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Cook: Pitt's athletic empire slowly crumbling

Tuesday, May 06, 2003

These should be such marvelous times for Pitt athletics. The football team finished No. 19 in The Associated Press poll last season, won a consecutive bowl game for the first time in more than 20 years and should be better this fall. The menís basketball team won its first Big East Conference tournament championship, went to the NCAA tournamentís Round of 16 for the second consecutive year and should be a national title contender again next season despite a rookie head coach. The major facilities are world-class. Heinz Field is a palace compared to Pitt Stadium. The Petersen Events Center might be the nicest on-campus arena in the country.

So why is there this feeling that the empire Mark Nordenberg and Steve Pederson built is crumbling?

And that Nordenberg is the chief saboteur?

Things at Pitt appear to be in such chaos that itís hard to blame interim athletic director Marc Boehm for bailing out yesterday. After waiting more than five months to get word from Nordenberg that he was the guy to replace Pederson as Pittís AD, Boehm decided he couldnít wait any longer and accepted a long-standing job offer at Nebraska. There, heíll be reunited with Pederson, who left Pitt in December.

Good for Boehm.

Bad for Pitt.

Nordenbergís refusal to name an athletic director -- be it Boehm or someone else -- would be laughable if it werenít so serious. Itís almost as if he decided he could put the athletic department on auto pilot after Pederson -- the greatest person that ever happened to Pitt athletics -- moved on. Thatís the absolute last thing you would have expected from a chancellor who has done so much for the university, especially its sports programs.

Hereís an unsolicited tip for Nordenberg:

Pitt needs someone in charge of its athletic department now more than ever.

Yes, the football and basketball teams are better and the facilities are gorgeous. But there are new challenges every day. The biggest at the moment is the fragile state of the Big East Conference now that Miami and the Atlantic Coast Conference are talking marriage. If Miami jumps, the Big East will be finished as a football league. Pitt had better be prepared. Should it try to follow Miami to the ACC? Or should it beg Joe Paterno and the other Big Ten heavyweights to join their little club?

Somebody who knows college athletics needs to be there advising Nordenberg.

Pitt faces other issues, as well. At the top of the list is finding a way to put fannies in the seats at Heinz Field, Pedersonís only significant failure in his six years as athletic director. Pitt has drastically reduced many of its ticket prices for next season, which should lead to increased attendance but will be a long-term disaster if the football team doesnít put on a good show and win against a formidable home schedule that includes Notre Dame, Syracuse, Virginia Tech and Miami.

The womenís basketball program needs upgraded, a project Pitt gave last week to Coach Agnus Berenato after luring her from Georgia Tech with a lucrative contract. The soccer and track teams need a new on-campus facility.

Boehm did the best he could in his five months in charge and had an admirable run considering the circumstances. He was heavily involved in the football ticket-pricing plans as well as the firing of womenís basketball coach Traci Waites and the hiring of Berenato, who must be wondering what kind of mess she got herself into. He also had a hand in the promotion of menís basketball assistant Jamie Dixon as Ben Howlandís successor, a surprising and puzzling move that was criticized because of Dixonís lack of experience as a head coach.

But thereís no question Boehmís interim tag hurt Pitt, especially in its ridiculously brief search for Howlandís replacement. Wake Forestís Skip Prosser -- a Carnegie native -- was the first choice, but he turned the job down amid whispers he was wary of the Big Eastís unsteady future because of the Miami situation. Itís fair to assume he also had a problem with Boehmís tenuous status. This was going to be his final career move. He had the right to want to know for whom he would be working.

Sadly, Nordenberg didnít think it was important enough to tell Prosser.

That was a month ago. Prosser no longer cares who is going to run the show at Pitt, but the rest of us still want to know. Presumably, that includes Nordenberg, whose nationwide search for a replacement for Pederson never got past Boehm.

The poor man doesnít appear to have a clue in this case.

Unfortunately, it could get worse for Pitt before it gets better. If Nordenberg takes the same approach with the athletic directorís job that he did with the menís basketball position -- in other words, if he takes the easy way out again -- heíll promote his ticket manager next week.

Or maybe one of the assistant wrestling coaches.

Nothing would be surprising at Pitt these days.

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

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