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Finder on the Web: Chancellor's inaction causes Pitt athletics to sink a bit

Tuesday, May 06, 2003

A black Monday rained on Oakland. The man who should have been Pitt's athletic director suddenly up and left -- only days after he unveiled a new women's basketball coach and his own employees figured his news conference coronation stood just hours away. The chancellor who should have stopped this oncoming travesty months ago up and announced disembodiedly from behind his curtain that, you know, the man who should have been athletic director will make somebody a nice AD someday.

Well, gee, why not Pitt any day over the past four and a half months?

Why allow the captain to walk off the ship amid turbulent waters?

Why ask anyone to trust you at the wheel now that potential conference jockeying approaches like an unforeseen iceberg?

There are so many questions, so many dark clouds hovering over the Cathedral of Learning, Chancellor Mark Nordenberg cannot even see the Petersen Events Center from there. If he could, he might have noticed Monday that it was quivering on its fledgling foundation.

Pitt athletics is in a precarious position, far moreso after the surprising departure of Marc Boehm Monday. He was the interim AD since Steve Pederson left for Nebraska before Christmas. He was not acting AD. He was not the temporary caretaker dean of the law school, as Nordenberg once was. He was proactive, he was busy, he was successfully overseeing a $25-million-plus business operation from inside a new $100 million facility.

Boehm gathered the resignation of the women's soccer coach and hired a new one. He smoothed over such unsettling moments as a football player getting shot outside a bar, a basketball player getting punched in a postgame melee at Syracuse, the death of a beloved wrestling assistant. He ushered in a low, low, price ticket plan for football. He hired Jamie Dixon to follow Ben Howland as men's basketball coach. He fired women's basketball coach Traci Waites and, last Thursday, with a wide smile and gushing optimism, announced the hiring of Georgia Tech head coach Agnus Berenato.

"I want Marc here," Berenato told me after her introductory news conference. "This is very greedy on my part, but I want to work on his team."

So did Dixon. So did Walt Harris, the football coach. So did nearly every other employee inside the Petersen Events Center and Fitzgerald Field House and Trees Pool, down to the security guards.

Everyone wanted Boehm, even Nordenberg and his Cathedral clan to an extent. But they sat around. They waited. They allowed the very type of AD they coveted -- an amiable, experienced soul who could follow the Pederson blueprint -- to walk out the door.

What was surprising wasn't that Nebraska's Pederson snatched up his old running mate and brought him home to Cornhuskers country, just how it all happened so quickly, how it all came so badly undone.

Boehm accomplished every task asked of him, but he wasn't anointed AD like he wanted until at most three weeks ago. He wasn't graced by Nordenberg's hand, ripping off the interim tag before or soon after Howland left and praising his work in person, in public. Sure, once it was too late, the chancellor handed down a proclamation from on high Monday at the Cathedral: "Marc Boehm has packed about five years worth of experience in his five months of service as our interim athletic director. He has clearly proven, through his performance at Pitt, that he can be a successful athletic director at any major university."

But why not Pitt? Why not now, at such a critical juncture in the department's future: new ticket promotions (selling at a record pace), new basketball coaches, new worries about conference affiliation? Why the charades of basketball coaching searches by an man you didn't, in the end, want badly enough to keep from taking a lesser position at Nebraska?

Certainly, the bizarre statements of Monday revealed that Nordenberg permitted his interim AD to hire Berenato as an apparent lame duck. Boehm claimed to have informed the chancellor three weeks ago, shortly after the Dixon appointment, that he wanted to remove his name from consideration for the AD position, "that the timing was not right for my family and me." This doesn't sound kosher to me.

The best guess here is, Boehm removed his name and then hoped against hope that word would come down from the Cathedral by the women's coach hiring late last week. When it didn't, he acted upon Pederson's plea from Nebraska and decided to go home to the state where he was born.

How can these programs not falter, these coaches not feel abandoned, by their university administration now?

So many questions, Nordenberg and the Cathedral types could never make sense of them all. Even if they turned around and quickly hired Yale's Tom Beckett or some assistant conference commissioner to right this listing ship, but the damage already is done. An irreparable hole in the hull will remain. And who knows what changes the new AD will inflict or find in the wake of the administration's bungle?

Black Monday smacked of the Pitt of yore, when Ed Bozik arose from the Cathedral to AD, when another chancellor proclaimed himself co-football coach, when the tentacles of misguided academicians grabbed the university's greatest public face by the neck and strangled it.

The department atop Cardiac Hill may not survive this one, especially not if Nordenberg takes his time in offering resuscitation.

Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.

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