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Cook: Pederson left imprint on Pitt

Sunday, February 09, 2003

It's a shame Steve Pederson can't be in town tonight to help honor Ben Howland. He gave Howland his big break in coaching and has watched with great joy as he has built the Pitt basketball team into a national power. He would love to be at the Pittsburgh Hilton and Towers, standing and applauding with Terry Bradshaw, Chuck Noll, the other sports dignitaries on the dais and a sellout crowd of 1,500 when Howland is presented as the Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year. But the Big 12 Conference athletic directors are meeting in Dallas tonight and tomorrow. It's the first such meetings for Pederson since he took the Nebraska job in early January. He has to be there.

It's also too bad Pederson won't be at the sold-out Petersen Events Center Wednesday night when Pitt plays West Virginia. He's not just responsible for hiring the man who has built the basketball empire. He's largely responsible for the building, which might be the finest on-campus facility in the country. Sure, it was his choice to go back to Nebraska. It's his alma mater. It's home. His father, a recent widower, is there. His wife's family is there. He had to go. But that doesn't mean he doesn't miss the fun in Oakland.

At least Pederson will get to see No. 4 Pitt play Notre Dame this afternoon on national television.

"I'll be thinking about where we were the day Ben was hired [in 1999]. We weren't only worst in the Big East. We were an embarrassment to the university. Now, the basketball program is a source of great pride."

Asked if he thought Pitt could have a legitimate national championship contender so soon, Pederson laughed.

"Do you want me to lie? Of course, I didn't. No one did. No one except Ben Howland."

That was a rare admission by Pederson, who might be the most positive administrator in college athletics. From day one at Pitt, he talked of building one of the country's best athletic programs.

"Delirious," Post-Gazette columnist Gene Collier called him.

That was the popular opinion of Pederson back then. The Pitt basketball program wasn't just in shambles, having endured four losing seasons and numerous off-court problems during Ralph Willard's five-year run. Johnny Majors, The Sequel was a disaster in football. Coincidentally, Pederson's first day on the job -- Nov. 30, 1996 -- was the day of Majors' final game as coach. There couldn't have been 10,000 people at Pitt Stadium to see the Panthers play Rutgers, prompting Pederson to say, "I remember walking around, thanking people for coming. I think I was able to shake hands with every single person."

Who knew what was ahead? Pederson had come to Pitt from Nebraska, where he had been the associate athletic director for football operations. Few around here were impressed. Said noted Pitt graduate Mike Ditka, "I'm sure he'll bring in a Nebraska assistant as a head coach who knows nothing about Pitt or Western Pennsylvania kids and they'll flounder around for a couple more years."

Pederson hired Ohio State quarterbacks coach Walt Harris, who has led the Panthers to four bowls in six years. He found Howland at Northern Arizona. He led the push to get Pitt into better facilities -- not just the Petersen Center, but Heinz Field and the Steelers' South Side training complex. He made a lot of enemies by tearing down venerable, but ancient, Pitt Stadium, but it clearly was the right thing to do.

"The only thing I'll ever take credit for is hiring really great people across the board -- coaches and staff," Pederson said.

He mentioned Jim Earle, an associate athletic director, who came up with the idea to promote the women's basketball game against Connecticut Jan. 25 as the "largest women's game" in Pittsburgh history. Tickets were priced at $1. The Petersen Center was sold out.

"Three years ago, we couldn't have given away 12,000 seats," Pederson said. "That's just one more 'can't-do' thing we got done.

"I always felt like if I left a job, I wanted to leave it better than I found it. It would have been a lot harder for me to leave Pittsburgh if things weren't going so well there."

Pederson's No. 1 priority at Nebraska is to pick up the fallen football program. After 40 consecutive winning seasons, the Cornhuskers went 7-7 last season. In Lincoln -- all across Nebraska, actually -- you would have thought the world had ended.

"We haven't slipped that far," Pederson said. "We're not a seven-loss football program. We just happened to lose seven games."

Pederson goes way back with Coach Frank Solich, who's under enormous pressure because of the disappointing season. He was the recruiting coordinator at Nebraska and Solich the running backs coach under Tom Osborne in the mid-1980s. Pederson quickly dismissed the possibility of problems working with Solich now that he's the boss -- "Frank knows I have a job to do, which is to help him get the program back on track" -- but there's no question the day could come soon when he has to fire his friend. There's also no question he'll have the strength to do it if he knows it's the right thing.

Only one thing is sacred at Nebraska as the Pederson Era begins -- Memorial Stadium, which has been sold out for 255 consecutive games.

"Trust me," Pederson said, laughing, "that's staying."

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.

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