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Smizik: Replacing Pederson won't be an easy task

Saturday, December 21, 2002

The news of Steve Pederson's resignation as athletic director, though expected, comes as a kick in the teeth to the University of Pittsburgh. Good men are always hard to replace, and Pederson was considerably more than just a good man.

He brought the kind of leadership, vision and know-how that are virtually irreplaceable. He was a tireless worker who had no use for anyone who wasn't. Although he invariably had a smile on his face, he was as tough as the situation demanded -- just ask any athletic department employee who wasn't measuring up to the boss' standards.

In his six years on the job, Pederson virtually redid Pitt athletics, placing a stamp on them that won't be removed for decades, if ever.

Pederson is the man who brought in the right coaches, Ben Howland and Walt Harris, to turn around losing programs; the man who had the vision, energy and contacts to build the Petersen Events Center; the man who engineered the football team's move to Heinz Field and the South Side practice facility; the man who had the courage to stand in the face of tradition and angry alumni and raze dilapidated Pitt Stadium.

Pederson announced yesterday what had been a foregone conclusion for weeks: He's going home. He will become the athletic director at Nebraska, his alma mater and native state.

This is a staggering blow, but one from which the university can recover. Pitt cannot allow its athletic progress to be stopped for a second. It cannot sit back and mope about this loss. It must move ahead at rapid speed to find a successor. But not so fast and not so cocksure that it will stumble in this pursuit. Pitt cannot think Pederson left an athletic department running so smoothly that just about anyone can keep the momentum going.

The last time Pitt stumbled into such a conclusion was early in 1982 when football coach Jackie Sherrill resigned for a better-paying job at Texas A&M after three consecutive 11-1 seasons. Since the transition from Johnny Majors to Sherrill had been without a bump, Pitt incorrectly figured the next move would go as smoothly. It's still trying to recapture the excellence of the Sherrill years.

The good news for Pitt is that such thinking isn't likely to occur under the watch of Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, a man who places a high priority on athletics. Having an up close view of Pederson's extraordinary skills makes Nordenberg aware of what kind of talents are needed to fill this job.

Equally important is the fact Jerry Crawford, Nordenberg's top lieutenant as executive vice-chancellor, is the likely candidate to head a search for Pederson's successor. It was a search committee chaired by Crawford in 1996 that unearthed Pederson, then an unknown associate athletic director at Nebraska.

What must be understood is there are people out there who can match or at least come close to matching the job Pederson did. The trick is finding them.

Certainly Crawford, if the job falls to him, will want to review the list of finalists from the Pederson search. But that would only be a first step. It has been six years since that search and there are new names to be examined.

A person Pitt should look at is Tom Beckett, who's now in his ninth year as athletic director at Yale. Beckett is a Pittsburgh native, a Pitt alumnus and a starting third baseman on its baseball team in the late 1960s. Although Yale might not seem the breeding ground for the next Pederson, Beckett has major-college experience.

He worked for 11 years at Stanford, much of it under Andy Geiger, who is now the highly regarded athletic director at Ohio State. Like Pederson, he has a background in major-college football. His first job at Stanford, before becoming associate athletic director, was director of football operations under Coach Jack Elway.

When contacted yesterday, Beckett was unaware the Pitt job was open.

"I haven't even thought about it," he said. "I have a great job at Yale. I'm not looking for a job."

Marc Boehm, Pederson's executive associate athletic director, certainly deserves consideration. Boehm will act as interim athletic director.

It's a daunting task and one that will impact Pitt athletics for years to come.

What must be remembered is this: Replacing Steve Pederson will be exceedingly difficult but not impossible.

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

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