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Former Pitt AD Steve Pederson has put his mark on Nebraska athletics

Sunday, September 14, 2003

By Ron Cook, Post-Gazette Columnist

LINCOLN, Neb. -- This goes back almost seven years, to a day not long after Pitt chancellor Mark Nordenberg had announced he was hiring Steve Pederson from Nebraska to resuscitate the Panthers' dying athletic program.

"They don't know this yet in Pittsburgh, but they're getting a guy who's going to be a legend in college athletics," Nebraska associate athletic director Boyd Epley said. "He's going to be like a rocket taking off. Those who get behind him are in for a heck of a ride."

And they say Pederson is the visionary.

 
 
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Boehm: No regrets about leaving Pitt to join Pederson at Nebraska

   
 

"I'd like to modify that statement just a little bit," Epley said Friday. "Steve Pederson is going to be known as the greatest athletic director who ever lived. He's not there yet. It's not a well-known fact yet. But it's going to happen. He's going to be the best of all time."

This time, no one is snickering at Epley.

Not after Pederson was the driving force behind turning Pitt from a national joke into one of the country's top programs. Not after he helped to make the football and men's basketball teams top-10 caliber or better. Not after he helped to secure what might be the finest athletic facilities in America.

"Now," Epley said, "he's back where he belongs.

"All of us here are lucky the Rocket Man will be working his miracles at Nebraska."

Shocked by mediocrity

If you didn't know better -- or if you were color-blind and couldn't see the red that's everywhere in the Nebraska athletic complex -- you'd swear you were at Pitt.

Across the hall from Pederson's office is Marc Boehm, his longtime top lieutenant at Pitt. It was Boehm who replaced Pederson at Pitt on an interim basis after Pederson came home to his alma mater in December. Boehm rejoined Pederson at Nebraska in May only after Nordenberg refused to remove the interim tag.

All over the walls are Nebraska's new three-word slogan: Tradition, Teamwork and Integrity. At Pitt, it was Commitment, Teamwork and Pride. "I think it's important to let people know who you are and what you stand for," Pederson said.

Before the game against Penn State last night, they threw a fan fest outside Memorial Stadium. "A free, non-alcoholic block party where families can go and have fun," Pederson called it. He staged similar events before Pitt games at Pitt Stadium and Heinz Field, although they never quite took off like they have here. A crowd of 10,000 came before the Oklahoma State game Aug. 30 and more than 15,000 were there before the Utah State game last weekend.

"It's a little different situation here," Pederson said. "We're the Steelers -- minus everything else in Pittsburgh.

"I always say, 'If you turn the lights on at Memorial Stadium on a Thursday night, 15,000 will show up just to see what's going on.'"

The game last night was Nebraska's 258th consecutive sellout, going back to 1962. That's an NCAA record.

Pederson isn't taking that support for granted. One of the first things he did when he took the Nebraska job was to write the season-ticket holders and ask for suggestions. More than 3,000 responded. As a result, 40,000 wooden seats in the Memorial Stadium end zones were covered with fiberglass. The rest rooms also were upgraded.

In June, Pederson organized the Husker Nation Tour. Coaches and players blanketed Nebraska to meet, greet and thank the fans.

Before the Oklahoma State game, there was the Husker Nation Celebration. Pederson invited each of the 1,200 Nebraska lettermen to the game. More than 800 came. Former coach Tom Osborne, now a Nebraska congressman, and Mike Devaney, son of Nebraska's other legendary coach, the late Bob Devaney, led the parade of players through campus to the stadium. That weekend, Pederson also unveiled the Husker Heisman Trophy Room, which is open to the public and is a high-tech tribute to Nebraska's three winners -- Johnny Rodgers, Mike Rozier and Eric Crouch. Of course, the three former players attended the dedication.

But the best thing Pederson did for the Nebraska fans was lower the ticket prices.

"I just felt like the pressure valve needed released a bit," he said. "The economy has been tough for everyone. It cost us about $1 million in revenue, but it was the right thing to do."

The move especially made sense because Nebraska was coming off a 7-7 season. That wasn't just the Huskers' first nonwinning season in 41 years. It snapped their record streaks of 33 consecutive nine-win seasons and 348 consecutive weeks in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. Things were so bad they lost twice at home, something they had done only three times since 1990.

"I think our fans were in shock," Pederson said. "It was like they couldn't believe something like that could happen here. They weren't mad as much as they were disappointed. But eventually, they realized the best thing they could do was rally around us. They've been great. We're very lucky."

Master of cooperation

Pederson's ability to energize and unite not just the fans but those who work for him was a big reason he was Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman's first and only choice after former athletic director Bill Byrne left for Texas A&M.

"I formed a search committee, but it never met," Perlman said, fairly giggling. "It was pretty clear to everyone involved that Steve was the leading candidate. If we were going to get him, we couldn't afford to take the time to go through an elaborate public process."

Perlman interviewed Pederson in Chicago. That was a mere formality. Pederson had an intimate knowledge of Nebraska athletics. And he had proved his worth at Pitt.

"There always are going to be questions when you bring someone home," Perlman said. "Is it based on merit or connections? I don't have to tell you that, in Steve's case, it was merit. You folks in Pittsburgh know better than anyone of his administrative skills."

Pederson wasted no time getting started at Nebraska. He quickly eliminated 23 positions in the athletic department. He asked each of his coaches to reduce their operating costs by 8-10 percent, trimming more than $2 1/2 million from the department's budget, now at $53 1/2 million. And, maybe of most significance, he asked for -- no, demanded -- an increased commitment to excellence from his 196 employees.

