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January 10, 2011

Pitt's coaching vacancy shakes up Pa. recruiting

It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently. - Warren Buffet

In the Disney version of this tale, there would have been a secret meeting in Hershey during the state football finals. Over those two days, the players with scholarship offers from the University of Pittsburgh would talk and band together, promising to unite together despite once being rivals.

In the movie, the conversation between the likes of Bishop McDevitt High School's Jameel Poteat and Clairton High's Desimon Green and Trenton Coles would have come in the first act. The movie would have ended with everyone celebrating a national title.

There is no movie, no cinematic magic that could possibly wipe the acid taste out of the mouths of Pitt fans that has built up within the past few months. There is no spell or trick that can erase the knowledge that those three players, and perhaps many more, never thought of banding together to save Pitt's suddenly moribund program.

Indeed, the odds are that many of the 18 high school seniors happily committed to Pitt on December 6 will never dress in a Panthers uniform.

On December 7, Dave Wannstedt was fired as head coach of the Pitt football program. That decision, coupled with the events that have followed in the past month, may irreparably change the University of Pittsburgh's status in the minds of high school football players, coaches, and families for years to come.

PIPELINES AND THE HAYWOOD EFFECT

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, the University of Pittsburgh was irrelevant when it came to college football. It was a near permanent presence at the basement of various conferences, ultimately landing in the Big East. Occasionally it surfaced in a quick surge behind a new coach, sniffing at an obscure bowl game, only to sink back under and force that coach back out the door.

Coaching staff after coaching staff couldn't even keep the area's top recruits at home to play for the hometown team. If they stayed in-state, they went the symbol of stability and learned at the knee of Joe Paterno in State College. Often, they left the state entirely.

It was a situation addressed heavily by Walt Harris upon his arrival in 1997, and then emphasized even more by Pittsburgh native Wannstedt when he took over in 2005. Wannstedt took the notion of a local powerhouse seriously. He wanted players not just from Southwestern Pennsylvania, but from the entire state, to seriously consider Pitt as the ideal option.

He took pipelines to prominent football mad high schools in the state established by Harris and turned them into giant pathways for the gifted athletes from the likes of Aliquippa, Jefferson Hills, Harrisburg, and Clairton to first make it to college, and then, possibly the NFL. Twenty-three former Panthers were active in the NFL prior to the start of the 2010 season, and more - Jonathan Baldwin, Dion Lewis, Henry Hynoski, Jason Pinkston, Greg Romeus - could join them following this year's draft.

The roots established by Harris and watered fervently by Wannstedt were evident in this year's class. Many of the eighteen commits were either from schools or cities that had a previous connection to Pitt.

Now they've been scattered wide, hoping to find some semblance of stability.

It is doubtful that Michael Haywood would have persuaded all 18 commits to stay with Pitt. Indeed, players like Desimon Green were already wavering and bolted as soon as news of Wannstedt's dismissal was confirmed. But Haywood, called a "great recruiter" by Texas coach Mack Brown upon his hiring three years ago at Miami (Ohio) and heralded as a quality recruiter by Alabama's Nick Saban, likely would have had at least a chance to convince other recruits that Pitt was still a viable option.

Early reactions to Haywood's firing were mixed. Current players were still upset over Wannstedt's firing - a popular player's coach, they stood with him at his "resignation" press conference - but recruits were willing to listen to what the new head coach had to offer.

That all changed on New Year's Eve, when Haywood was arrested for a domestic violence charge in South Bend, Indiana, accused of grabbing the mother of his infant son. He was fired on New Year's Day, just two and a half weeks after taking over the job.

Now Pitt's commitment list is down to eight players, and many are openly looking at other options.

Of the 18 original commits, seven were from Pennsylvania high schools. Three other Pennsylvania players weren't committed but had expressed interest in Pitt. That meant ten of the Top 30 recruits could have potentially ended up at Pitt.

A STATE IN DISARRAY

Desimon Green was the canary in the coal mine. The Clairton quarterback and defensive end was already wavering on his verbal commitment when Wannstedt was fired. Once the head coach was dismissed, Green knew he wouldn't be attending his hometown school.

"He was one of the main reasons I went there," Green told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "I was already wavering. I wasn't sure. But this made it clear."

Green has opened his recruiting up again, but has long enjoyed his relationship with the coaching staff from Texas Tech. He's also looking at Michigan State, Illinois, and Cincinnati.

