Bill Cowher's offensive coordinator.

Cochran's heavy involvement in a matter that would appear to be well beneath him could shed light on the major event of this search.

If Cochran is pulling the trigger on the top assistant, is there any doubt who pulled the trigger on Dixon? Most certainly it would appear to be Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, not interim athletic director Marc Boehm, who was on the two-man search committee with Nordenberg.

Boehm, who through all of this has been nothing but the good company man hoping to have the interim removed from his title, is too versed in ways of college athletics, too much a disciple of Steve Pederson, to have awarded such a plum job to an assistant coach.

When the first offer goes to the coach of the year in the most prestigious basketball conference in the country and the second offer goes to an assistant with no head coaching experience, you have to figure the amateurs were in charge. And that would be Nordenberg and Cochran, as opposed to Boehm, the professional in this group.

There always is a danger if high university officials become too involved in athletics. Just ask Robert Wickenheiser, the former president of St. Bonaventure University. Wickenheiser used his influence to gain admission to the university for a talented basketball player whose junior college degree was in welding. This acutely stupid decision cost Wickenheiser his job.

Nothing of the kind is taking place at Pitt, but the question to be asked is this: Are the highest officials of the university too involved with athletics?

The inimitable Beano Cook maintains that Cochran has higher ambitions than appointing assistant basketball coaches.

"If you put a gun to my head and asked me who the next athletic director will be, I'd say it was Cochran," said Cook, a college sports insider and Pitt alumnus.

Asked what he thought about such a hire, Cook delivered a masterpiece of hyperbole.

"It would be the dumbest decision since Hitler opened a second front by invading Russia, and it will be the greatest disaster in Western Pennsylvania since the Johnstown flood."

Cook's prediction about who will be the next AD should not be casually dismissed.

There is a history of such machinations at Pitt. In the late 1970s, the administration, headed by Chancellor Wesley W. Posvar, lost confidence in Athletic Director Cas Myslinki, despite the fact the football program was in the midst of a golden era.

Originally, Jack Freeman, a vice chancellor, began making all the important decisions for the athletic department. Finally, in the spring of 1982, just months before the Pitt football team of Dan Marino, Bill Fralic and Jimbo Covert would be voted No. 1 in preseason rankings, Myslinski announced his resignation. It was a lie, of course. Myslinski loved his job, and, as a former football star at West Point, he certainly had to be relishing the upcoming season.

Months later, Myslinski admitted, "Somebody wanted my job."

That somebody was Ed Bozik, a vice chancellor who had a position similar to the one Cochran holds. Although The Pittsburgh Press reported early on that Bozik would get the job, Pitt went through the motions of interviewing candidates and actually brought at least one person on campus. In the end, Bozik, with no experience in intercollegiate sports, was named athletic director.

The primary event of his tenure, which lasted a little less than a decade, was the decline, fall and flat-out embarrassment of the Pitt football program.

This is not to suggest anything similar will happen, even if Cochran should get the job. It is to suggest, however, that in finding new employees, particularly to fill major positions, the best approach for a college is a nationwide search, not a campuswide search.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1468.

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