"He's a master at getting people to work together," Boehm said. "It's almost like he has everyone holding hands so nothing can run us over."

Pederson's challenges at Nebraska are much different than he faced at Pitt. He knows he'll be judged in the end by his ability to restore the football program to greatness after its one-year free fall.

"I have to admit the fact they went 7-7 last season almost made this job more exciting to me," Pederson said. "Building something great, like we did at Pitt, was fun and exciting. But sometimes, maintaining something great is even harder. I tell people, 'As great as the past 40 years were here, the next 40 can be even better.' I want to be a part of that."

That's what makes Pederson's relationship with Nebraska coach Frank Solich so intriguing.

They were friends and colleagues on Osborne's staff in the mid-1980s. Solich was the running backs coach. Pederson was the recruiting coordinator.

Now, Pederson is the boss and Solich is a coach under intense pressure because of that 7-7 season. The Huskers' 17-7 win against No. 24 Oklahoma State in their opener helped. That snapped their six-game losing streak against ranked opponents. But it's probably safe to say they need to win a lot more games this season for Solich to keep his job.

Pederson and Solich squirmed when asked about the possibility of Pederson making a coaching change.

"Steve and I have a great working relationship," Solich said, "but we both understand this is a big business."

"I think we're absolutely on the right track," Pederson said. "It would be different if I felt like we were in disarray or didn't have any players. But that's not the case."

Only when pressed did Pederson acknowledge that he'll do whatever it takes to make sure Nebraska remains one of college football's most storied programs.

"Making the tough decisions are part of this job. If you can't do it, you can't do the job."

Watching Pitt

There are very few Pitt-related souvenirs in Pederson's office. Tucked away in a cabinet behind his desk are a game ball from the Insight Bowl win against Oregon State in December and a small replica of the fabulous Petersen Events Center. On one wall is a framed copy of the Dec. 21 edition of the Post-Gazette sports section, the one that announced in big headlines that Pederson was "Going Home" to Nebraska.

But Pederson keeps a close watch on what's happening at Pitt.

"One of the best days we had here was when we heard they were going to sell out the football games at Heinz Field," Boehm said. "We did high-fives."

One of Pederson's final acts at Pitt was to put into motion a plan that drastically reduced ticket prices for football. The sellouts at Heinz Field this season will be his final legacy at Pitt.

"What Steve did there was absolutely remarkable," Boehm said.

Here's how strongly Boehm feels about that:

When the Pitt men's basketball team won the Big East Conference tournament championship in March, the coaches, players and staff were given watches. Boehm gave his to Pederson.

"That night was the greatest night of my career," Boehm said. "Sitting there at Madison Square Garden, knowing that Pitt had won the Big East. But it just didn't feel right without Steve there. He was most responsible for it. I've never been around anyone with his kind of vision. He can take a plan and visualize it two, three, four years down the road. He's a master at that."

Pederson said he likes to believe the Heinz Field sellouts and the Big East championship are just the first of many for Pitt's teams. He predicted a bright future for Pitt despite the departure of Miami and Virginia Tech from the Big East next season.

Early in his stay at Pitt, envisioning a raid one day by the Big Ten or the Atlantic Coast Conference, Pederson had pushed the other Big East athletic directors and commissioner Mike Tranghese to implement a stiff exit fee for schools wanting to leave the Big East. Now, he regrets not pushing harder.

"I'm still hoping it all works out for Pitt and the Big East. It's too soon to predict anything with the Bowl Championship Series, but I want to believe the Big East will keep its BCS bid. I think having that Northeast television market will be a huge factor."

Pederson knows the ACC's raid on the Big East was not one of college athletics' finest moments. Much that has happened this year has been a nightmare, actually. The Maurice Clarett case at Ohio State. The scandals involving coaches Larry Eustachy, Mike Price and Rick Neuheisel. The sordid story of Patrick Dennehey and Dave Bliss at Baylor ...

"That one is still hard for me to fathom," Pederson said.

"I just hope the bad decisions of a few don't tarnish everybody. To me, that's unfair. I'm in this every day. I can assure you college athletics are not out of control."

That's why Pederson was surprised last week when Vanderbilt Chancellor Gordon Gee announced he was eliminating his school's athletic department and merging it with the intramural programs in an attempt to take tighter control over athletics. Gee's bold move has received mostly rave reviews, but Pederson doesn't buy it.

"I don't think most athletic departments have ever been separated from the rest of the university. I know we're a part of the institution here. The chancellor is my boss. The same thing was true at Pitt."

Pederson need not worry about Perlman following Gee's lead.

"That may be the right choice for Vanderbilt, but it wouldn't be the right choice for Nebraska," Perlman said. "I have the right guy leading my athletic department."

Looking to 2004

One final footnote:

Nebraska will play Pitt at Heinz Field next season and at Memorial Stadium in 2005. Pederson and Byrne scheduled the games not long after Pederson took the Pitt job.

Pederson was literally speechless when asked how he'll feel going back to Pittsburgh.

The truth is, there probably are no words to describe his emotions that day.

But Pederson did say something instructive a few hours earlier. It was over lunch with Solich. The subject of Pitt's prolific pass offense came up.

"Coach, we've got to figure out a way to get rid of Larry Fitzgerald before next year," Pederson said, jokingly.

That's Pederson in a nutshell.

Always thinking ahead.


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

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