by Will Graves
AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP)—Interim Pittsburgh football coach Keith Patterson has an open door policy with his players, one that comes with a caveat.
“You need to be man enough, whenever I shut the door, to accept what I tell you,” Patterson said.
Odds are Patterson—and the coach the Panthers hire as Todd Graham’s permanent replacement—will likely have to do the same thing.
Graham’s stunning departure for Arizona State on Wednesday after 338 days on the job left players frustrated and athletic director Steve Pederson looking for his third head coach in a year.
Throw in Patterson, former coach Dave Wannstedt—ousted after the 2010 season—and former interim coach Phil Bennett and whoever gets the job will be Pitt’s sixth head coach in 13 months.
By comparison, the Panthers had six previous coaches over the previous 33 years.
Athletic director Steve Pederson understands he needs more than a coach, he needs someone to help restore faith in players who have watched the spot atop the program turn into a revolving door.
The struggles haven’t gone unnoticed by some of the more prominent alumni. Former Pitt cornerback and current New York Jet Darrelle Revis just shakes his head when asked about his alma mater.
“Pitt, man, we’re having a rough time,” Revis said. “We’re having a really, really tough time with coaches right now. I know Athletic Director Pederson is going to do the best job he can bringing in a coach that can be successful there.”
Pederson promised to cast a wide net in search of someone who will guide Pitt out of the Big East and into the ACC by 2014. He knows, too, that the coach will face an uphill battle in the locker room.
“We’re going to have to work hard to build any trust that’s been lost,” Pederson said.
And trust has been lost.
Though Pederson and Patterson both praised the Panthers (6-6)—who begin preparations for the BBVA Compass Bowl against SMU on Monday—for the way they’ve conducted themselves, that’s not the same as saying the players aren’t angry.
Wide receiver Devin Street led the way, blasting Graham relentlessly through his Twitter feed, calling his former coach “Little Man Graham” and saying Graham’s signature “high-octane” offense was “running on fumes.”
Patterson allowed emotions are raw but believes the Panthers can find a way.
“We’re going to finish what we started,” Patterson said. “That’s the way I was raised and that’s what we’re going to do.”
They did it a year ago, when Wannstedt was forced out and replaced by Miami of Ohio’s Mike Haywood, who lasted less than a month before being fired following a domestic dispute in Indiana.
Bennett guided Pitt to a 27-10 victory over Kentucky in the BBVA Compass Bowl, with Graham getting the full-time gig a few days later.
Patterson considers himself a candidate for the job, though his close ties to Graham would seem to make that highly unlikely even if Pitt handles SMU with ease. Graham and Patterson have known each other for 30 years, though Patterson insists he was caught off guard by Graham’s decision to split.
“It’s a crazy profession,” Patterson said.
The Panthers need someone to stop the insanity. Pederson stressed “there are no limitations on who or you’ve got to fit a certain mold.”
Maybe, though his program could use a coach to provide stability. Graham was supposed to be that guy. He talked endlessly about the opportunities that lay ahead when Pitt joins the ACC only to bolt before the dust really settled.
Those opportunities remain. So do the state-of-the-art facilities, the NFL stadium and the school’s spot on rich recruiting ground.
So do dozens of players who have grown tired of trying to get to know the new coach.
“Whoever is going to be the next football coach here is going to be a lucky guy,” Pederson said. “We just want the coach that we think can put the program together over all.”
And hopefully stick around awhile.