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Mark's Madness: Disintegration of Pitt athletics starts at the very top

Wednesday, May 07, 2003

Marc Boehm is not a rat.

Too bad, because he could have proved that "sinking ship" cliche to be right on the money.

Pitt's athletic department is a sinking ship. The Panthers have plummeted from success to laughingstock in record time. Losing Ben Howland was unavoidable, true, but the "search" for his replacement was a joke.

Boehm had been Pitt's interim athletic director since Steve Pederson left for Nebraska in December. Monday, Boehm decided to go to Nebraska and reprise his role as Pederson's subordinate. Boehm could have stayed at Pitt and continued to make a case for becoming the permanent athletic director, but he left to take a job he probably could have gone to anytime. That says something.

What it says is this: Pitt's athletic department is quickly disintegrating at the hands of chancellor Mark Nordenberg and vice chancellor Jerry Cochran.

Pitt hasn't had an athletic director for more than four months, yet the search for Pederson's permanent replacement is somewhere between lukewarm and nonexistent. That's because Nordenberg and Cochran have been content to employ Boehm as a puppet to do their bidding and toil over the detail work.

With Boehm gone, look for Cochran to become athletic director -- despite his denials -- with he and Nordenberg presiding over Pitt athletics as a two-headed (but no-brained) monster.

It's easy to see how this happened. Pitt athletics gained a great deal of prestige in the past few years. The basketball team became a national power. The football team improved and might be headed for a Top 10-caliber season. The Petersen Events Center was built for basketball. Pitt's football team moved into brand new Heinz Field and shares the Steelers' luxurious South Side practice complex.

Who got the credit? Well, the coaches got the credit for the on-field/court success. Pederson got credit for everything else. He should have. He did the work. And while everyone involved praised Nordenberg very publicly, it was made clear that Pederson was the brains of the outfit.

Nordenberg and Cochran resented not getting any primary kudos for Pitt's athletic upgrades. They languished in the background while Pederson got the glory. Then Pederson left. Nordenberg and Cochran saw their chance to grab some headlines. They saw their chance to take over. So they did.

To absolutely disastrous results.

The two-headed (but no-brained) monster butchered the search for Howland's replacement. They wouldn't allow Boehm to contact more than a few candidates, preferring to immediately narrow the hunt to two people, namely Howland assistant Jamie Dixon and Wake Forest Coach Skip Prosser. That's why Memphis' John Calipari and Manhattan's Bobby Gonzalez never even got a call.

Boehm disagreed with that tactic. He wanted to solicit interest from a lot of coaches, thus making it look like the Pitt job was a desirable, much-sought position. Boehm wanted to create a chase, to really put the job in play. But Boehm was instructed to follow orders.

At one point, Prosser agreed to take the job. Salary and length of contract were finalized. But Prosser got cold feet because he was worried about the fate of the Big East Conference (i.e., the potential departure of Miami, Syracuse and Boston College to the Atlantic Coast Conference) and because he didn't want to take the job without knowing who his boss was going to be.

It would have been so easy to just promote Boehm. Dixon was promoted for the sake of continuity in the basketball program. Pitt could have elevated Boehm using the same criteria vis-a-vis the whole athletic department.

Who the heck would take the Pitt AD job now? It's obvious something about it smells rotten, because the position has been vacant since December.

Now, if Miami does lead an exodus, the Big East might implode. Pitt could find itself with a badly weakened conference to play in. Worse yet, Pitt could find itself with no conference to play in.

Does anyone believe that anyone besides an experienced full-time athletic director could navigate Pitt's move to another conference? And shouldn't Pitt be making a pre-emptive move to go someplace else now?

Yes. But it's kind of hard to do that without an athletic director.

Many Pitt supporters see the Big Ten as a potential landing strip if the Big East disappears. It won't be that easy. If the Big Ten does decide to add a 12th team, Missouri might be preferred to Pitt. Or maybe the Big Ten won't add a 12th team, thus leaving room for Notre Dame to someday join the conference -- which will never happen, but that's a dream the Big Ten might not want to mathematically kill.

To reiterate an earlier prediction, Cochran will wind up being the new Pitt AD, spouting phrases like "time is of the essence" and "important decisions must be made." As opposed to the important decisions that Pitt bungled over the past four months. Time was of the essence then, too.

Since Pitt athletics is already a clown show, why not go with the obvious solution? Make the Globetrotter the new athletic director. He's already on Pitt's payroll. Just promote Orlando Antigua.

I'm not sure what Antigua's qualifications might be, but I'm also not sure what Boehm's were or what Cochran's are.

I am sure about this: At the rate Pitt's athletic department is crumbling, gimmickry will soon be needed to fill the seats at the Petersen Center and at Heinz Field. That water bucket filled with confetti cracks me up every time. Maybe Antigua could teach Chris Taft the half-court hook shot.

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

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