The Bearcats would love to land a second Pitt defection. They already took in Bishop McDevitt running back Jameel Poteat, who expressed some of the same admiration for Wannstedt as Green.

"I was a big Wannstedt guy. I love coach Wannstedt," Poteat told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "For them to let him go was shocking. Us McDevitt guys and Wannstedt were close. I bonded with him. So I opened things back up with the recruiting."

Five days after Haywood was introduced at Pitt, Poteat had hooked up with the Panthers' Big East rival.

"I love the coaching staff and there's a great opportunity to play," Poteat told our Mike Farrell "I've always liked Cincinnati. The only reason I didn't commit there earlier is because I wanted my family to be able to come see me play. That's not a big factor now.

Ben Kline of Dallastown flipped even faster, moving to Penn State just days after Wannstedt's firing. East Stroudsburg South defensive back Kyshoen Jarrett decided that Wannstedt's dismissal was enough for him to move on from Pitt just before Christmas, committing to Virginia Tech on December 21. The reason for the move? Jarrett found the same connection in Blacksburg that was now on its way out the door at Pitt.

"I got that same connection with my recruiter for Pittsburgh that is now at Rutgers. He has the best interest in me as a person and a student. I definitely take that into consideration," Jarrett told Brian Mohr of HokieHaven.com. "Coach (Torrian) Gray is just a cool guy. He's my defensive back coach so I'll be interacting with him most of the time. He's straight-forward, you've got to accept that, he wants the best out of you."

More hits could be coming. Pottsgrove defensive back Terrell Chestnut is still committed to Pitt and had expressed optimism at talking with Haywood, but has since begun looking at West Virginia, Miami, and other schools he had relationships with prior to committing to Pitt. Woodland Hills athlete Lafayette Pitts is taking a similar approach, keeping the door to Pitt open while exploring his options elsewhere.

"It was a little bit frustrating but I just have to wait and see what happens. I'll just have to sit back, wait and see what the next step is," Pitts told Bobby Deren of ScarletNation.com on Saturday "Things are actually going good. I had a couple of visits this week. Iowa, Rutgers, Maryland and Pitt came in."

The only firm commitment to Pitt from Pennsylvania is Artie Rowell, an offensive lineman from Central Dauphin in Harrisburg. As for the undecided, Philadelphia DE Deion Barnes was considering Pitt among his final four but still hasn't visited and appears to be favoring Penn State. Coaching changes seem to be following Delaware Valley lineman Brandon Clemons, who had Pitt among his finalists with Connecticut, only to push both schools back a bit after their coaching changes.

WHAT COMES NEXT?

Reports over the weekend have suggested that Pitt is close to choosing between Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley and Tulsa head coach Todd Graham as the next head coach, with Graham in the lead.

The impact either would have on recruiting remains to be seen. Graham is a Texas native and a former Rice head coach with limited experience recruiting in Pennsylvania, although he spent two years at West Virginia under Rich Rodriguez.

Bradley is the polar opposite. A Johnstown native with family in Pittsburgh and ties to the university, he comes with the stamp of approval from Paterno and the Rooney family, owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He's the main source of Penn State's ties to the WPIAL and central Pennsylvania, and he's been a driving force in keeping Pennsylvania based players in their home state for college.

Pitt's decision could impact the state's recruiting for years to come. An already fragile recruiting base could be destroyed if either Bradley, Graham, or a last minute candidate can't make quick repairs. And now is the wrong time to have to rebuild recruiting pipelines in Pennsylvania. The class of 2012 includes prospects like Allentown Central Catholic QB Brendan Nosovitch, Bloomsburg QB Blake Rankin, Clairton WR Trenton Coles, and Archbishop Wood RBs Brandon Peoples and Desmon Peoples.

There's also the player many people perceive to be the crown jewel to any recruiting class in 2012, Rushel Shell. The Hopewell running back could end up among the top five players in the country in 2012, and is a relative of Tony Dorsett. Shell is considering Pitt among multiple other schools and has yet to really whittle down the list, but allowing a potential program defining running back to escape the state could be an early death knell for whoever takes over as head coach.

Shell's famous family member knows what's at stake.

"There's a lot of people I played with screaming for some heads on a platter, wondering why did it happen this way," Dorsett told the New York Times. "You check on hiring a new coach, now it's going to be tough, man. They've got recruits going elsewhere. It's in disarray right now. I'm hoping and praying we can get back on track."

Thanks to all of the work done by the Rivals.com network in reporting on the information used in this story. PaPreps publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at achiappazzi@yahoo.com



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