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U. of Pittsburgh
Steve Pederson takes Nebraska's AD job; Boehm interim replacement

Saturday, December 21, 2002

By Shelly Anderson and Phil Axelrod, Post-Gazette Sports Writers

Saying he could not ignore his heart, Steve Pederson left Pitt yesterday to accept the athletic director's job at his alma mater, Nebraska.

Steve Pederson
"Ultimately in my heart I knew this is where I wanted to be." (Nati Harnik, Associated Press)

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Pederson, 45, has been the athletic director at Pitt since October 1996 and oversaw huge changes and improvements, particularly in football, men's basketball and the school's facilities. He will start his new position Jan. 1 at Nebraska, replacing Bill Byrne, who left to go to Texas A&M.

"We have had great experiences at Pitt, but this is a special place for me, and ultimately in my heart I knew this is where I wanted to be," Pederson, a native of North Platte, Neb., said during a news conference in Lincoln, Neb. He was the Cornhuskers' associate athletic director before coming to Pitt.

"The University of Pittsburgh and Chancellor [Mark] Nordenberg did everything they could to try to keep me, but it came down to, what is it I wanted to do? This is the only other job and institution for which I would have left that institution."

Marc Boehm, executive associate athletic director, was named interim athletic director at Pitt, and Nordenberg said a nationwide search for a successor to Pederson will begin early in the new year.

Pederson leaves behind quite a legacy at Pitt.

"The University of Pittsburgh always will be indebted to Steve Pederson for his many important contributions to our progress," Nordenberg said in a news release. "His inspiring leadership was a major force in transforming our athletic program.

"Speaking more personally, he has been not only a valued professional partner, but a good friend. Certainly, he and his family return home to Nebraska with the best wishes of the entire university community."

The basketball team, which advanced to the Sweet 16 last spring, is 7-0 for the first time and ranked No. 4 in the nation. It is playing in the new 12,500-seat Petersen Events Center, which is sold out for the season.

The football team is 8-4 and ranked No. 24. It leaves today for Phoenix, where it will play Oregon State in the Insight Bowl Thursday at Bank One Ballpark. It is the Panthers' third consecutive bowl trip.

Pederson hired basketball coach Ben Howland and football coach Walt Harris. He was instrumental in the destruction of Pitt Stadium, the building of the Petersen Center and the football team's move into a new training center on the South Side and into Heinz Field for home games.

"Steve Pederson and the chancellor are the two reasons I'm here," said Howland, who was traveling to Rhode Island for his team's game tonight. "Pederson's done a great job setting the table. The whole attitude of the athletic department is very positive."

Howland expects that attitude to persist without Pederson.

"Mark Nordenberg is here -- that's the main thing," he said. "He's the reason the University of Pittsburgh is making great strides, not just in athletics. We're not going to skip a beat. Remember, the chancellor hired Steve Pederson. I'm confident he'll hire the right person again. Mark Nordenberg is the main man. I'm real confident Mark Nordenberg's not going anywhere."

Harris concurred. He could have pursued the coaching job at Ohio State two years ago but wanted to remain with Pederson and Nordenberg.

"One of the reasons I did not entertain Ohio State seriously was the teamwork that exists here, and it starts at the top," Harris said of Nordenberg. "The man at the top is a special, special person.

"[Pederson] put us in position, along with the job our coaches have done in all our sports, to have a real shot at being a tremendous athletic program. We've got facilities as good as anybody's. Nowadays, that's a huge part of being successful. Now it's up to us to take the baton and finish the job."

After a 29-6 season, Pederson signed Howland, the consensus Division I coach of the year, to a new contract that takes him through the 2008-09 season and is believed to be worth more than $700,000 per year.

Howland praised Pederson's performance.

"He had very high expectations for everyone, and he didn't micromanage," he said. "Things are better because of his 5 1/2 years at the University of Pittsburgh. Our job is to continue what he started."

Asked if Pederson's departure will affect his future at Pitt, Howland said: "No, not really. I've made a commitment to the University of Pittsburgh. I feel good about my contract. I plan on honoring it."

Harris responded to the same question. "I hope it doesn't. One reason why I stayed is I like what we've done, and I'm excited about where we're going and excited about our chances to make it happen. I would hope that our chancellor won't skip a beat. I would hope that the people that take over the job -- hopefully, it will be Marc [Boehm] -- would be excited about myself as a head football coach and our other coaches leading our football program."

There has been speculation that the relationship between Harris and Pederson has been strained since the football team started 1-5 last year. Pederson at one point contacted Ron Zook, then a New Orleans Saints assistant, to gauge his interest in the Pitt job should Pederson feel the need to fire Harris.

Harris said the two got along fine.

"He's been there when he's had to be there," Harris said. "Any speculation on that part is just like the rumors that I'm leaving."

Pederson sometimes did not let controversy stand in the way of progress.

He alienated many fans with the idea of razing Pitt Stadium and moving football games off campus. He raised some eyebrows when he fired popular strength coach Buddy Morris last winter. And after he fired longtime and successful track coach Steve Lewis over the summer, Lewis lashed out, accusing Pitt -- and therefore Pederson -- of "racial and gender hate" and calling the Panthers' athletic administration "dollar mongers."

Overall, Pederson left a very favorable impression.

"He has done great things at the University of Pittsburgh, and our entire athletic department has gotten better under his guidance," said women's basketball coach Traci Waites, another Pederson hire. "I hate to see him leave, but he has earned the right to take this opportunity at such a prestigious institution."

It did not come as a shock that Pederson left, given that he had an opportunity to return to his roots.

"I wish Steve and his family well," Howland said. "I understand him wanting to go back home. That's the only place he'd go for another job. There's enormous pressure on him to give back to where he's from. Am I surprised he's leaving? No. It's home. I don't think anybody's surprised."

"I understand why he left," Harris added. "I think it has a lot to do with being from there and going to school there and the things that excite him.

"I'm excited for him. I know that this is probably the one job that he would leave for. I think he was the right man for the job."

Boehm would not confirm whether he is pursuing the athletic director's job permanently.

"I'm taking it day to day right now," said Boehm, who has been at Pitt since 1997. "Steve Pederson has built a world-class athletic program here in six years, and it's our job to maintain that now. It's my job in the near future to help that train move forward. And we'll get that done."

Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.

Phil Axelrod can be reached at paxelrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1967.

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